Venus William’s Toughest Match: Her withdrawal from the U.S. Open because of Sjogren’s syndrome brings attention to the plight of autoimmune disease sufferers.
Steve Jobs’ Passion for Diversity: “Can you help us hire black engineers?” That unexpected question marked the beginning of Andrew B. Williams’ unique friendship with Apple’s late co-founder. His life, his students’ lives, and the life of Apple Inc. would never be the same again.
Is That Hair Killing You? According to the U.S. Surgeon General, some women are jeopardizing their health in order to protect their hairstyles — and black women are at the top of the list.
Man of God, But Still a Man: The tragic death of Pastor Zachery Tims reminds us that even our most gifted and passionate Christian leaders are imperfect human beings.
HAWAII'S SON: President Obama Aloha Bobblehead dolls are among the touristy souvenirs available at gift shops like this one in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
The word “Hawaii” conjures up scenes of grass skirts, surfboards, gorgeous beaches, and volcanoes. Recently, images of our current President have been added to that list. Whether one is for or against his style of leadership, one thing is certain: it is unfamiliar. His strong centrist stand is not a popular modus operandi of past presidents, and for this reason it garners attention — unless, you have the “aloha” in you. For those, like myself, who were raised within the group-centric culture of Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s brand of leadership is nothing new.
Those from the “mainland,” what those of us from Hawaii call the continental U.S., rarely understand how truly different Hawaii is from the rest of the United States, particularly for people of color. It is one of the few (and perhaps only) places the European Standards for culture, beauty, power, and “justice” are not in effect. They are replaced by the East Asian and native Polynesian standards that reach back farther in history than the United States of America as country. These standards were social norms I was first introduced to, much like the president. I was torn from my Pacific Ocean-bound paradise as I was entering my tweens. My father’s military career took us from our colorful, diversity-filled oasis to the Midwest cosmos of corn, soybeans, and snow.
How significant is being raised in such a truly diverse, non-Eurocentric, group-driven, island-based culture?
It is significant enough that any person of color who is socialized in Hawaii and then leaves must go through a process of re-learning American race relations within their own group (colorism) and in relation to mainstream American culture. They also have another task: learning their new place on the racial totem pole.
I can say from experience it is a very ugly, cruel, bewildering process. I spent my early childhood on Oahu. Once you go through it, you know it, and you behave accordingly. That is why I will admit to smiling whenever I hear the president pronounce Hawai‘i properly; it’s done deliberately. Hearing “Hawai‘i,” “luau,” and “ukulele” pronounced properly makes me giddy these days.
COMING HOME: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a 2009 vacation. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
To be sure, Hawaii is not free of racialized class structures, and it harbors its own brand of racism; yet, this too takes a different strain. It is far less disruptive to the almighty Group-with-a-capital-G to simply ignore members it finds undesirable. The Group limits interaction with them and is as polite and distant as is practical when its members must interact with Outsiders. In this way, everyone inside and outside of the Group may save face. “Saving face” is another important East Asian tenant. While this is just as wrong, burning crosses, throwing tomatoes, hate marches, and interesting costumes are not as conducive to “perpetual harmony.”
The “East Asian Cultural standard” I refer to is an amalgamation of major tenants of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. It is the cultural norm of Hawaii along with native Polynesian culture. Together they create an entirely different American experience. It is an experience that challenges mainland perceptions of race, class, and gender relations.
Hawaiian popular and native culture is group centric. In the native culture (keep in mind, it is not monolithic) the idea of “ohana” comes to mind. Translated simply as “family” in true practice, it means far more than that. A great representation of the highest form of “ohana” is what the body of Christ is called to be and what the Christian church is to be, as modeled in the New Testament book of Acts.
The Group always comes before the individual. Life doesn’t revolve around being a special snowflake. Rather, it is more important to lend your talents to the betterment of something above and beyond yourself. This is not a popular sentiment in mainstream American culture, where our love of the anti-hero rings loud and clear.
For instance, a state like Texas, the home of former President George W. Bush, as well as current GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, is a great example of the “Cult of Individualism” that is a part of the mainland American consciousness. This mentality is the polar opposite of the Group/ohana mindset. When Gov. Perry subtly implied in 2009 that secession could be a possibility for Texas if things didn’t change in Washington, it reaffirmed the image of the Lone Star State as a collection of cowboys (and girls) who answer to no one. This isn’t to say that focusing on the individual is detrimental. But it’s no secret that the worship of self can cause far-reaching negative consequences throughout society, a fact the Bible and secular history have made abundantly clear.
