moral standing

Like many news stories, this one began when an influential local figure made remarks that were seen as offensive. Willie F. Wilson, former mayoral candidate and current pastor of a Southeast Washington Baptist church, said in a taped sermon that “lesbianism is about to take over our community. … Sisters making more money than brothers and it’s creating problems in families … that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians. … I ain’t homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him. But –” and he proceeded to make disparaging remarks about gay sex which I’d rather not paste on this PG-rated website.

By the following Sunday, according to the Washington Post, “TV trucks were in front of the church and reporters were in the pews,” waiting for Rev. Wilson’s apology. But he said, “I ain’t got nothing to say to you. You don’t know us. You don’t care about us. Get off this phone. Don’t call me no more.”

Let me stipulate: a) I don’t condone the Reverend’s comments, and b) reporters and other people have a legal right to ask questions about what he said and to request an apology–the First Amendment covers their speech and allows them to stand outside the church. But these are my questions: Is the content of a sermon anyone else’s business? Is it appropriate for those TV trucks to park outside the church, demanding a public response? When does speech become “public” in the sense that the speaker owes an apology if what he says is wrong or offensive?

On the one hand … There is a lot of violence and discrimination against gays. While Rev. Wilson’s sermon did not explicitly incite mistreatment of lesbians, the minister used his religious authority to denigrate gays, which surely increases their vulnerability. Since the clergy have a First Amendment right to say bad things about gays, the only possible response is for gay people–and their straight supporters–to intervene rhetorically. Thus it’s appropriate to quote Rev. Wilson’s speech, to criticize it, to ask him to apologize, and to stick TV microphones in his face.

On the other hand … I am moved by Rev. Wilson’s statement about the media: “You don’t know us. You don’t care about us.” Even if what he said was completely wrong (factually and morally), that doesn’t mean that reporters have standing to make an issue out of it. It’s not as if the daily work of the Union Temple Baptist Church gets much coverage in the Washington Post. (There have been 443 mentions of the church since 1987, but most appear to be very incidental.) The whole neighborhood tends not to be covered unless murders occur there. The Post has no ongoing relationships with the congregation.

When reporters decide to quote a statement, and then call other people who may be offended to get their responses, they are making a choice. They are claiming an oversight or “watchdog” role with respect to the person who spoke. If they heard a teenager making an anti-gay slur while walking down the street, they would not write an article about it. They surely should tell us if an elected official utters a slur, even in private. Their decision to quote the Rev. Wilson’s sermon shows that they believe that what goes on inside his church is public business. But on other occasions, they don’t treat his congregration as if it had public importance.

I confess that I am protective of Union Temple Baptist Church and its privacy because I generally feel that the press is unfair and unhelpful to poor, African American urban communities. They only show up at the embarrassing moments. However, what Rev. Wilson said–“You don’t know us. You don’t care about us”–could also be said by a white fundamentalist preacher in the suburbs.

3 thoughts on “moral standing

  1. Michael Weiksner


    I am quite surprised to this post, and the one about Karl Rove. They both seem me to have a similar argument: improving the image of leaders and groups is more important than holding them accountable for their words and actions.

    In this particular post, I disagree completely with you. I do think this Reverand owes us an explanation so that we can “know” and “care” about his community. In fact, I think it would be entirely helpful if Sharpton or Jackson showed up at the scene to demand an apology and to show that this leader is a fringe leader in the African American community. Such a protest would be an opportunity to state the case for the larger, positive context that you think is missed.

    – Mike

  2. Peter Levine


    I don’t want to protect leaders’ images, although I can see why you might think that’s my position, and I’m glad for the opportunity to clarify. I believe leaders should be held accountable–more so than they are today. But …

    1) I’m not sure that Rev. Wilson is a “leader.” You and I can say anything we like about him. But parking TV cameras outside his church is an exercise of power. It forces him to say something (even if it’s “no comment”) in front of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens. It’s not clear to me that the press has that moral right when the person speaking is a pastor inside his own church.

    (By the way, it was Washington’s gay paper, the Blade, that broke the story, and I can’t fault them. They’re playing defense. The Post is different.)

    2) I think Rove should pay whatever legal penalty applies. I frankly think the President should fire him for playing dirty even if he didn’t break the law. I believe in independent investigations of powerful officials, and indeed worked for Common Cause when we fought for the Indepenent Counsel statute. However, I do not believe that we (we progressives, or we Americans) can make progress by focusing our collective attention on this man.

    In a sense, the whole Kerry campaign was run as an investigation of George Bush’s behavior during the previous four years. Voters were asked to be a jury, and Democrats were sure they could convict on multiple counts. But voters are forward-looking; they wanted solutions. They knew that Bush had misled them, but they didn’t see what Kerry had to offer.

    A relentless focus on the future would be a mistake if it meant that bad leaders could get away with crimes. However, we do have prosecutors and congressional committees to look into misdeeds. And our overall political system is characterized today by a remarkable failure to think about the future. It also gives citizens far too little serious work to do.

    (My Rove piece generated an angry response here.)

  3. Richard Russo


    I would have to disagree & say that Rev. Wilson is a leader & public figure that needs to be held accountable for his statements. He’s a trustee of the University of the District of Columbia, a former mayoral candidate, he was extremely visible in Marion Barry’s political comeback in DC, and he was awarded the Presidential Service Award in 1997 by Bill Clinton. All that, and he’s got God & Jesus on his side! He can handle a few camera crews.

    As for the privacy of his sermons, the Blade was able to break the story because Rev Wilson sells his sermons online and through his church store. Not very convincing that his sermons are meant to be just “a family affair.”

    But the main reason this is news, whether to the Blade or the Post, is the fact that he has publicly praised himself and his church for reaching out to the gay community.

    Hypocrisy and hateful speech played out by a public figure to a congregation of several thousand and then sold on the internet isn’t really a private affair, but it certainly makes great news!


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