Commentary Magazine


Topic: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Santorum’s Jeremiah Wright Moment?

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism released a video yesterday criticizing Rick Santorum for sitting and listening and then later applauding a sermon by Reverend Dennis Terry at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana. The video shows Terry encouraging those who do not believe that America is a “Christian nation” — specifically Buddhists and Muslims — to “get out” of America. The RAC’s leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, took Santorum to task for going up to Terry after this tirade to get the pastor’s blessings. While acknowledging that Santorum later distanced himself from Terry’s views, Saperstein said the Republican presidential candidate had a special responsibility as someone who has given issues of faith a prominent role in his campaign to address “hateful” or “bigoted” speech.

Saperstein is right about that. Candidates who sit and listen to hate speech by their supporters, especially when it is spouted from religious pulpits, have a duty to draw a bright line between such views and the political mainstream. In that respect, Santorum appears to have failed. He was clearly more interested in getting the endorsement of Terry and the backing of other evangelicals in the Louisiana Primary than in doing the right thing during his visit to Greenwell Springs. But while I think the pointed questions that Saperstein posed to Santorum are very much on target, if the subject of politicians sitting and listening to hateful sermons seems vaguely familiar, maybe we should flash back to 2008 when a longtime member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation was running for president.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism released a video yesterday criticizing Rick Santorum for sitting and listening and then later applauding a sermon by Reverend Dennis Terry at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana. The video shows Terry encouraging those who do not believe that America is a “Christian nation” — specifically Buddhists and Muslims — to “get out” of America. The RAC’s leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, took Santorum to task for going up to Terry after this tirade to get the pastor’s blessings. While acknowledging that Santorum later distanced himself from Terry’s views, Saperstein said the Republican presidential candidate had a special responsibility as someone who has given issues of faith a prominent role in his campaign to address “hateful” or “bigoted” speech.

Saperstein is right about that. Candidates who sit and listen to hate speech by their supporters, especially when it is spouted from religious pulpits, have a duty to draw a bright line between such views and the political mainstream. In that respect, Santorum appears to have failed. He was clearly more interested in getting the endorsement of Terry and the backing of other evangelicals in the Louisiana Primary than in doing the right thing during his visit to Greenwell Springs. But while I think the pointed questions that Saperstein posed to Santorum are very much on target, if the subject of politicians sitting and listening to hateful sermons seems vaguely familiar, maybe we should flash back to 2008 when a longtime member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation was running for president.

Then-candidate Barack Obama managed to evade criticism for the fact that he spent 20 years listening to Wright’s hate speech and received his blessing at his wedding. Using some verbal jujitsu, Obama turned the whole issue into one about race rather than hate or anti-Semitism in his Philadelphia speech on the subject. It was only much later after Wright attacked him as a sellout that Obama went so far as to actually condemn his pastor.

Saperstein asked Santorum:

What responsibility do you believe elected officials or candidates have to address hateful or bigoted speech when it takes place in their presence? Is the responsibility greater if it is said by one of the candidate’s supporters? Are there are circumstances in which you would refuse to stand by someone espousing hate speech? What are they and why not here?

So while Saperstein is on firm ground when he points out Santorum is at fault in this case, it’s worth remembering that candidate Obama didn’t exactly measure up to the standard he’s asking the Republicans to live up to. That’s especially true as Obama’s connection with Wright was a lot more serious than Santorum’s with Terry. We wish the RAC, which did condemn Wright’s hate speech, and its constituency had been as frank with Obama when he was running for office.

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