CBS ‘Early Show’ Discusses Obama’s Pastor, No Mention of Most Controversial Comments

On Monday’s CBS "Early Show," a total of over 13 minutes of coverage was given to the controversy involving comments of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, but only 16 seconds was given to play video of Wright’s comments, video which did not include some of the Reverend’s most shocking comments that September 11 was caused by U.S. foreign policy or that the AIDS virus was part of a government plot against the black community.

The coverage began with a report from CBS correspondent Dean Reynolds, who suggested the media was paying too much attention to the story: "For days now the news media have recycled Reverend Wright's sermons or at least their most inflammatory parts." That was followed by a relatively mild 3 second clip of Wright declaring: "Not God bless America! God damn America!" Reynolds went on to explain that: "Obama has denounced that and other anti-American statements, though the Senator says he never heard such comments before from the man who was his spiritual mentor." Reynolds never mentioned what those other "anti-American statements" were.

The conclusion to Reynolds’ report seemed to say Wright’s comments were normal and reflective of most black churches. An idea that set the tone for the rest of the coverage:

The question is whether the rhetoric is so remarkable, because at African-American churches pastors often seek to rouse their congregants to self-reliance by speaking harshly of the country's troubled racial past and the need to overcome it...Now, the church leaders over the weekend here put out a statement saying that Jeremiah Wright was a victim of character assassination. And the clear concern at the Obama campaign is that the candidate has been victimized as well.

Following the report by Reynold’s, co-host Russ Mitchell interviewed Reverend Calvin Butts about the controversy:

MITCHELL: When it comes to the African-American church, how surprised should people be when they hear a pastor from the pulpit giving a controversial statement using such strong language?

BUTTS: Well, the strength of the language, of course, is questionable. However, the prophetic tradition of the African-American church has been such that we have had to criticize the nation that we love so dearly in order to win our human and civil rights. We've had to speak harshly about the injustices to draw people's attention to the real problems that we've had to face. The shock value is nothing new. The prophets used it in ancient Israel. The Disciples used it -- Jesus called the Pharisees 'white sepulchers,' 'white-washed tombs.' So, the shock rhetoric is not unusual in pulpits, black or white, but certainly in the black community because people have to have the point driven home, and they have to have made vivid. And sometimes the language can be awfully powerful.

Mitchell never asked specifically about any of Wright’s "strong language" and at the end of the interview Mitchell asked Butts:

MITCHELL: Black congregants are reluctant, are they not, to criticize their pastor in public, even if the pastor says something as strong, as controversial, as what Reverend Wright says?

BUTTS: That's right. I'm very surprised at any congregant who would denounce his or her pastor.

MITCHELL: Why is that?

BUTTS: Well, because people love their pastors, and in the churches they understand the rhetoric. See, you shouldn't look at this as if people just walk into church and the pastor says something shocking and they immediately run to it. They understand what is, you know, radical rhetoric and what is the practical application of the love of God to everybody.

Later in the 8:30 half hour, both Mitchell and co-host Maggie Rodriguez had a roundtable discussion with Mother Jones Columnist, Debra Dickerson, Bucknell University professor James Peterson, and Columbia University professor, Randall Balmer. Mitchell teased the discussion by wondering: "Will the situation have a lasting impact on Obama's campaign? Or has it been blown out of proportion?"

Prior to the roundtable, another two brief clips of video of Wright’s comments were played, for a total of only 13 seconds: "Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people!..Not Bod bless America, God damn America!" Again, Wright’s other comments were missing.

Rodriguez actually did question how much Obama knew about Wright’s comments:

DICKERSON: And I -- it's not that it's wrong or it's right, it's just that black religiosity is such a given and yet there's sort of a 'Joe sent me' aspect, you know, where you knock on the door and things that are said in the church that are common knowledge, people who are pretending to be shocked by this sort of thing.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Barack Obama is pretending to be shocked. He says he's never heard this before. Do you think he's pretending?

DICKERSON: Yes. He's -- I think he's surprised because the things that get said in church tend not to, you know, sort of what happens in church stays in church. And we've never been called on the carpet before. We've never been at -- you know what it is, it was a vestige of racism. Nobody cared what we were saying in our churches unless it had sort of popular resonance, you know, when we were in the civil rights movement and that sort of thing. But the regular day-to-day Sunday sermons, this is not unusual.

Mitchell then turned to Peterson and asked:

MITCHELL: Well James, let me ask you, did Reverend Wright, in your mind, cross the line there by making some of the statements that he made?

