My first reaction to reading the text of Obama's speech on race and Rev. Wright was that it was too long and defensive. And echoing in my ears was still the insistence of a colleague on the subway this morning that "white people don't want to hear a long lecture about the complexities of race. They want to feel good about themselves." (In other words, they want to "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.")
But it was a very good speech, in part because it was delivered in such a relatively flat and straightforward way, and because just when you thought he would dodge a point (even having read the text), he stepped up and dealt with it. I've really appreciated that each Obama speech has become slightly more mundane, workmanlike, and thus presidential, because you can't build a long campaign and a presidency on incandescent moments.
Like Ed Kilgore, I'm continually fascinated not by the content of Obama's religious experience but by how he got there. Most politicians talk about religion from the perspective of having been raised in families that are somewhat more observant than they are as adults, so they are elevating religion from their childhood and their parents or grandparents. Others, like George W. Bush, found in religion a private salvation. Obama's experience is unlike either one, and frankly unlike anyone's I know: His work as an organizer led him to the church, the church was the heart of the community in which he was working, he became religious because of his commitment to social change. It was neither personal, nor familial, but part of his forming an identity, but not just as an individual, as a member of a community. And thus, race, his public life, and religion are intertwined in a way that they are not for most people, even people whose social values and work originates in their faith.
Kilgore comments that this "won't make a lot of sense to those Americans who view church membership as an expression of consumer choice, and ultimately, of the spiritual discrimination and good taste of the religious consumer." Indeed, this was the viewpoint of my colleague this morning -- if you don't agree with what you hear in a church, go to another church. But Obama's analogy to family answered that about as well as could be answered -- the church wasn't serving just a personal function for him, it was situating him in a community in which he had chosen to live and work -- and work on behalf of.