“What is it about the times in which we live here in the US that has caused this great uptick in relationships being drawn between race, religion and politics?”
The list of issues that emerge under this heading can confuse the brave and distract the thoughtful. Is President Obama a Muslim? Should we “take him at his word” on this point? Should there be a mosque built in midtown Manhattan (or in Temecula, California, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or the NYC boroughs of Bronx, Queens, or Staten Island?)? Is the answer to the proposed mosque a “Ground Zero Christian Center”, which suggests that Islam is a “false religion”? Should the 14th Amendment be amended or deleted from the US Constitution? Is Arizona’s new immigration law, SB1070, constitutional? Is the Republican gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina a Sikh or a Christian? And is the Tea Party a Christian movement, while led in a rally by a Mormon? Is it an apt body to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the anniversary and in the spot where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech? Clearly, the times are right for an upsurge in issues bringing together religious faith and racial politics.
This leads to my first question: why now? What is it about the times in which we live here in the US that has caused this great uptick in relationships being drawn between race, religion and politics?
Then my second (and final, for this post) question: why this? Why race and religion coming together? What is happening in American society to provide a catalyst for these constructs to coalesce?
In the search for answers, some have cited examples of a curious turning upside-down and inside-out of the history of race relations in this country. In promoting his “Restoring Honor” rally, commentator Glenn Beck suggested that a “reclaiming” of this history was in order. On his radio show last July 16, Beck stated that “…This is a moment that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. . . . We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement, because we were the people that did it in the first place!” After a federal judge acted in July to stop key components of Arizona’s SB1070 from taking effect, Fox News and Friends reporter Steve Doocy commented that “If the feds won’t protect the people and Governor Brewer can’t protect her citizens, what are the people of Arizona supposed to do?” (Rolling Stones reporter Matt Taibbi calls this “Radio Rwanda” reporting, recalling the broadcasts in that country that warned Hutus to arm themselves because of impending Tutsi-led massacre, which incited the genocide that followed – in which perhaps 800,000 Tutsis, accompanied by some Hutus who tried to stop the violence, were killed.) And when the NAACP called upon the Tea Party to condemn racism in their ranks, they were called racist in response.
Clearly, there are people who listen to these commentators – many of whom self-identify as Christian. There is a message being constructed here, referring to race and implicitly tying Christian faith to discussions of issues that concern race. Local residents of my community shared about their experiences about the “Restoring Honor” rally in the Holland Sentinel, citing the singing of “Amazing Grace” at the close as “so wonderful”.
Papering over offensive speech that wanders into racial hatred with iconic hymns and symbols is a time-honored trick. The Michigan-based militia group Hutaree, raided earlier this year as they planned for violence they hoped would lead to the overthrow of the government, understood themselves as Christian and used a distorted understanding of Biblical teachings to promote their movement. This offers some explanation for why race and religion are so prominently linked in political speech today.
But therein lies the rub, friends. These are NOT linked in ALL political speech. The linking of race and religion is happening almost exclusively on the right – some would suggest, on the radical or extreme right. I see two things happening here.
One is the dismal state of the US economy, which has led to joblessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and fear for many, many citizens. Policies in place for years before the current administration took office are at fault for much of the current pain, but this is hard to remember. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs becomes operative – people who are worried about survival cannot be expected to hold on to rationality and discernment in their understanding of history. Many people have good reasons to be unhappy with government.
However, for many who are involved in and listening to the most extreme speech today, research has shown different demographics. Tea Party activists are, in the main, white, male, older, and economically stable; hence, the answer lies elsewhere.
Looking to the impetus of the Tea Party in the very early days of the Obama administration sheds light on this discussion, and moves us to our second point. While the movement is popularly understood as a grass-roots initiative, sophisticated engineering and significant funding have become evident. Even though “bailouts” began before Obama took office, protests appeared less than a month after his inauguration. These early events were employed on the internet to promote other events; two weeks after the first protest generally understood as the “first” Tea Party event, rallies took place in 40 other cities. Obama, the first African-American to hold the highest office in the land, has been rolling the political ball uphill since before he took the oath.
“Those who are invested in standing in the way of Obama’s policies are using fear of the other to get their way.”
And that is the foundational point underlying the whole discussion of religion, race and politics today. Those who are invested in standing in the way of Obama’s policies are using fear of the other – a particular brand which we call racism – to get their way. The investment made is financial, and if Obama were to get his way, it would cause financial pain for some. The fact that Obama is Black is convenient in this campaign; his name, intellect, history and personal style are also employed as tools in the battle.
Faith in Jesus requires discernment that goes beyond warm feelings when thousands sing a gospel hymn together in a beautiful place. Notwithstanding the great work of Jim Wallis, those who follow Jesus have been pretty silent about this. It doesn’t matter whether the lack of response is due to a sense that to comment is to validate, or the belief that the things being said are so incredible that no one will believe them. By now, the power of this campaign has become clear. The real possibility of success for many backed by the Tea Party in the 2010 midterm election, which will lead to greater empowerment and credibility for a movement based in part in racial hatred, should give us pause; this, and increasing violence and threats against Muslims and Islamic institutions in many places call us to action. Disciples must reflect on the power of racism, seek to understand its power and how it works in us and between us, and work together against its power. The power of life and transformation has been given to us, and this power cannot be explained on a bumper sticker nor understood without diligence. We who serve in leadership in faith communities, and we who serve in membership, must covenant together in this crucial moment to dig for deeper understanding that leads to action and brings life, promotes freedom, and offers just glory and honor to God.