The writings of Rev. Howard Moody

Remarks on Politics, Race & Religion

June 12, 2008

It is probably a bit ridiculous to attempt to address the subject of this discussion in an hour and a half but you know the adage, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” And I would be a fool if I thought I could do any more than raise some issues and questions for us to think about, observe, listen to, get agitated and aggravated over. The next four or five months, we American people face what for many of us is a historical decision: a political decision made exceedingly complex by the introduction of racial and religious issues.

I want to submit that this trinity of social issues may represent the most divisive and alienating elements in our national life. They are complicating and confusing to the American electorate in this current Presidential campaign, and it has not ended because the Democrats are now united.

I would like to preface our discussion tonight with some observations and questions. First, a reminder, particularly for those of you with short memories, that this is not the first time that race and religion complicated political decision-making. In 1948, before Truman ran for his first full term, he issued an executive order integrating the armed forces. That resulted in the birth of the Dixiecrats, a southern third party rebellion led by the venerable Strom Thurmond that carried four states. Then in 1960, Kennedy the Democrat faced down WASP America’s anti-Catholicism in a Southern Baptist stronghold in Houston, Texas, and won the nomination; and then in 1964, the now-famous Rules Committee of the Democratic Party told Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that they didn’t qualify to be seated at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. So this present crisis is only the latest but probably the most prominent and challenging because the whole American electorate faces what appears to be a racial and religious issue. And I would add, a patriotic loyalty issue which I will try to elucidate later.

First, the racial issue. Do any of us really believe that the racial issue would have been front and center in the Presidential campaign if it had not been for Jeremiah’s fiery sermon played on a perpetual loop on cable TV? I don’t think so. Obama’s “race speech” in Philadelphia was an eloquent, fair, and balanced exposition of the “race problem.” The praise of the white media was unprecedented. All kinds of white folks loved it—academics, liberal Democrats, moderate Republicans, independents—and you know why? Because it was linguistically polite, calmly delivered, and objectively referenced—no righteous indignation, no gut-filled passion, no blazing anger, no vituperative language of “American disloyalty” of a Jeremiah Wright or Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Frederick Douglass. Obama’s speech was what white people like to hear. Angry “black talk” scares us, upsets us—it doesn’t matter whether it comes from a liberal Christian minister or a Nation of Islam leader.

I want to submit to you that language covers a multitude of misunderstandings, ignorance, and evasions of our white majority in this nation. Racism, institutional and personal, is still the most unacknowledged and unaddressed national disease facing this nation. In the last fifty years we’ve made more progress in the cure of cancer than on racism. We are all racist to one degree or another and it pervades our unconscious at level that we don’t begin to recognize. It is in our speech and only recognized when someone calls our attention to it. (How many politicians have dug their political graves with one unintended gaffe?) This diseased condition remains unattended in silence until some crisis brings it to white consciousness—a civil war, a black uprising almost 100 years later (mostly peaceful but not without deaths and injury), the evolution of black power in the late ‘60s, early 70’s. The latter shocked whites and for those who marched and protested with blacks, made many of them angry and resentful (“after all we did for them”). The civil rights movement opened up politics for blacks—if you were very careful to suppress all your anger, hurt, and resentment to get enough white votes to go with your newly franchised black votes and you talked up the white political agenda, you could get elected.

For almost fifty years this racial issue lay dormant, only now and then brought up by white folks talking about how much progress we’ve made! Suddenly an unknown, black politician comes from out of nowhere to campaign for the Presidency of the United States—the highest political office and the most prestigious all-white political preserve we have left in this immigrant-riven and racially diverse culture of the United States. That is why June 3rd was declared an historical date and it shocked black and white alike.

That this Presidential campaign was a racial crisis that raised up and highlighted the issue of racism was unusual enough but the revelation of our diseased condition was wrapped in religion. It was a form of black religious ritual that most white people know nothing about, until Jeremiah Wright exposed a style of Christian preaching that was as strange to white Americans as Shi’a Muslims’ self-flagellation or Hasidic dance fever. If all we had seen of Jeremiah was on Bill Moyers’s PBS program, he would have appeared to us as an educated and intelligent Christian minister (the kind we white, educated, liberal Christians like to hear). Or if the TV snippets of repetitive rants had only showed him “God damning” “abortion baby killing doctors” or “flamboyant homosexuals marching half naked in the streets,” that wouldn’t have shocked and sent the most educated liberal and conservative media pundits into excessive uniform condemnation. It was his attack upon the United States of America that called for this excoriation by white people. And remember his vitriolic attack was on a brutal and shameful list of America’s historical events from genocide of the Indians to the lynching of blacks in the 20th century. (When I heard his sermon, I was reminded that all of these acts were done by Christian believers who justified their actions by God’s “manifest destiny” for the American nation or by biblical references.)

Suddenly, America revived that despicable adage of Joe McCarthy— “guilty by association”—but even that carried to new extremes for a Presidential candidate: not just association with a “wayward brother,” a “mentally ill wife,” or a “promiscuous husband”; Obama was guilty for and identified with what “his pastor said.” Now that would be laughable, and certainly ludicrous, if it were not ominous and dangerous to our [d]emocratic life.