In the case of President Obama, some say he’s too willing to compromise and that he doesn’t assert himself enough when it comes to playing the political game. In a recent, widely discussed Washington Post essay, White House reporter Scott Wilson charged President Obama with being “the loner president,” an isolated politician who prefers policy over people in Washington. “This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observed. “There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.”
But what his critics see as a flaw might actually be a strength, at least from the perspective of ohana. It could be that his great skill in being so centrist (to his party’s and the GOP’s annoyance) comes from the ability to set his gaze solidly on The Group and put its needs before his own, as a matter of upbringing and personal conviction. While caught in the political throes of his own party, the GOP, and the Tea Party, he has delivered the tow-the-line stance he promised during his 2008 campaign — perhaps too well, for the mainland.
In this case, we — the American people, in certain instances — are President Obama’s Group, not necessarily the Democratic Party.
So, why is this a problem?
Did we not elect our congressional leaders, in good faith, to put our needs before donkeys and elephants, red and blue, lobbyists and Wall Streeters? Didn’t we ask them to put aside their own personal (often financial) interests and fight for all people to have a chance at living the “American Dream”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: President Obama in 2010 with the staff of Island Snow, a shaved-ice shop in Kailua, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Newscom)
If Congress practiced the concept of “ohana” according to its popular understanding and placed the Group ahead of personal gain, Washington, D.C., and America in general, could become a very different place. That’s not to say everyone in the Group would receive what they desire. However, the Group as a whole would be better off than, say, a privileged 1% of the Group at the expense of the other 99%. The tyranny of the majority is tempered by a hint of the Confucian principles of the Five Ideal Relationships: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Within this environment, there is an understood expectation that those that are submitted to will take care of those that submit to them. These obligations are taken seriously; otherwise one risks dishonor and the loss of his status in society.
In this context, political bias would have to kneel before the desires of the Ultimate Group: the American people. Lobbyists, Unions, Big Business, and personal gain would have to wait their turns as the needs of the American “ohana” — the American family — came first.
We the people — America, the Group — would always come first.
That is a Washington I would love to say “aloha” to.
MAN ON THE RISE: Herman Cain at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last week. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)
While reports of his imminent demise persist, Herman Cain is nonetheless “raising cane” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, a just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places him as the current frontrunner in the GOP race for president.
He’s been termed a “marginal candidate” by the likes of conservative operatives like Fred Barnes.
He’s been charged by conservatives like Michael Medved with the crime of “needlessly” playing the race card when he called a spade a spade in his repudiation of the “N-word” scrawled on an edifice at the Perry family ranch.
Yet, Cain rises.
Despite the pessimism of prognosticators, pundits, and party elites, businessman Herman Cain has emerged as the “yes we can” of the political right.
Compared to the presumed nominee Mitt Romney, Cain has managed to inspire the right’s base. Cain musters 31 percent support from self-described conservatives, compared to Romney’s 15 percent support among the same. Tea Partiers are sipping the Cain Kool-Aid too, with 24 percent support of their heft backing Cain and only 17 percent support for Romney. Pure social conservatives love Cain too — while he came in second place at the Values Voter Summit this month, Tony Perkins of the host group, the Family Research Council, noted that Cain was the obvious winner since 600 of Ron Paul’s minions conveniently flooded the conference only for the Straw Poll on the Saturday morning of the conference.
Perkins said values voters are excited by Herman Cain. “He is a success story,” Perkins told CNN. “If you look at his life — how he has grown up and how he was successful in the business world, and those principles of hard work, of faith, of following the teachings of Scripture and Jesus Christ — he is an example of that, and it’s reflective in his success.”
What are we to make of this apparent surge? Whether Democrat or Republican, ambivalent or animated about the primaries, it would be wise to take Cain’s candidacy seriously.
Recall that four years ago, a rising star in the Democratic primary race was counted out as inexperienced and unelectable, despite his rousing oratory. And he’s now President.
Comparisons of Cain to President Obama are inevitable for obvious reasons. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Republicans sought their own “Black Conservative” answer to the phenomenon that is Barack Obama. Yet, this time the candidate isn’t a drafted carpetbagger who’s being rushed onto the stage solely because of his skin color and loud voice. Cain appears to be his own man.