JAMES PETERSON: I don't think so. I think we need to understand that the pulpit is like a rhetorical space. And so, If we put that back into its context and saw the sermon develop over time, I think we might have a different take on it now. And when you pull certain comments out, it seems very sensational. But, I would agree that the black church is a kind of a bastion of sort of segregated culture, and there's a way in which we just are not having access to that. But what the Reverend is saying fits into a certain kind of context. And I'm not defending it or not defending it, I'm just saying that we're pulling it out of its rhetorical context. The pulpit is someplace from which we have to persuade people. And sometimes, whether it's a black persuasion or a white persuasion, those words are going to be very, very strong, very, very powerful and their designed to incite, designed to make us have the kind of conversations that we're having right now.

Rodriguez then asked Balmer if Obama was "guilty" by his close association with Wirght. Balmer responded by saying no and finding a way to turn the discussion to President Bush’s religion:

I don't think so. I -- I mean, I've been attending church for the better part of 53years. If I believed everything every minister ever told me, I'd probably be in analysis for the next 20 years. I mean that's just not a fair thing. And I think we're asking the wrong questions. The real questions should be to all of the candidates, how does your religious faith affect your policies, affect the way you govern. For example, eight years ago when George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, suppose somebody had followed up with a question 'Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to be peace makers and turn the other cheek, how will that affect your foreign policy in the event of, say, an attack on the United States? Or how does Jesus' sentiment about expressing concern for the tiniest sparrow affect your environmental policies?' Those are real questions.

Here are the full transcripts of both segments:

7:01AM TEASER:

RUSS MITCHELL: Also going to examine the controversial remarks of Barack Obama's former pastor. Will his words have a lasting impact on Obama's campaign? We will speak with the Reverend Calvin Butts, one of the most influential ministers in the nation about the impact of words from behind the pulpit.

7:11AM TEASER:

MITCHELL: Up next this Monday morning, the controversial remarks of Barack Obama's former pastor. Will his words have a lasting impact on Obama's campaign?

7:14AM SEGMENT:

RUSS MITCHELL: Senator Barack Obama may have severed his relationship with the controversial pastor of his church, but could it come too late to stop the political fallout? CBS News Correspondent Dean Reynolds is in Chicago this morning. Dean, good morning.

DEAN REYNOLDS: Good morning, Russ. Well, the big question today is whether Obama and his church can quickly put this issue to rest. At the Trinity United Church of Christ, congregants were given a word of advice from the pulpit on Palm Sunday.

OTIS MOSS: We would encourage you no interviews. No interviews.

REYNOLDS: No interviews regarding their former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the most famous worshiper, Barack Obama, who spoke out about the controversy this weekend.

BARACK OBAMA: The forces of division have started to raise their ugly heads again. Everybody, you know, senses that there's been this shift. You know, you've been seeing it in the reporting.

REYNOLDS: For days now the news media have recycled Reverend Wright's sermons or at least their most inflammatory parts.

JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Not God bless America! God damn America!

REYNOLDS: Obama has denounced that and other anti-American statements, though the Senator says he never heard such comments before from the man who was his spiritual mentor. The question is whether the rhetoric is so remarkable, because at African-American churches pastors often seek to rouse their congregants to self-reliance by speaking harshly of the country's troubled racial past and the need to overcome it. Dr. Dwight Hopkins has attended this church for 12 years.

DWIGHT HOPKINS: To attack Reverend Wright is also to attack the history of the black church.

REYNOLDS: Now, the church leaders over the weekend here put out a statement saying that Jeremiah Wright was a victim of character assassination. And the clear concern at the Obama campaign is that the candidate has been victimized as well. Russ.

MITCHELL: Dean Reynolds in Chicago, thank you very much. So how much do a pastor's words resonate with the community? Joining us is the Reverend Calvin Butts, the pastor of New York City's influential Abyssinian Baptist Church. Reverend good morning to you.

CALVIN BUTTS: Good morning Russ.

MITCHELL: You've known Reverend Wright for more than 30 years.

BUTTS: Very close.

MITCHELL: When it comes to the African-American church, how surprised should people be when they hear a pastor from the pulpit giving a controversial statement using such strong language?

BUTTS: Well, the strength of the language, of course, is questionable. However, the prophetic tradition of the African-American church has been such that we have had to criticize the nation that we love so dearly in order to win our human and civil rights. We've had to speak harshly about the injustices to draw people's attention to the real problems that we've had to face. The shock value is nothing new. The prophets used it in ancient Israel. The Disciples used it -- Jesus called the Pharisees 'white sepulchers,' 'white-washed tombs.' So, the shock rhetoric is not unusual in pulpits, black or white, but certainly in the black community because people have to have the point driven home, and they have to have made vivid. And sometimes the language can be awfully powerful.

