I believe one of the reasons so many white Americans were surprised/shocked by the snippets of Jeremiah Wright's sermons that have been circulating is because they've largely ignored the black church. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say they've formed in their minds an image of what African-American religion is like and filtered out anything that doesn't match.
For decades, the Democratic Party has ghettoized religion, outsourcing it to African-Americans within the party. Democrats who give high-minded explanations for why they consider it inappropriate to mix religion and politics and why they don't approve of wearing religion on their sleeve don't bat an eye at politicians visiting black churches. Religion in black churches, they seem to think, isn't really religion. It's an ethnic characteristic of an important voting bloc.
Of course that's not true. If any of those Democrats were surprised by Wright's comments, they must not have ever really listened in those churches they visit. There's more to black churches than gospel music. Black sermons are often described as "musical" or "rhythmic," but there are words being spoken, words that matter.
In 2004, just to take one example, most of John Kerry's religious references came in speeches to African-American audiences (particularly before the convention). His advisers must have considered it good strategy to limit religious rhetoric to "safe" crowds, but the decision was problematic in two ways. First, by speaking about religion only when it could be politically advantageous, Kerry seemed to confirm the criticism that he was pandering and insincere. If religion was really important to him, voters might think, he would talk about it in other settings. But it was also insulting to African-Americans, leaving the impression that white politicians were at best humoring their silly religion habit and at worst using them for cover.
Keep reading after the jump for one of my favorite stories about Democrats and black clergy.