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Illustration: “Change” by artist Charles Criner at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, Texas. (http://www.printingmuseum.org/crinerprint.php)

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.

Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.

This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.

But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?

Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?

 

Obama the Reconciler

What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.

The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.

That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.

Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.

One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:

Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.

There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.

Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.

 

Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided

It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.

But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.

And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.

When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.

 

Our Shrinking Humanity

The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.

Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together.  It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.

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I have a question. It’s one I think I know the answer to already, but I’m still reckless enough to “go there” anyway. See, there’s this author whom I like and respect who tweeted something earlier today that, after giving it some thought, I decided was (among other things) insensitive. Another word that came to mind for his tweet was “offensive,” but I didn’t want to overreact. That’s partly why I’d like to solicit some opinions from others out here in Social Media Land. The tweet came from the bestselling author Eric Metaxas, whose biography on Bonhoeffer was an undeniably impressive literary achievement albeit controversial for many. Anyway, though I enjoy his writing, I’ve determined that he and I probably don’t reside in the same vicinity on the ideological spectrum — he being outspokenly conservative and me striving to remain as politically independent as possible. In any event, earlier today I spotted this in my string of Twitter updates:

You’ll need to click on the link to view said photo, but I’ll quickly describe it here as a weird photoshopped image of the poet Maya Angelou cradling an adoring Barack Obama’s head. I agree with Metaxas that it’s creepy. However, it doesn’t take much searching on Google to discover that the image was a manipulation of a shot from this 2011 event where President Obama honored Ms. Angelou with the U.S. Medal of Freedom. The “creepy” image was clearly created by someone who is not a fan of either President Obama or Ms. Angelou — for instance, it was used in this person’s blog post. You can expect this type of political silliness from ideologues from both sides of the political spectrum. But the thing that bothers me most is Metaxas’ observation at the end: “Maya Angelou looks like Satchmo in a dress.” What does that mean?

Maya Angelou is now 84 years old. I will go ahead and confess my admiration for the woman as an artist and a tireless voice for freedom. But even if I didn’t care for her, I would hope I wouldn’t nonchalantly suggest that she looks like a man. To me, when I see Maya Angelou, I see a woman who looks like mothers and aunts and grandmothers and great-grandmothers that I’ve known both from my family and the families of others. Hers is the appearance of a woman of grace, experience, and hard-earned wisdom. It never occurred to me to compare her to someone of the opposite gender. So, yes, I guess I’m offended. And a little confused.

I believe I spoke to Mr. Metaxas once or twice when I worked at Christianity Today a decade ago. I think he’s a talented writer with a great sense of humor. As a wannabe historian, I admire his ability to write massive works of biographical history. I’ve been inspired by his deep expressions of faith. What I don’t understand is whether he meant the Maya Angelou crack as a mischievous political jab (given Ms. Angelou’s fondness for President Obama), or whether he meant it as something more hurtful. In my preference for avoiding controversy whenever possible, I’m going to assume it’s the former option. But somebody please tell me if I’m over — or under — reacting to a tweet that just doesn’t feel right.

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A year ago I fancied myself moving the cause of racial reconciliation forward by suggesting that it was time that we phase out Black History Month. Remember that? Well, I return to you in 2011, humbled, chastened, and a little less hopeful than I was 12 months ago.

Here’s the thing: I still think genuine racial reconciliation would mean that we eventually move away from Black History Month as a remedy to cultural ignorance and the lingering effects of America’s racist past and that we’d fold its celebration into the everyday fabric of our national culture. Though I think this has been happening in our society to an extent, in my cognitive slowness it has become clear to me over the past several months that to retire Black History Month (or any other cultural awareness month) at this point would run the risk of wiping out any progress in cross-cultural understanding that we’ve managed over the past 85 years since Carter G. Woodson introduced the concept to the nation. (For some great trivia about the history of Black History Month, check out this article.)

So, why am I repenting and backtracking from my position of a year ago? Well, to put it bluntly, I get the feeling that certain folks have identified our nation’s “inconvenient” parts of history as key hurdles to advancing their own political and ideological agendas, so as a result they’ve decided (whether intentionally or subconsciously) to erase, ignore, or conveniently forget that history.