MITCHELL: Reverend Butts, give us a quick history lesson. In the African-American church, where did this begin?

BUTTS: Well, it probably began when we had to start our own churches. We're not the black church because we want to be. We're the black church because we've had to be. Abyssinian Church celebrates 200 years this year. We were born out of racial segregation. We were asked out of the First Baptist Church on Goal Street. And so we formed a church where all people could worship together. But we had to direct our attention to racial segregation. One of our pastors was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who loved this nation, represented it in the House of Representatives, but had to often be critical of the nation in order to draw people's attention to some of its atrocities.

MITCHELL: When people heard -- hear Reverend Wright speaking on YouTube or on television, they hear the congregants applauding. Is it fair to assume that everyone in the congregation walks out of that church agreeing with what the pastor says?

BUTTS: Absolutely not. We have thinking people in our congregations, people who know how to discern between the very fiery and forceful rhetoric and the actual application in life. I don't know the full context of Reverend Wright's sermons, but -- all of them, but I do know that all of us have used strong language from time to time in order to drive home a point. It's in the prophetic tradition. It's not unusual to the black church either. I mean, it's used in churches. It's used in synagogues. It's used in mosques. It is the sacred rhetoric. And it is often forceful. It is often powerful. It is often condemnatory. I mean, in the Bible they call the great civil civilization of Babylon, pardon the expression, a whore.

MITCHELL: I've got about 30 seconds left. Very strong there. But in this era of YouTube, in the era of political correctness, in the sensitive political times we live in, do you think that black pastors should dial back, just a bit, at this point in history?

BUTTS: We should never dial back. We should always move forward. Martin Luther King Jr. said the judgment of God is on America. But one of the things we have to be sensitive to is that we are living in a smaller and smaller world. This is a global village. And we must be sensitive to all that's around us. America is not what it was. It's not what it's going to be. And we must always be sure to lift up the great nation, encourage it even in the midst of our criticism.

MITCHELL: Black congregants are reluctant, are they not, to criticize their pastor in public, even if the pastor says something as strong, as controversial, as what Reverend Wright says?

BUTTS: That's right. I'm very surprised at any congregant who would denounce his or her pastor.

MITCHELL: Why is that?

BUTTS: Well, because people love their pastors, and in the churches they understand the rhetoric. See, you shouldn't look at this as if people just walk into church and the pastor says something shocking and they immediately run to it. They understand what is, you know, radical rhetoric and what is the practical application of the love of God to everybody.

MITCHELL: Reverend Calvin Butts as always it's great to see you.

BUTTS: Thank you, God bless.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

 

7:30AM TEASER:

RUSS MITCHELL: In our next hour, the conflict over Barack Obama and the controversial words of his former minister. Will the situation have a lasting impact on Obama's campaign? Or has it been blown out of proportion? We're going to have a roundtable discussion.

8:33AM SEGMENT:

RUSS MITCHELL: Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is facing fallout for some controversial statements made by his longtime spiritual adviser, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people!

BARACK OBAMA: You heard some statements from my former pastor that were incendiary and that I completely reject.

WRIGHT: Not God bless America, God damn America!

OBAMA: If all I knew was those statements that I saw on television, I would be shocked.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, I'm a big Barack Obama supporter. It's hard for me to believe that this might be the first time that he ever heard this sort of -- these sort of words.

OBAMA: Don't tell me words don't matter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm voting for Obama. It would absolutely have no impact on me.

OBAMA: When people say things like my former pastor said, you know, you have to speak out forcefully against them.

A.R. BERNARD: In terms of Obama distancing himself from Reverend Wright, I think that is a decision that he had to make if he wants to be president.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: Those words that were said were part of a sermon. I would accept them as that, as part of a sermon, but it would not be an indication of my own view.

OBAMA: What I continue to believe in is that this country wants to move beyond these kinds of divisions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: I think we ought to be talking about the facts, what are they going to do for this country?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN C: They're making a big deal out of anything anybody says on the campaign trail, whether it's Hillary or whoever.

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: Joining us now to talk about this, Debra Dickerson, columnist for Mother Jones and professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Albany. Dr. James Peterson, professor of English and African-American studies at Bucknell University and Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and also the author of "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Good morning to the three of you.

JAMES PETERSON: Good morning.

MITCHELL: Thanks for coming in.

RODRIGUEZ: Do you think, Debra, that it is right that this has gotten so much attention?

