HOW FAR WE’VE COME: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The past week reminded us once again (as if we needed reminding) how racialized American politics has become since Barack Obama became our first African American president four years ago.
For many, President Obama’s historic victory signaled an evident shift toward what some called a “post-racial America.” Even those who rejected such talk conceded that Obama’s election was proof that our nation has grown in a positive direction.
In July, Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington examined the effect that President Obama’s election has had on the nation. According to Washington, shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization poll said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
But once Obama settled into the White House, it became clear that the president’s race — instead of becoming a nonissue in a post-racial era — would become a subtext of his every move and lead many of his opponents to level racially tinged charges against him (e.g., “He was born in Africa,” “He’s a closet Muslim,” “He’s a socialist,” “He’s hates America,” “He hates white people”).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Barack Obama, America’s first black president, speaks near a portrait of George Washington, America’s first white president. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Just this past week alone, the president was described as “a retard” by one high-profile pundit, and accused of “shucking and jiving” by a former vice presidential candidate. Then, after respected Republican statesman Colin Powell again endorsed Obama for president, John Sununu, a surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, suggested Powell supports Obama because they share the same race. This adds juice to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Wednesday that found the 2012 election is turning out to be the most racially polarized presidential contest since 1988.
Now comes word today of a new Associated Press poll that finds racial attitudes have not improved during the four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. In fact, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
This leads us to wonder how racial progress might fare under a second term for President Obama. Or, whether things would improve or get worse under a Mitt Romney presidency that, presumably, would not be as haunted by the specter of race the way that President Obama’s has.
What do you think?Has President Obama’s time in office improved or worsened race relations in America?
In case you haven’t heard, Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was quoted in a Baptist Press article as saying the family-owned restaurant chain supports traditional marriage. Here’s the quote that sparked the firestorm:
“Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. ‘Well, guilty as charged,’ said Cathy when asked about the company’s position. ‘We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. … We are very much committed to that,’ Cathy emphasized. ‘We intend to stay the course,’ he said. ‘We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.’”
As the media criticism site Get Religion noted, Cathy’s views are old news, but the “offending” quote said nothing directly about same-sex marriage. However, as is often the case, there is a history behind the reaction to it. Cathy previously told a radio audience that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” according to The Washington Post. Those are fighting words in a nation as divided as ours is over same-sex marriage. But are they words a corporate executive should have uttered in public?
CHICKEN FIGHT: Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s embattled COO. (Photo: Stanley Leary/Newscom)
At Bloomberg Businessweek, Diane Brady compared Cathy’s judgment with that of Bill Marriott, who is chairman of the Marriott hotel chain and a Mormon. Marriott personally opposes same-sex marriage, but “has long been reluctant to impose that view on the company his father founded.” So, although his church was involved in the fight against same-sex marriage in California, neither he nor the Marriott corporation donated money to the cause. “Instead, he stepped into the drama by publicly reinforcing his company’s commitment to gay rights through domestic partners benefits and services aimed at gay couples,” Brady reported.
Conversely, she said Cathy “crossed the line in letting his faith become less about inspiration than alienation” by openly condemning the beliefs held by a lot of potential customers. “Hearing polarizing rhetoric from the pulpit is one thing. Hearing it from a man whose business rings up $4 billion in sales each year is another,” said Brady. “As an individual, Cathy has every right to express his point of view. As president, he has a responsibility to talk about how those views affect the policies of Chick-fil-A. …The controversy at Chick-fil-A is less about the beliefs in its C-suite than the judgment therein.”
Perhaps this explains why some franchise owners are now “distancing themselves” from Cathy’s statements, according to The Los Angeles Times. But, politicians-turned-pundits Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are publicly supporting Cathy by calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Wednesday, August 1, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also spoke up in support of Cathy, a fact that CNN reported to a musical backdrop of Pink’s “Stupid Girls” song. And round and round it goes.
But Chick-fil-A has garnered support from some surprising sources, like a gay internet celebriity, a James Beard award winning food writer, and the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government can regulate discrimination in employment or against customers, but what the government cannot do is to punish someone for their words,” Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, reportedly told Fox News.
Of course, there have also been passionate pleas for restraint. At Christianity Today, Caryn Rivadeneira got fired up after someone used the occasion to out Christian author Jonathan Merritt as gay. So she bought herself a chicken sandwich and admonished readers to: “Remember the Chick-fil-A when we’re ready to jump on bandwagon-y boycotts or seek to silence or shut down those who offend us or whose beliefs run counter to ours. Remember the Chick-fil-A before refusing to shop stores that say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Remember the Chick-fil-A before asking the Gay Pride Parade to reroute so it doesn’t disrupt church services. Remember the Chick-fil-A before you demand books be removed from high school syllabi. Remember the Chick-fil-A before ‘outing’ another person for whatever through gossip or rumor or prayer request. Remember Chick-fil-A whether or not you agree with Dan Cathy.”
Likewise, author Rachel Held Evans, who supports same-sex marriage, urged Chick-fil-A boycotters to “remember that not all Christians who speak out against gay marriage are bigots or homophobes, and calling them those names is as unjust as it is unkind.”
Somehow amidst all the fury, the internet barely noticed that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced that they are donating $2.5 million in support of Washington’s same-sex marriage law, which won’t go into effect unless it survives a referendum vote in November. “Amazon.com Inc. publicly supported the law earlier this year, along with other prominent Pacific Northwest businesses, including Microsoft Corp., Starbucks Corp. and Nike Inc.,” the Associated Press reported. Will Chick-fil-A supporters boycott these corporations in retaliation?
Before they do, perhaps they should remember the Disney boycotts from yesteryear. In 2005, after eight years of eschewing all things Mickey, the Southern Baptist Convention officially voted to end that endeavor. What were they protesting? US News reported that the boycotts were sparked by Disney’s involvement with the 1994 movie Priest, which was about a clergyman’s struggle over his closeted homosexuality.
“Activists for gay and lesbian causes welcomed the vote as a possible opening to what they hope will be a new dialogue with the SBC and other Christian-based opponents of gay and lesbian rights,” the article said. That was seven years ago.
What do you think?
Should Christian business leaders speak out on divisive political issues or stick to their corporate missions?
At his massive rally in Washington, the conservative activist called his audience to restore America’s honor and “turn back to God.” But it wasn’t completely clear which god he was talking about.
The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, innocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck (who is a Mormon) and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the ekklesia of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot. Photo by Luke X. Martin from Wikipedia.
The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.
Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).
My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.
My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.
The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”
I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?
Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?
The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.
Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!
The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!
Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”
This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?
The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.