Wow. It’s been a busy week on the race front in American politics, hasn’t it? First, Geraldine Ferraro loses her cool and gets herself kicked off of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team. Then a video of a recent sermon/rant by Barack Obama’s retiring pastor, Jeremiah Wright, brings the Illinois Senator more unwanted love.
Is it just me or has Barack Obama’s church and spiritual life been more closely inspected than any presidential candidate in recent memory? Sure, John Kerry had a minor controversy with the Catholic Church over his support of abortion rights, but in the end it was enough for us to know that he had some sort of nominal connection to the church. President Bush had the classic Christian testimony and said Jesus is his favorite philosopher, but were the intricate details of his religious beliefs ever explored in anything more than a superficial way?
I’m convinced that America cannot handle a nuanced and substantive discussion of race and faith, especially not in the context of a political campaign, where people seem to prefer simplistic, stock responses that scratch their ideological itch and tell them exactly what they already believe. What the presence of Barack Obama (and, in different ways, Hillary Clinton and John McCain) has done in this campaign is to force the conversation into uncharted territory. Many of us just aren’t sure about Obama. We say it’s because he’s so young, inexperienced, and unknown. But what we don’t say as openly is that it’s because he’s African American—okay, maybe Geraldine Ferraro did say it.
Where the controversy arises is from the fact that Obama’s narrative (his racial and cultural background, his Christian faith, his intellect, his conciliatory manner) are foreign to most white Americans, especially when it comes to presidential candidates. His story requires white Americans to deviate from the standard script too much. With President Bush, it was enough for us to know that he was a reformed alcoholic who had a Christian conversion late in life. We knew that he came from a wealthy family, and that he is a sporadic churchgoer. We didn’t need to probe too deeply into the specifics of his personal beliefs or obtain transcripts of his pastor’s sermons. What more was there to know? His personal narrative was familiar and safe, even for those who didn’t buy into his evangelical impulse. Likewise, no one’s really that concerned about the Sunday-morning activities of Senators Clinton and McCain these days either.
In recent months, I’ve often thought to myself that the presence of an African American and a woman in the presidential race was a good thing for helping America confront its complex history in a more honest way. Lately, however, I’ve become convinced that it’s impossible to give an honest critique of these things in the context of a political campaign. It seems that the majority of American voters are simply not willing to go beyond the surface to reckon with the issues of our nation’s history—and its present—in a way that requires a sustained use of critical reasoning.
I don’t mean to come across as negative or elitist, but it doesn’t seem white America in general (including the media) are culturally and intellectually equipped to understand, for instance, Michelle Obama’s recent comment that “for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country.” Rather than see it as a vulnerable moment from an African American woman whose life experience is very different from theirs, many whites used it as an opportunity to question her patriotism or label her a racist.
Likewise, the recent video of Barack Obama’s now-former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, also brought swift condemnation from many whites who accused Wright—and by extension Obama—of being a racist. However, a fair and thoughtful viewing of the video reveals a man who, while clearly angry and frustrated, was attempting to offer a serious (albeit blistering) critique of American culture, racism, and white privilege. Rev. Wright is undeniably inflammatory in tone, and this certainly is not the kind of public support anyone running for President of the United States probably covets (just ask Obama), but simply writing his words off as racist or hateful misses the deeper point. I won’t go so far as saying I agree with everything Rev. Wright says, but I will say that those unfamiliar with black church tradition and oratory, as well as the African American experience in general, will find it hard to understand the emotional nuance and intellectual underpinnings of his sermon.
If Obama survives these latest racial and religious minefields, it will be because enough white voters were willing to exercise critical thinking and stretch their understanding of race, faith, and culture beyond their own familiar experience. Which conversely means if Obama loses as a result of this stuff, it could very well be said it’s because he’s black. This doesn’t necessarily mean those white voters are racists, just that they do not possess the cultural tools to examine race, faith, and culture beyond their own limited experience.