The Clairvoyant New York Times

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 24 2008 8:12 PM

The Clairvoyant Times

The Obama Messiah Watch, Part 11.

In today's installment, we consider the following Page One headline in the March 23 New York Times: "Obama's Talk Fuels Easter Sermons." This headline is a miracle no less bedazzling than Christ's resurrection. Consider: In order to make this Easter Sunday edition of the Times, it had to be written, at the very latest, on Saturday evening. From this I conclude that Times reporters Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee, or perhaps their assignment editor, were blessed with a holy vision of sermons yet to be recited.

But wait, you saith. Goodstein and Banerjee interviewed a number of ministers in advance about what they intended to put into their sermons. This is Reporting, not Divine Revelation. But I defy any and all unbelievers to identify a single minister quoted or paraphrased in this story, by name or even on a not-for-attribution basis, who actually says he or she intends to discuss Obama's March 18 speech on race (much-praised by commentators within the secular realm, including me). All we get is an unspecified "many pastors" who told the Times that "they felt compelled to talk about it." When an unspecified "many" is said to have said or done something in a news story, and not a single one of these "many" is cited thereafter, that sets off my miracle detector.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

The first minister quoted is the Rev. William H. Curtis of Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Pittsburgh. He saith:

"At the end of the day, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ makes it possible for even an African-American and a female to articulate the hopes and dreams of America, and do so with the hope of becoming president. Isn't that wonderful?

"It's possible because we do believe that humanity has redeeming qualities, and the resurrection of Christ gives us that faith," said Mr. Curtis, who is president of the Hampton Ministers Conference, a national association of black ministers.

Well said. But there's nothing in that quote to indicate what the good reverend actually intends to say in his Easter sermon, much less that he will talk about Obama's speech.

Moving on to Philip L. Blackwell, senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, from whom we learn that he will "weave an anecdote into his sermon about a black friend of his who had been stopped by the police, who were suspicious because he was driving an expensive car, which he owned":

"The church needs to be a community within which the pain can be shared," said Mr. Blackwell, who is white and leads an urban, racially mixed congregation. "The grievances can be aired, and the power of that can be directed toward the 'new creation' that is portrayed in the Resurrection."

Here we make a little progress. The Rev. Blackwell does tell us something that will be in his Easter sermon. Unfortunately, he doesn't say anything about Obama's speech or even more generally about the Democratic field (as the Rev. Curtis did). He just says he's going to talk about racism, as ministers often do. We hear much the same from Monsignor Patrick Bishop, of Transfiguration Catholic Church in Marietta, Ga., and from the Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Lind, at least, is willing (perhaps after a desperate plea from one of the four other Times reporters corralled into contributing to the story; they're listed at its bottom) to credit Obama with rolling away from Jesus' tomb the "pervasive stone of racism." But Lind doesn't say she's going to mention Obama in her sermon and says nothing to indicate that Obama's speech inspired her to discuss racism in the sermon.

"Many ministers," we learn a few paragraphs down, "said they would preach without explicitly mentioning Mr. Obama because they wanted to avoid alienating politically diverse congregations. They are also aware that some churches accused of making political endorsements have seen their tax-exempt status investigated by the Internal Revenue Service."

Would that be the same "many pastors" who "felt compelled to talk about" Obama's speech? If so, then what we've learned is that a lot of ministers would like to ("feel compelled to") talk about Obama's speech but aren't going to, except elliptically. But the Times doesn't cite any individual ministers saying even that.

The tone of the story grows ever-more desperate: "The Wright controversy is a natural topic for those in the United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination that includes Mr. Obama's and Mr. Wright's church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (the largest church in the denomination)." But not even the minister slotted to preach Trinity's Easter sermon—the Rev. James A. Forbes—will supply the Times' desperately sought confirmation that he intends to talk about Obama's speech. And this is where the whole controversy started! Talk about ingratitude!

In the entire Times piece, the only minister to be found addressing head-on the question of whether he'll preach about Obama's speech is the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and lead pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. Unfortunately, Anderson's definitive answer is that he won't mention it, because Easter is about Jesus, not politics, and he doubts other evangelicals will, either. Rats.

A small breakthrough near the story's end: The Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., says he might discuss … theRev. Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial utterances supplied the occasion for Obama's speech. "The basic thrust of much of my preaching resonates with Dr. Wright," Samuel tells the Times. "I don't think I'm necessarily trying to preach people into anger, but I am trying to help people become conscious, become aware, to realize our power to make change in society." I interpret this to mean that if the Rev. Samuel mentions Wright, it will be to do precisely what Obama didn't do, i.e., defend Wright's angry and divisive statements.

In sum, we have an intensively reported Page One story that fails utterly to provide any evidence of its very appealing premise. Hence, divination. Perhaps the angel Gabriel came down from heaven to tell New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller that the nation's ministers would discuss Obama's speech. Or maybe the Times just figured that with all the Christian houses of worship that dot this great and good land, surely some of them would end up devoting some of their Easter sermons to Obama's speech. One man's "some" is another man's "many." If examples couldn't be scared up until after the fact, so be it.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.