I had not heard about the sermon and suggested that the Republican right was just looking for something to complain about. Over the past few days, however, in part to deal fairly with my friend, I have looked into the matter.
The controversy over the sermon seems to have taken its energy from the story in The Washington Post by pool reporter Hamil R. Harris. In part, Harris wrote
“It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back . . . for blacks to be back in the back of the bus . . . for women to be back in the kitchen . . . for immigrants to be back on their side of the border,” Leon said.Many on the right took umbrage at this. For example, a post on Breitbart titled “Obama’s Easter Service: Pastor Attacks ‘Captains of the Religious Right,’” cites the Washington Post story and ends with
President Obama left his own church in 2008 amidst controversy over his pastor’s incendiary remarks.thereby seeming to equate León with Jeremiah Wright.
I was somewhat reassured that León had not delivered a political tirade on Easter Sunday by a post by Republican blogger Brian Schoeneman. His essay, “What really happened at St. John’s Church on Easter Sunday,” was a defense of the sermon by a parishioner. He wrote
But it was in this discussion of the dangers of nostalgia that he made the comments that created all the conservative hate on Easter. He made the point that he is frustrated when “captains of the religious right” want to call us back to times they say were better, but that those times were also times when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, when women were kept in the kitchen and immigrants on their side of the border. The point was simple and one I’ve said to many people myself—those of us who pine for the “good old days” need to keep in mind that those good old days weren’t always that great for everybody else.In other words, the “captains of the religious right”—I must admit that I have never encountered this phrase before—want to return to an earlier time, but they are oblivious to the fact that that time was not so good for everyone.
I pointed this essay out to Jane, and, in the ensuing discussion, we decided to look for a transcript of the sermon itself on the Web. (My University of Chicago education always stressed going to original sources.) I did not find a transcript, but I did find a recording of the sermon, which, at least for some purposes, is even better.
We both found the sermon to be well constructed. It is about how we should live as Christians. It is not really about politics. My purpose here, however, is not a religious one. I want to point out just what was said at St. John’s on Easter Sunday. Here is my own transcript of the “controversial” passage. I believe it is correct, but you can listen for yourself. (The passage occurs in about the middle of the sermon.)
I hear all the time the expression “the good old days.” Well, the good old days, we forget, may have been good for some, but they weren’t good for everybody. You can’t go back. You can’t live in the past.So, was León the innocent victim of an unprincipled attack? Well, not quite. Did he attack the religious right? Yes, I think so, but only in passing. The attack, such as it was, was used to illustrate his point that, as Christians, we must move forward. It illustrated what he was trying to say; it was not the theme of the sermon.
It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling people back, never forward, forgetting that we are called to be a pilgrim people who have agreed never to arrive—that’s true to our faith. The captains of the religious right are always calling us back, back, back—for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet, and for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.
Remember that St. John’s Church is in the heart of political America. Probably most parishioners and visitors are involved directly or indirectly in politics. To illustrate a point, it is natural for the preacher to offer a political example, as that would speak most directly to the congregation. León’s charge is hardly remarkable. I suspect that most moderates and progressives would agree. In fact, I suspect that most conservatives—in their heart of hearts, anyway—would agree that León’s characterization of the “captains of the religious right” is on target.
I invite you to listen to the sermon for yourself. You’ve nothing to lose. Whether or not you think the Rev. Dr. León’s comments were out-of-line, you will, at the very least, hear a great sermon.