DEBRA DICKERSON: I think it's -- the only strange thing is that it's taken so long for these comments -- what's being said in black churches to get -- for people to start to actually listen to them. And I -- it's not that it's wrong or it's right, it's just that black religiosity is such a given and yet there's sort of a 'Joe sent me' aspect, you know, where you knock on the door and things that are said in the church that are common knowledge, people who are pretending to be shocked by this sort of thing.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Barack Obama is pretending to be shocked. He says he's never heard this before. Do you think he's pretending?

DICKERSON: Yes. He's -- I think he's surprised because the things that get said in church tend not to, you know, sort of what happens in church stays in church. And we've never been called on the carpet before. We've never been at -- you know what it is, it was a vestige of racism. Nobody cared what we were saying in our churches unless it had sort of popular resonance, you know, when we were in the civil rights movement and that sort of thing. But the regular day-to-day Sunday sermons, this is not unusual.

MITCHELL: Well James, let me ask you, did Reverend Wright, in your mind, cross the line there by making some of the statements that he made?

JAMES PETERSON: I don't think so. I think we need to understand that the pulpit is like a rhetorical space. And so, If we put that back into its context and saw the sermon develop over time, I think we might have a different take on it now. And when you pull certain comments out, it seems very sensational. But, I would agree that the black church is a kind of a bastion of sort of segregated culture, and there's a way in which we just are not having access to that. But what the Reverend is saying fits into a certain kind of context. And I'm not defending it or not defending it, I'm just saying that we're pulling it out of its rhetorical context. The pulpit is someplace from which we have to persuade people. And sometimes, whether it's a black persuasion or a white persuasion, those words are going to be very, very strong, very, very powerful and their designed to incite, designed to make us have the kind of conversations that we're having right now.

RODRIGUEZ: Now, Barack Obama has rejected these words and distanced himself from the Reverend, but is he guilty, in your opinion, by association? This is someone he's been close to for 20 years, married him, baptized both of his daughters.

RANDALL BALMER: I don't think so. I -- I mean, I've been attending church for the better part of 53years. If I believed everything every minister ever told me, I'd probably be in analysis for the next 20 years. I mean that's just not a fair thing. And I think we're asking the wrong questions. The real questions should be to all of the candidates, how does your religious faith affect your policies, affect the way you govern. For example, eight years ago when George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, suppose somebody had followed up with a question 'Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to be peace makers and turn the other cheek, how will that affect your foreign policy in the event of, say, an attack on the United States? Or how does Jesus' sentiment about expressing concern for the tiniest sparrow affect your environmental policies?' Those are real questions.

PETERSON: And that's how -- that's how Reverend Wright has affected Obama is that his rhetoric is about transcending those racial lines discourses. And so it has had an impact on him. I think -- the impact is he wants to move beyond that. His whole campaign has been about that.

MITCHELL: Let me ask you this, because I just talked to Reverend Calvin Butts about this morning -- Reverend Butts, let me ask you as well. Do you expect black pastors to dial back a little bit in this era of YouTube, in this politically-charged era that we live in?

DICKERSON: I think that's going to happen. If you remember there was a minister in D.C. a few years back, who said some of things he'd been saying for a long time about homosexuals, and The Advocate or the local D.C. gay paper picked up on it, and he was surprised there was this kind of backlash. The things he was saying were really out there, but his congregation was clapping and applauding. I think now that ministers who want to be -- who are political, are going to have to do some thinking about how they're going to present themselves because it's not an echo -- it's not an amen corner anymore. People are paying attention. Now we're being taken seriously. And I do think that ministers will and should think about if they really, really mean what they're saying and maybe what they need to do is up the level. 'Okay, I say this in anger, but maybe I need to step back and say this in a more responsible way' because you can hear things in church every Sunday in a black church.

PETERSON: That are crazy.

DICKERSON: They're off the hook.

PETERSON: But I mean we have to keep those things in their proper context. I mean, the sermon is designed to persuade. I mean, that's what it's supposed to do. And also designed to incite, to exhort.

DICKERSON: It's cathartic, it's a place of catharsis, where somebody goes in and is very, very forceful and says things in a way that are maybe, you know, are hyperbolic because there was no penalty for that anymore. It was an amen corner. But now I think that people are going to have to say -- do I -- and maybe he'll keep saying it. Maybe Pastor Wright will keep saying it.

PETERSON: I think he will. I don't think Pastor Wright's going to change at all.

MITCHELL: Debra Dickerson, James Peterson, Randall Balmer, thanks a lot for coming in.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is the Senior News Analyst for MRC