Religious Counsel

We discussed yesterday the high powered prayer group to which Hillary Clinton belongs, and the socially conservative influence it wields over her.  But is this tight circle inhabited by the likes of Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn the only religious influence Hillary Clinton has in her life?  Absolutely not.

Hillary is a Methodist, and when she served as the first lady her church was the Foundry United Methodist Church, currently headed by one Dean J. Snyder.  Now, as one Kos diarist points out, Snyder was not Clinton’s actual pastor while she was in the White House, but since Clinton has made the topic of religion in our candidates fair game, and since she has claimed that, “you don’t choose your family, but you choose which church you attend,” I think it’s perfectly fair to suggest that perhaps she should have chosen the sagacious religious counsel of the current leader of her one time church.

Of Reverand Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Snyder said:


The Reverend Jeremiah Wright is an outstanding church leader whom I have heard speak a number of times. He has served for decades as a profound voice for justice and inclusion in our society. He has been a vocal critic of the racism, sexism and homophobia which still tarnish the American dream. To evaluate his dynamic ministry on the basis of two or three sound bites does a grave injustice to Dr. Wright, the members of his congregation, and the African-American church which has been the spiritual refuge of a people that has suffered from discrimination, disadvantage, and violence. Dr. Wright, a member of an integrated denomination, has been an agent of racial reconciliation while proclaiming perceptions and truths uncomfortable for some white people to hear. Those of us who are white Americans would do well to listen carefully to Dr. Wright rather than to use a few of his quotes to polarize. This is a critical time in America’s history as we seek to repent of our racism. No matter which candidates prevail, let us use this time to listen again to one another and not to distort one another’s truth.

Dean J. Snyder, Senior Minister

Foundry United Methodist Church

March 19, 2008


Rev. Snyder spoke again about Wright and Race on Easter Sunday:

I want to talk for a few minutes about race in America this Easter morning, but I want to be clear that this is only an illustration of a deeper truth. This is not the point but an illustration of the point.

I was feeling depressed about the racial tension in America this past week. At the request of a member, I made a statement this week about the attention the media was giving to some comments by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom I have heard speak a number of times. The statement is available on our website and copies are available in our office. I was feeling sort of depressed. When are we ever going to be able to get past the racial divisions that run so deep in the American psyche?

Then suddenly this weekend I moved from fear to joy. I realized that the tension we are experiencing is because the rules are changing. What we are experiencing is the shock of resurrection which always causes within us fear and great joy all mixed up together.

I was the pastor of a primarily African-American congregation for several years in the 1980’s. When I say primarily African-American I mean all but two people in the congregation were African-American. One of the two who was not African-American was married to me.

It was the most fearful and joyous experience of my life. Every day we had to choose between fear and joy.

I knew it was a sacrifice for a congregation of African-Americans of the generation who had grown up before and during the civil rights movement to have a white pastor.

For African-Americans, church in those days was where you could go to say what you really thought and what you really felt without white people looking over your shoulder disapprovingly. Church was something –sometimes the only thing – that belonged to you, that you got to run. Church was where you could let your guard down.

Suddenly now you’ve got a white pastor. He is in some ways an intruder; yet, you’ve got to treat him well because there is no higher value among a people who know what is like to be put out than hospitality.

It was frightening for me, too. I was always nervous I would say or do something offensive. There are all sorts of things white people do that are offensive and we have no idea. I was careful and guarded, and members of the congregation were careful and cautious around me.

We eventually figured out how to be church together. But every day we had to choose between fear and joy.

One turning point was when three men in the congregation invited me to go with them to a men’s prayer breakfast at a neighboring church. We had a fine breakfast. As was often the case in those days, I was the only white person in the room. Then it was time for the speaker.

The speaker spoke on the superiority of the black race over the white race. He quoted scientific studies that proved, he claimed, that the brains of black people are, on average, larger and more developed than the brains of white people. It was a mirror image of the foolish pseudo-science white people had used for centuries to supposedly prove they were superior to black people. A mirror image.

I could tell that the three men who had invited me to the breakfast were mortified, just absolutely mortified. They sat as stiff as if they were corpses.

One of the men had driven us there. After breakfast and the speech, we got in his car. The ride back began in a very uncomfortable silence. Nobody knew what to say. Finally I decided I had to say something to break the ice. So this is what I said: “He’s not all wrong, you know? Every black person I have known,” I said, “has had a more developed brain than my white brother-in-law.”

Every day we had to choose between fear and joy. The rules were changing and every day we had to choose between fear and joy.

We made it – that congregation and I. It was scary but we learned we weren’t so fragile that we would shatter if we heard or experienced something uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. We could take risks with each other. And eventually there were actually times when we almost forgot the shades of our skin. Great joy.

Then another time I was the pastor of an integrated church. We had a white member of that congregation, Steve (a pseudonym). He didn’t have a malicious bone in his body, but he would unconsciously say these uncomfortable, slightly racist things.

Something unprecedented happened in that congregation. I don’t know what caused it. Two of the African-American men in the church took Steve to lunch and gently talked to him. After lunch he came to my office agitated. He was upset and sort of angry and sort of embarrassed and feeling very, very defensive. After he’d talked for a while, this is what I told him. I said, “Steve, you have just been paid one of the biggest compliments I know.” I told him that it is very rare for African-Americans in our society to tell we who are white when we are doing something that feels racist to them. It is a dreadfully difficult thing to talk about, and we white people almost always become defensive and angry. We rarely listen. It usually isn’t worth it.