Pundits and pollsters have too easily dismissed Herman Cain’s candidacy, but the conservative base appears to have a new anointed one — at least for the time being. He’s not the clear frontrunner just yet, but he’s certainly raising cane in the Republican contest. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Michele Bachmann (remember her?) and Rick Perry had all the buzz and momentum. In a GOP race that discards the favored ones just as quickly as it elevates them, can Cain keep it up?
HIS OWN JEREMIAH WRIGHT?: Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry was forced to distance himself from his pastor's statement that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is a cult. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Mitt Romney wants his fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry to disavow the Texas mega-church pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Summit last weekend, but Perry has declined, The Associated Press reported yesterday.
“The governor does not agree with every single issue of people that endorsed him or people that he meets,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “This political rhetoric from Gov. Romney isn’t going to create one new job or help the economy. He’s playing a game of deflection and the people of this country know this.”
This Story Is Old News
At the media criticism site Get Religion, Christianity Today online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey argued earlier that this story is old news.
“If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that [Robert] Jeffress’ belief that Mormonism is a cult isn’t terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. …Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice,” Pulliam Bailey wrote.
Bruised Feelings and Fundamentalists
At The Huffington Post, Episcopal priest and Columbia University religion professor Randall Balmer wrote that Mormons are sincerely wounded and confused by the charge that they aren’t Christians, right before he engaged in a bit of mud-slinging himself.
“For Jeffress and for millions of other fundamentalists, the word ‘Christian’ is a specialized term reserved only to those who hold certain beliefs. Having grown up fundamentalist, I spent the first two-plus decades of my life convinced that Roman Catholics were not Christians – because they were not fundamentalists,” Balmer wrote.
What interests me is the power of the labels bandied about in this discussion. Does the term cult hold any real power in an increasingly laissez-faire culture? Does it even approach the dismissive power of the word fundamentalist, which is identified not only with intolerance but also with religious terrorism?
It was 1978 when “cult” leader Jim Jones’ fanatacism led to the murder/suicide of 909 Americans and 1993 when the 50-day FBI siege on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, left 86 people dead. It seems to me that the word cult has lost some of its verve in the intervening years, perhaps in part because of controversy surrounding the Waco siege.
Aside from the celebrity goings-on and abuse charges related to the Church of Scientology, the latest “cult” story to dominate the news involved the 2006 arrest of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was charged with sexual assault and arranging illegal ploygamist marriages between adult men and underage girls. He was convicted of two counts of sexual assault earlier this year and, just yesterday,The Salt Lake Tribune reported that one of his 78+ plural wives requested police assistance in leaving the sect’s home base.
But then there was Big Love, the HBO hit drama series about a Utah polygamist sect that ran for five seasons (2006-2011) and helped normalize polygamy and other alternative family structures for an American audience.
Last month at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Durham, North Carolina, the Darger family that the series was reportedly based on talked to journalists about their marriage. We were offered free copies of their book, Love Times Three: Our True Story of Polygamous Marriage, which I just finished reading.
Supercharged Words in a New Context
One of the things that struck me most about the Dargers’ storytelling was the way terminology was used in an unfamiliar context. For example, they repeatedly describe their family structure as a “lifestyle choice” and write about bigotry in a way that is similar to arguments for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
On the other hand, they describe themselves as Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, whose sect they say emerged from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) after polygamy was outlawed and the LDS church changed its position on the practice. For the Dargers, fundamentalist is a positive term, one with which they want to be identified.
The idea of one man looking to religion to justify having sex with three women involves a sexual taboo in American culture, but the term fundamentalist carries with it the idea of sexual repression. The phrase lifestyle choice is sometimes used to argue against inherent homosexual identity and is thus rejected by some homosexuals, but here it is embraced to argue for personal freedom.
Innovation or Aberration?
In the Associated Press article that I opened with, reporter Kasie Hunt says rightly that “some evangelical Christians believe Mormons are outside Christianity because they don’t believe in the concept of a unified Trinity and because they rely on holy texts in addition to the Bible.” But then she adds, “For conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy.”
Innovations is a loaded word here. It carries with it a positive connotation, whereas earlier in the piece she had described the controversy over Jeffress’ statement as a “highly charged, emotional issue” that “raises the specter of religious bigotry.”
