OK. Maybe I’m getting carried away, but a conversation I had with my coworkers got me thinking this morning.
It started with someone bringing up reports that Muslim Americans feel snubbed by Obama.
As Senator Barack Obama courted voters in Iowa last December, Representative Keith Ellison, the country’s first Muslim congressman, stepped forward eagerly to help.
Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.
“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’ ”
When Mr. Obama began his presidential campaign, Muslim Americans from California to Virginia responded with enthusiasm, seeing him as a long-awaited champion of civil liberties, religious tolerance and diplomacy in foreign affairs. But more than a year later, many say, he has not returned their embrace.
While the senator has visited churches and synagogues, he has yet to appear at a single mosque. Muslim and Arab-American organizations have tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with Mr. Obama, but officials with those groups say their invitations — unlike those of their Jewish and Christian counterparts — have been ignored. Last week, two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred by campaign volunteers from appearing behind Mr. Obama at a rally in Detroit.
Overhearing the discussion I waded in, playing Devil’s advocate by asking: How does Obama heal this rift without suffering for it politically? Remember, the rumor that he’s a secret Muslim is still getting play. (Even if you don’t hear it so much from the pundit-sphere, I can tell you it’s landed in my email inbox in the past week, from sources I wouldn’t have expected.) It’s not a question of the right thing to do. The right thing to do, of course, is to reach out to ALL Americans. But what’s the political thing to do?
We’ve already seen it in the primaries. This election will require Obama (but, oddly enough or as expected, not John McCain) to navigate the minefield of identity politics without setting off any explosions, but keeping enough of a diverse coalition of constituencies behind him to make it to the oval office. That’s going to be tricky, given the line he has to walk.
It’s impossible not to appreciate the kind of Jackie Robinson-like line Barack Obama must walk right now in this campaign. All of this comes in the face of the growing list of white pundits who would presume to lecture Obama on just how to win white voters, from the soccer moms to the lunchpail dads. Yes, forget all you’ve heard about angry feminists and people of color and feminists of color, because here are the real identity politics at work.
The tension between the black vote and the LGBT vote is a prime example. Obama has given some encouraging speeches on gay issues. He gets points for talking about gay & lesbian equality when speaking to non-gay audiences, and his campaign has done a lot to reach out to the gay community. But at the same time he can’t do too much, because he also wants to keep the black vote, and whether blacks are more homophobic than whites or not, there’s a particuarly vehement strain of historically black homophbia that can blow up in his face if he does too much on LGBT issue. It also means that putting someone like Donnie McClurkin on the bill could win him more black support.
The truth is that McClurkin can bring in the element of the Democratic party that openly despise and actively support legalizing discrimination against the community Rev. Sidden’s addition to the program is supposed to mollify. What’s unsaid here is that the LGBT community, and our families, are less important to Obama and — let’s just say it — to the Democrats than the constituency that McClurkin’s participation represents and is intended to attract. We are as much an afterthought as the belated addition of Rev. Sidden to the tour.
Meanwhile, voters who feel “dissed” as a constituency are asking themselves a few questions.
It’s hard not to notice that this is where the “change” message gets run over by the still largely white mainstream Democratic party operatives who control Obama’s campaign. Again, to all those who want to complain about allegedly coalition-fragmenting “identity politics”, here are the real identity politics at work.
Muslims, like other communities of color, confront this problem: Do you trust the candidate to do right once elected or do you accede to the reality of the campaign and sit it out?
The same fancy electoral footwork is required where religion is concerned.
And here’s where I think Obama has another opportunity to address a senstive, divisive issue in American politics: Religion. Specifically, two news items point to a real tipping point on the horizon. First, James Dobson takes Obama to task for his take on the Bible.
Barack Obama said Tuesday that evangelical leader James Dobson was “making stuff up” when he accused the presumed Democratic presidential nominee of distorting the Bible.
Dobson used his Focus on the Family radio program to highlight excerpts of a speech Obama gave in June 2006 to the liberal Christian group Call to Renewal.