What am I talking about? Well, last month I blogged about that other Arizona law, the one that targets ethnic studies programs in schools. Proponents of this new law have labeled ethnic awareness programs as “propagandizing and brainwashing” students and stoking resentment against white people. In other words, teaching young Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans about the history of their people in this country runs the risk of stirring up too many unpleasant moments from the past. Better to just not talk about it and focus on those things that the majority culture deems legitimate American history. I apologize if my cynicism is creeping through here, but the point is, the Arizona case is an extreme example of the fear and suspicion that a non-white perspective on history elicits from some white people (another example might be the white vs. black interpretations of the infamous Jermiah Wright sermon).

Then there are the instances of prominent white pundits and polticians playing loose with the basic facts of American history. Glenn Beck’s desire to out Martin Luther King Jr. as a Tea Party sympathizer and “reclaim the civil rights movement” as some sort of conservative political phenomenon was eloquently rebutted by columnist Leonard Pitts. And Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s suggestion during a speech in January that the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery left even some conservatives scratching their heads. And who can forget Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s romanticized memories of the civil rights era during his youth in the Deep South? Then there was that odd bit of political theater with the incoming, Republican-led Congress’ public reading of the U.S. Constitution in January that seemed to be the GOP’s symbolic way of reminding America that they are the true keepers of the Constitution as it was written. However, as columnist Clarence Page pointed out, their decision to leave out certain passages could lead one to wonder how committed to the original document they really are. He wrote:

Making good on a campaign promise, the Republican-dominated 112th House of Representatives opened with a reading of the Constitution. But the leaders copped out of reading some of the most thought-provoking parts.

They decided to read only the Constitution-as-amended. That means they left out parts of which we in today’s America are not so proud — like the clause in Article I that declared slaves would be counted for purposes of reapportionment as only three-fifths of a person.

Seems like a reasonable detail to include if one is determined to stay as true as possible to the Founders’ original intent. But I digress. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we need to hold on to all of this history for purposes of harboring grudges or waving it before white Americans as proof of their enduring racism. While some activists make a good living off of that, I think that’s just as bad as attempting to revise or forget the history that doesn’t line up with the way we think America ought to be viewed. No, the more important reason that we should continue to practice racial and ethnic awareness with all intentionality is that it keeps us accountable.  If we’re honest with it, it will guard us against repeating those previous sins and misdeeds against our brothers and sisters, and perhaps help us, as Dr. King said, “to rise up and live out the full meaning of our nation’s creed: that all men are created equal.” 

Perhaps the most compelling reason for remembering and rehearsing the difficult aspects of our history is because that’s the stuff—the failures and contradictions, along with the courage and compassion—that makes us truly American.     

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” said James Baldwin in his brilliant 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers.” Until we grasp more fully what he meant, I think we’ll continue to need an annual reminder.

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There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

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I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

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I’ve intentionally held off on commenting on the Shirley Sherrod story until now. I guess I didn’t want to make the same mistake as all the other folks who chimed in before all the facts were known. Of course, any story about race is a constantly moving target, so who knows what new wrinkles the saga will bring this week? In any event, you can now read my reflections on last week’s developments at UrbanFaith.com.

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Very interesting thread happening over at Eugene Cho’s blog about the controversial Newsweek cover featuring Sarah Palin. I even shared my two cents over there. I’m not a huge Palin fan, but I do question Newsweek’s judgment in using that image. Would love to hear what you think.

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I can’t read the guy’s mind, of course, but after the initial, natural response of “Yeah, I got it goin’ on,” I’m thinking this is what President Obama must’ve really been thinking upon hearing that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize

Dang it! It’s a great honor and all, but I really don’t need this right now. I’ve got wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—not to mention nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Man, don’t they know I’ve still got health-care reform and the economic downturn to figure out at home? And on top of that, this will just be more fodder for all the haters who want to see me fail no matter what. Couldn’t they have put me on the list for 2017?

Well, at least that’s what I would’ve been thinking if I were in his shoes.

I also was shocked to hear the news this morning that Obama had won the Peace Prize. Clearly, he has yet to accomplish anything concrete that would naturally point to his selection. However, I do agree in part with Fareed Zakaria’s take over at CNN.com that this is more of an award to America—a challenge and encouragement to us (and the world) to pursue the high rhetoric of hope and international cooperation that Obama has advocated.

What’s more, the award is also a recognition of what happened in the U.S. last November when we elected Obama. It’s a salute to America’s ability to finally rise up to the ideals of equality, freedom, and strength through diversity that it was founded on. I think if our country is truly serious about living up to those ideals, we will ultimately prove the Nobel committee members to have been correct in their decision, whether we like Obama or not.

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