Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center reaffirms that America is a religious nation, but it also shows that young voters across the political spectrum are turning away from the inter-mixed influence of religion on politics.
This week’s wingnuts on the left and right offer examples of why the separation of church and state is making a common sense comeback for this new generation – the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Pastor Wiley Drake.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright became a staple of campaign ’08 with comments that elevated him to all-time Wingnut Hall of Fame. But after he almost sank former parishioner Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, Rev. Wright mercifully faded into the background.
That was until this week when he reinserted himself into the political debate with an interview to Virginia’s Daily Press, in which he said: “Them Jews aren't going to let him [President Obama] talk to me." Read more
This off-hand anti-Semitism brings to mind the reverend’s previously infamous sermons. There were his post-9/11 comments that “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
There was the accusation that the U.S. government was behind the AIDS virus and the infamous riff that “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
In this week’s comments, Rev. Wright reaffirmed that he has no regrets for these and other flashes of extremism from his 20 years on the pulpit in Chicago, which were characterized by content as well as controversy. At a time when President Obama is trying to build new bridges to moderates throughout the Middle East, Rev. Wright’s comments remain unhelpful in the extreme.
On the right is a less widely-known name. Pastor Wiley Drake served as a second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he ran to be vice president of the United States alongside former ambassador and Obama adversary Alan Keyes on a fringe third party ticket. Now he says that he is praying for President Obama’s death after his prayers for the death of Kansas abortionist George Tiller were "answered."
Drake’s comments were first reported by the Associated Baptist Press. In a follow-up interview with radio show host Alan Colmes, Drake defended his statements by saying, “George Tiller was far greater in his atrocities than Adolf Hitler…so I am happy. I am glad that he is dead.” Then he went a good deal farther into the outer-reaches of crazytown by revealing that he has also been offering "imprecatory prayers” against “the usurper that is in the White House…B. Hussein Obama.”
When offered repeated chances to clarify or correct his comment, the Orange County-based preacher dug even deeper. “If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers that are throughout the Scripture that would cause him death, that's correct."
These are not just “extreme prayers” – as some have said – this is the most un-Christian prayer imaginable and Southern Baptist Convention was quick to denounce the comments. Drake himself tries to avoid responsibility by saying simply that whether the prayers are answered is the will of God, he is just a messenger. But his comments do a great disservice to all members of the faith community – many of whom have influenced our politics in positive and profound ways – from Billy Graham to Martin Luther King to Rick Warren.
Wingnuts are sometimes silly, sometimes serious and sometimes downright scary. But in all cases we can best confront their extremism by addressing it directly, because – as the old saying goes – sunlight is the best disinfectant. In this case, no person or political party should act like it owns the Bible and this week’s wingnuts prove that both the right and left have voices on the pulpit who try to divide us rather than unite us.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.