The Early Show did its best this morning to help Barack Obama climb out of the hole he's dug for himself with his close association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In a set-up segment, CBS's Dean Reynolds rhetorically asked: "the question is whether the rhetoric is so remarkable, because in African-American churches pastors often seek to rouse their congregants to self-reliance by speaking harshly about the country's troubled racial past and the need to overcome it."
Nice try, but how does accusing the US government of introducing AIDS and giving black people drugs equate to a call for self-reliance?
Reynolds concluded by stating that the Obama campaign is concerned that its candidate has been "victimized" in the same way the Trinity church claims Rev. Wright has.
Then it was on to a Russ Mitchell interview of the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III of Harlem's famed Abyssinian Baptist Church. The thrust of Mitchell's questions and Rev. Butts' responses was that the controversy is being blown out of proportion, that fiery rhetoric is a tradition in black churches with roots in the Bible and even in the words of Jesus. Moreover, it would be wrong to expect congregants to criticize their pastors' words.
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RUSS 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 message 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 whitened sepulchres or whitened 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.
A bit later, Mitchell lobbed Butts some softballs clearly intended to get Obama off the hook. The Reverend didn't squander his plate appearance.
MITCHELL: When people hear Reverend Wright speaking on YouTube, 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, 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 condemnnatory. In the Bible they call the great civilization of Babylon, pardon the expression, a whore.
Mitchell returned to that theme at interview's end.
MITCHELL: Black congregants are reluctant, are they not, to criticize their pastor in public, even when the pastor says something as strong, as controversial as what Reverend Wright said?
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 they walk into church and the pastor says something shocking and they immediately run to it. They understand what is radical rhetoric and what is the practical application of the love of God to everybody.