Paula Deen and A Question of Mercy

Rod Dreher weighs in on the Paula Deen controversy.

During the hard-fought 2008 election campaign, America discovered the controversial theology of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a black Chicago pastor who was the spiritual mentor to candidate Barack Obama. Predictably, Wright’s sermons started a firestorm – and I, a newspaper columnist, was one of the pundits spitting fire.

Wright caused political trouble for Obama because of his no-holds-barred, racially charged denunciations of America and its government for what the pastor saw as its lies, abuses, and cruelties. Wright even angrily called on God to “damn America” for its deeds. I recall feeling outraged by Wright’s words, and criticized him strongly in my columns. Obama publicly distanced himself from his pastor’s views.

Later, though, I had a change of heart. It’s not that I found Wright’s sentiments – for which he did not apologize -- any less offensive. It’s that I found it possible, even necessary, to give the 66-year-old black man grace in the matter.

Jeremiah Wright was born into an America where black people in much of the country suffered as second-class citizens under the law, and in which blacks endured hatred and social discrimination everywhere. He was 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and 25 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.


Wright turned to political and theological radicalism, much of it racially informed. Today, many Americans, including President Obama, see Wright’s views as harsh, extreme, and morally objectionable. But if you consider the world that formed the moral imagination of a 66-year-old black American, it’s not hard to understand how he came to hold the views he does.

It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable. And, to my mind, forgivable.

I thought about that when the white Southerner Paula Deen, who was born five years after Wright, saw her career implode after admitting to at least once using the N-word in private, and fantasizing about a plantation-themed wedding.

Using the N-word is immoral, and the plantation wedding idea is at least racially and historically insensitive, and in poor taste. Yet I found it easier to excuse this in a Southerner of Deen’s age, given the culture in which she was raised.

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Rod Dreher
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