All of us are aware how much religion in the last 25 to 30 years began to play an overtly significant part in our political life. First, the Republicans began to woo the fundamentalists and evangelicals to help them win the White House in the culture wars: abortion, gay marriage, etc. They were able to depict Democrats after Carter (a “born again” Sunday School teacher) as not interested in Christianity, or worse, as “secular,” which in much of America is the same as “atheist.” With this manipulation of religious constituencies, they were barely able to defeat (with litigation in Florida and voting skullduggery in Ohio) the Democrats in two elections. After the ’04 election, something happened among the political conservative evangelicals—they began to split, most notably among mega-pastors like Rick Warren, the national evangelical leader Richard Cizik, and Jim Wallis, an old-time Washington insider evangelical journalist, and the latter would help lead the Democratic Party into a “religious posture” both for the ’06 and ’08 elections.

Now this is a short-hand synopsis of how our political campaign got religion. The fear I have is of an ever so recognizable “Christian-political revival,” in which one’s Christian faith becomes a qualifying criteria for being elected President. Don’t we know that a Republican or Democratic atheist or agnostic cannot be elected President (in violation of our Constitution)? And we’re not sure at all about a Jewish person. How about a Nobel prize-winning, decorated veteran of the war in Iraq who was a “secularist” atheist soldier? My point is that we are beginning to play a dangerous game that may have nothing to do with whether a person is mentally or physically fit for the Presidency. Was Jefferson a real Christian who went to church? Or Lincoln? Bush II said Jesus was his favorite philosopher!

I’m not sure we ought to be trying to make a judgment about a person’s religious beliefs at all. There must be some realm of privacy left to a person’s life! For example, I’ve never been in favor of questioning an ordinand for ministry about his/her sex life. It is not at all an appropriate question and certainly it won’t determine their effectiveness or fitness for Christian ministry. I want to be sure that you understand what I am saying here: I am deeply concerned about how Christian beliefs are getting wrapped around political positions and parties and I don’t care whether it’s Pat Robertson’s conservative Republicans or Jim Wallis’s liberal Democrats. We may ridicule those who believe that America was a Christian nation in its origins (although you might have doubts if you have read John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” speech) but at this moment in our history, we are exhibiting all the trappings of a “Christian nation”! Actually, we are a secular, democratic republic where a lot of people go to church!

I can imagine Obama starting out to run for political office and saying to himself, “I think I better join a Christian church—with my name, they will think I’m a Muslim; and it better be a ‘black church’ or people will think I’m trying to pass.” So he said, “I’ll go to a neighborhood ‘black church.’” Well, we all know the end of that decision! “That church” almost cost him the nomination! Some final observations:

1. This racial crisis, revealed in the Democratic Presidential nomination battle, caught us white folks “with our pants down,” or more correctly, with our ignorance or lack of ethnic education showing. Jeremiah might as well have been preaching Sanskrit and you certainly wouldn’t have been able to translate him if you hadn’t read the book of a 31-year-old religious scholar, James Cone, called Black Theology and Black Power. And Cone wouldn’t have written that book if there hadn’t been in 1966 a full page ad in the Times by the National Committee of Black Churchmen endorsing the goals of the Black Power movement. And also Cone took seriously Malcolm X’s claim that “Christianity was a white man’s religion.” Cone needed to create, re-imagine a “black Christianity”—a theology that would address the hurt and history of his people. Neither could Cone have taught and preached “black theology” without the example of Frederick Douglass, whose passion and language made Jeremiah Wright sound like a Sunday School teacher. Cone was a black prophet and he saw a role for the black church beyond “white Christianity.” That’s what happens when you teach oppressed minorities to read and get educated. Look what happened when we trained women to exegete and interpret the Bible and theological text—you got Phyllis Trible, Beverly Harrison, Emily Townes, et al., re-imagining biblical stories and male-dominated orthodoxy. Look what happened when you taught Hispanic Catholics to be biblical scholars and theologians—you got South Americans like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Ernesto Cardenal creating “liberation theology” and Catholic peasants reading the Bible in community gatherings.

2. Out of this radical crisis confronting us in the Presidential election we are seeing a new version of “black politics.” It is post-black power, post-civil rights, and new generational. It is not angry, nursing its grievances, living in the past, emphasizing their African heritage. One of its articulate representatives is Eddie Glaude, Jr., a Princeton professor, who calls the new movement “post-soul politics,” and it includes the political activities of persons who came of age in the Reagan years. “Post-soul” refers to “conditions and sensibilities emerging in black America since the mid-seventies, and that phase included many African Americans experiencing unprecedented inclusion in American society.” We whites may not yet know the themes and doers that represent this new black politics. If you watched C-Span in February or Tavis Smiley on weeknights, then you know an African American who has had a powerful influence on shaping “post-soul politics”—Smiley has written a book called The Covenant with Black America.

One thing I have learned about this new political crowd—they were not the ones who were waiting around for a new leader to replace Martin Luther King. Those young politicians didn’t choose Barack Obama; he found them. When Obama keeps repeating at rallies, “I’m not the one, you are the ones,” he is echoing an old mantra of Stokely Carmichael, adopted by Tavis Smiley: “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Andrew Young… they are leaders of the “old black politics.” Jeremiah Wright is both religiously and politically connected to these older politicians, while Otis Moss III, the successor to Wright, reminds the congregation he comes from the hip-hop and rapper generation. He refers to himself as a “theological DJ.” He is probably closer to Obama than Wright is. The black constituency for “post-soul politics” is among the young, educated, and “street smart” who find a new commonality with white young people who believe there just might be some hope for politics in achieving a truly democratic society that includes justice and equality for all the poor—working poor and indigent poor and immigrant poor!

This election is not historic simply because a black man is the presumptive nominee but because millions of people have been energized and inspired to believe that the seemingly impossible might be possible. On the other hand, I don’t think we can imagine what will happen to our American political life if we fail this challenge.