Speaking to reporters on his campaign plane before landing in Los Angeles, Obama said the speech made the argument that people of faith, like himself, “try to translate some of our concerns in a universal language so that we can have an open and vigorous debate rather than having religion divide us.”
Obama added, “I think you’ll see that he was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes.”
In his program, Dobson focused on examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy. For instance, Obama said Leviticus suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination. Obama also cited Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.”
“Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles,” Obama said in the speech.
“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology,” Dobson said.
Making stuff up? Distorting scriptures for his own purposes? Doesn’t Obama know that’s Dobson’s turf? That Dobson said that with a straight face is actually, sadly, all to believable.
But Dobson’s attempt to make Obama appear out of the religious mainstream may actually expose Dobson as being the one who’s out of step. That is, if there’s any truth behind a poll suggesting that Americans have become more tolerant of religious beliefs different from their own.
Americans of every religious stripe are considerably more tolerant of the beliefs of others than most of us might have assumed, according to a new poll released Monday. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year surveyed 35,000 Americans, and found that 70% of respondents agreed with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity’s path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals’ fundamental tenets. The new poll suggests a major shift, at least in the pews.
The Religious Landscape Survey’s findings appear to signal that religion may actually be a less divisive factor in American political life than had been suggested by the national conversation over the last few decades. Peter Berger, University Professor of Sociology and Theology at Boston University, said that the poll confirms that “the so-called culture war, in its more aggressive form, is mainly waged between rather small groups of people.” The combination of such tolerance with high levels of religious participation and intensity in the U.S., says Berger, “is distinctively American — and rather cheering. ”
Less so, perhaps, to Christian conservatives, for whom Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay suggests the survey results have a “devastating effect on theological purity.” An acceptance of the notion of other paths to salvation dilutes the impact of the doctrine that Christ died to remove sin and thus opened the pathway to eternal life for those who accept him as their personal savior. It could also reduce the impulse to evangelize, which is based on the premise that those who are not Christian are denied salvation. The problem, says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is that “the cultural context and the reality of pluralism has pulled many away from historic Christianity.”
Even evangelicals may have tired of Dobsonesque dogmatism. While that doesn’t necessarily transform them into flaming liberals overnight, it means they may drift towards a candidate who signals a willingness to avoid using religion divisively.
If you’re one of many Americans who thinks that the war in Iraq was a mistake or believe that the Republicans have run the economy into the ground or think that perhaps the chaos George Bush unleashed in our foreign affairs has something to do with the price of gas at the pump… then you have Dr. Dobson to thank — personally. No one worked harder to get Bush elected then reelected. Dobson delivered his millions of dupes. But now many of them see through him and like most Americans, are appalled by Bush.
Nevertheless Dobson has — for eight years — been George W. Bush’s personal shill. In return Dobson has had ego-stoking “access” to the White House, or rather to the lackeys in the White House laughing at him but charged with stroking Dobson and the other pompous asses masquerading as religious leaders.
But the new generation of evangelicals is sick of being labeled as backward rednecks because of their association with fossils like Dobson. There are many evangelicals like Cizik too who are not all about homophobia, nationalism, war-without-end and American exceptionalism or the Republican Party. Like Cizik they believe that the America has a responsibility to do something about global warming, poverty, AIDS, human trafficking and other issues. They see through Dobson and the other so-called pro-life leaders, who have actually done nothing to reduce abortion. In fact Dobson has increased abortions because of his “abstinence only” crusade.
As a result of his power grabs and bullying of other evangelicals, not to mention his telling people how to vote and pointing them to the failed W, Dobson & Co. have zero credibility with a growing number of otherwise conservative evangelicals who happen–this year–to be looking favorably at Senator Obama’s holistic Christian-based world view. Unlike Dobson they like Obama’s theology just fine.
All of which leads me back to that “Come to Fill-In-Whoever-You-Want Meeting” I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s time for one.
Obama made headlines and history once when he gave his speech about race. Maybe it’s time for him to do the same with religion. It would probably do the country a world of good to hear from someone who understands the need to unite Americans across the boundaries of belief — and unbelief — and has the will to begin that work.