But does it really? In an age when the polygamy of Mormon-related sects is celebrated on TV and Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with religious marginalization, is this really a “highly charged emotional issue” or just a diversion, as Perry’s spokesman contends?
What do you think?
Do words like cult and fundamentalist still have power to marginalize or are we all so jaded by the exploitation of language that we don’t even listen anymore?
TEXAS FIRE: Governor Rick Perry speaks to God (and the nation) at his recent prayer rally. Rev. C.L. Jackson, a staunch supporter, stands in the background.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry may have only just announced his campaign for the U.S. presidency, but his bid has already captured plenty of attention, as speculation stirs that he could soar to the top of the GOP field. Among Christians, much of the attention stems from Perry’s recent push to distinguish himself as an evangelical candidate. A week before his announcement, Perry held “The Response” prayer rally in Houston. The event called on Christians to fast and pray for a nation in crisis, based on similar gatherings recorded in Joel 2 and the book of Acts. About 30,000 people attended and another 80,000 viewed the live web stream, The Response web site said.
When he announced his bid for the presidency in South Carolina on Saturday, Perry again referred to his Christian faith, taking a moment to thank God for the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers and saying America values “the rights that are endowed to every human being by a loving God.”
Perry’s evangelical push could propel him ahead of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and other candidates who haven’t galvanized the religious right to the same degree. On Saturday, another evangelical Christian, Michele Bachmann, led Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll, which didn’t include Perry.
Perry’s ultimate success could depend on support from politically conservative African, Hispanic, and Asian American Christians, a group Business Insider called the “Rainbow Right.” Two influential minority evangelical leaders were honorary co-chairs of The Response: Tony Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and host of The Urban Alternative, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Since the minority vote tends to lean left, the growth of the Rainbow Right could mean trouble for President Obama.
“If you were there, you heard a good noise, a good response, ‘Amen,’ and, ‘thank God,’” Jackson said. “I came home feeling good about our nation even in this bad, crippling economy.”
Perry read Scripture and prayed for political and religious leaders, the military, and people struggling with grief, addiction, unemployment and foreclosures. The controversial event came under fire from those who saw it as a violation of the separation of church and state and as an endorsement of Christianity over other religions. However, The Response was billed as an apolitical event, and Perry said during his prayer that God has a “salvation agenda” rather than a political agenda.
“Brother C.L., you and I have had this conversation,” Perry said to Jackson. “He’s a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party, or . . . any man-made institutions. He’s calling all Americans, of all walks of life, to seek him, to return to him, to experience his love and his grace and his acceptance, experience a fulfilled life regardless of the circumstances.”
Jackson campaigned for Perry from pulpits and on the radio when Perry ran for governor. He told Urban Faith that political leaders need to have a relationship with God, and called The Response “a dynamic move” for Perry.“This man put everything that he had on prayer with God,” Jackson said. “In other words, he believed in talking to God. That’s how God deals with us, through conversation, talking to us and guiding us through his words.”
“Other people would try to do it themselves, or follow someone they think knows. Many people are trying to lead this world and God has not turned the world over to them,” he said.
Other Christian leaders argued that it was inappropriate for a politician to organize a religious event. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote a letter to Perry criticizing The Response as “direct government sponsorship of religion.”
“To be blunt, you have overstepped your constitutional bounds,” Lynn wrote. “I am a Christian minister and would like to remind you that it is not the job of government officials to call people to pray, recommend that they fast or prod them to take part in other religious activities. That job belongs to me and my fellow clergy.”
The Response has also come under criticism because of its ties to controversial religious speakers and endorsers, particularly the New Apostolic Reformation, which the Texas Observer reported on in “Rick Perry’s Army of God.” These relationships could prove problematic if Perry ascends to the general election, where far-right religious connections are likely to turn off moderates.
As Perry plows forward, he’s touting his economic experience as governor of Texas, where he said about 40 percent of new American jobs have been created since June 2009—an important success to Americans who have been disappointed with the economy under President Obama. However, Perry’s “Texas miracle” is not exactly what it appears to be. Unemployment in Texas rose to 8.2 percent in June, leaving the state in 26th place.
Jackson believes Rick Perry is the best person to lead America out of a crisis with God’s guidance, but in the end, he said putting one’s hope in any political candidate alone, rather than in God, would be a mistake.
“No man is going to straighten this out,” Jackson said. “He’s too messed up. The hope is in Christ.”
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