“Those guys must really care about you,” I told Steve. “They must really, really believe in you.”

The rules were changing for Steve and he had to choose between fear and joy. It was a resurrection for Steve.

The rules are changing in America and we have to choose between fear and joy.

Be very clear – I am not talking about who we vote for, that’s not the point. I am talking about how we listen to each other in this situation of fear and joy.

When I was pastoring the African-American congregation, I developed a new spiritual practice. If anyone took the risk of suggesting to me that something I said or did had within it any tinge of racism, I adopted the practice that I would not react, I would not allow myself to become defensive, I would not try to justify myself. I would ask questions to make sure I understood and I would think about it for 24 hours. After 24 hours I might decide that what the person had said was wrong, but if an African-American was willing to take the enormous risk of pointing out something they saw in me, I was going to give it serious consideration.

I have since tried to apply this same principle to gender, sexual orientation and the differently-abled. I don’t always pull it off, but I try. I may decide after 24 hours that you are wrong, but I want to always try to consider it carefully.

When the Jeremiah Wright sound bites appeared this week, I wish white Americans could have said, “Tell us more, Dr. Wright. Explain to us what you are trying to tell us. Let’s see the videos of the entire sermon. We want to understand your perspective. We are going to try to not be defensive. We may end up disagreeing with you, but we are going to take some time to try to understand what you have to say.” What a wonderful thing that would have been for white America to do.

But instead we became afraid. We can choose between fear and great joy, because in America today, in the place of our deepest oppression, we are experiencing the shock of resurrection.

But I say this only as an illustration of a larger truth.

When the rules change, we get scared. If the crucified don’t stay crucified, what rules can we trust? That’s why Mary and Mary were afraid. But mixed up with the fear is joy, liberation and new life.

The scariest thing we do in life is to rise from the tombs of our own internalized oppression and sense of inferiority and alienation.

But mixed with the fear is great joy. The joy of resurrection. Joy. Joy. Joy.

The joy is always under the places where there is the greatest fear.

I often offer what Hillary Clinton could have done to come closer to winning my support.  Here it is.  This is where she failed.  She could have listened to this man, she could have made her role in the greater Wright narrative be something important and significant to the campaign and to America, but instead she chose to use the controversy for her own cheap political aspirations.

If this whole kerfluffle is about choice, as Senator Clinton says it is, I’m afraid she chose poorly.

(Extreme amounts of gratitude go out to reader Albert Johnson Jr., and to Cernig of the Newshoggers for pointing my nose in the direction of this story, and helping with the sourcing.)

6 Responses to “Religious Counsel”

  1. Talbot says:

    For the sake of argument this pastor clearly is trying to reconcile with his community instead of like Wright which clearly spreads a message of hate, bigotry and separatism. I would go to a church with this pastor. I would never attend a church where Wright spreads hate no matter the group he uses as a target. In this I happen to completely agree with Hillary *shudders*

  2. Actually, and you’re kinda missing the core aspect behind what snyder is saying. Have you seen the sermons in question put back into context? I mean. I’ve now seen two of the condemned speeches put back into context and I have to step back from my own condemnations.

    The 911 speech, for instance, the “chickens coming home to roost” was paraphrased from one of Reagan’s ambassadors, and put back in context was ultimately a message of peace, turning the other cheek, and stopping the cycle of violence by addressing our own actions.

    As for “God Damn America” that still stings a bit, but what we are looking at is a sermon that shows how America changes, how it can improve, and how it does improve, and even improved under the Clinton administration, but then under the Bush administration things started to go the wrong way again.

    The intent of Snyder’s comments was to do the exact opposite of what you are doing and instead of taking the easy narrative, the indignant narraitve, to actually go deeper and listen to the conversation and be a part of that conversation.

  3. lkm55 says:

    The Democratic party wasn’t content to make fun of the religous right, they felt the need to coop some of their values to get bak the blue dog democrats. Clinton and Obama have both stated their religous beliefs during the campaign, going so far as to profess a belief in Jesus Christ. They opened the door to this discussion and are finding it very hard to shut. Unfortunately for both, they are members of mainline protestant churches that for the most part vote democratic anyway.

    Mainline Prostestant churches (Methodist, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ) have been losing members for the last 20 years to Evangeligal churches. The decline of membership is largly due to their shift to the left on social values during the sixties and seventies. The Episcopalian church at this moment is splitting in half over gay ministers and gay marraige. Being a Methodist or a member of UCC will not get them any votes in the bible belt.

    As for Rev. Wright, I hold him to the same standard I’ve held jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson. When you’re speaking and know you’re on tape watch what you say, because your oppenents will use it against you, in or out of context.

    As for Hillary? If she can’t win she is going to damage Obama to the point he can’t get elected, then run again in 2012.

  4. I’m gonna answer this more in full later…

    I did want to quickly make the point that it’s pretty interesting how badly Wright was taken out of context… still… it would be very nice of him to kindly STFU for a short spell.

    That’s all.

  5. lkm55 says:

    In context or out of context…this is how the game is played.

  6. cheryl says:

    Finally, someone is speaking the truth. I wish those hater at Fox news, msnbc, cnn and other media outlets would get this letter. I won’t mentions names, I think we no who they are. They need to read this, but they wll find something stupid to say like “Obama was in the churck for twentyu years”. (dumb!)

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