On Religion, Politics, and Denouncements

It seems that Barack Obama appeals to two types of people. The first type is traditional liberals and run-of-the-mill Democrats. They like his views on immigration, international relations, tax policy, and social issues. They are pro-choice. They are economic populists. They are more receptive to government intervention and regulation. They voted for Kerry. They voted for Gore. And they voted for Clinton. They were all left-leaning Democratic politicians whose political views largely matched their own. They might not have liked these candidates when they were at the polls, but the "D" after their names was more important than the name itself.

The second type is voters who view Obama as a means of expressing their anger at everything related to politics as we know it today. They hate big money. They hate the idea of corporate lobbyists feeding at the political trough. They hate the 24-hour political news cycle. They hate the media's tendency to focus on stupid stuff. They hate conventional wisdom. And they hate talking heads and incurious journalists who recycle the same old themes. To them, Obama's campaign is as much about them as it is about Obama. To them, an Obama victory in November would represent a triumph of people over the system and everything that makes it undesirable.

This latter group of voters consists of what I will call "protest voters." Some of these people are independents who dislike partisan rhetoric. A significant number of them are Republicans that Obama affectionately calls "Obamicans." (Even former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan may vote for Obama.) And many more are regular voters who have nothing to do with politics at all but believe Obama connects with them in a way that other politicians who came before him haven't. That explains why his donor base is so large and why so many of his contributions are for less than $100.

Hillary Clinton does not connect with voters the way Obama does because she has run a poor campaign and is blaming everyone for her bleak political situation except herself. It's sexism. It's the media. It's the national party disenfranchising (her) voters in Michigan and Florida. It's debate moderators. It's the right wing smear machine. It's the unfair system of caucuses instead of primaries. It's your mother-in-law and her hairdresser. And that turns voters off.

John McCain does not connect with voters the way Obama does either because he has one foot in the pool of bipartisanship and independents and the other foot in the pool of the unpopular George Bush and his off-putting allies. Thus, McCain's credibility is under suspicion. He is neither completely trusted by the right nor fully embraced by the middle, so he's suffering from a bit of identity confusion.

The reason why I referenced Obama's "protest voters" is because of the latest pulpit problem surrounding the Obama campaign. Catholic priest Michael Pfleger gave an incendiary sermon mocking Hillary Clinton and invoking the idea of White entitlement as it relates to the United States' racist past. This kind of rhetoric is common in liberal circles. The reason why this is such a big deal, however, is because Rev. Pfleger gave this sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, also known as Obama's church--the same church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave his now infamous sermon about how September 11 should not have been a surprise to the United States.

Needless to say, the media are all over this story. Pundits are talking about how this strikes at Obama's "judgment" again. And Hillary Clinton is calling on Obama to denounce Pfleger explicitly. Comparisons between Michael Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright are commonplace.

This reaction was predictable, but regardless of how one feels about this pastor's remarks, one fact cannot be denied. This year's presidential campaign is setting a very dangerous precedent.

To start, Obama was not at the church when Pfleger blasted Clinton and invoked White guilt. And how often does Obama go to his church now anyway? He is in the middle of an intense campaign for his party's nomination and likely doesn't have the time to make it back to Chicago every weekend to go to his church. Why should he be held accountable for what that church's pastor is saying? Pfleger wasn't his pastor; Wright was! Why should he have to dissociate himself from that church because of this new pastor? And how offensive are these calls for divorce to people actually agree with Pfleger's remarks?

Having to disavow or dissociate yourself from an entire organization simply because someone in that organization, no matter how prominent, makes controversial remarks or has a potentially offensive policy is an unfortunate development because it prevents the electorate from focusing on issues that are far more important to their day to day lives. And it threatens to silence any politician whose views or personal history is deemed "too different" for others to accept.

Until 2000, Bob Jones University, a Christian school, had a policy that banned interracial dating. Should all Bob Jones University graduates have repudiated or boycotted their own college simply because of the school's politically incorrect policy? After all, those alumni paid thousands of dollars to go to that school and went there voluntarily, just as Obama voluntarily joined and stayed at that church.

There are several politicians who were affiliated with the Conservative Citizens Council, a White-supremacist organization. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these affiliations lasted as recently as the 2004 election. Should all politicians who were once members or allies of this organization immediately denounce it and sever all ties with it? What about George Allen? What about Haley Barbour? They have won several elections despite these ties. Where were their calls for divorce? George Allen eventually lost his Senate re-election bid in 2006, but that was because he called a rival campaign worker a "macaca," not because of his relationship with the Conservative Citizens Council.

Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 on gays. How many politicians were still trying to curry favor with his church and that political wing after that? Even as recently as this campaign cycle, politicians, including John McCain, were still trying to win Falwell's endorsement. Where were his calls for divorce? Were such calls as intense as they are for Obama now?

Freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution. And separation of church and state has been advocated since our Founding Fathers' generation. But it seems that tabloid journalism is threatening this freedom because it is making politicians have to answer for people they have little or no control over. And what is the political statute of limitations for dealing with people who made offensive remarks in the past? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? And why should we care?

Imagine that there comes a point when Obama is forced to leave his church because of media and political criticism. How fair is that? How many politicians have been drummed out of their own church because other people who could care less about them don't like what the church preaches? If Obama left his church, where would he go? Would his critics accuse him of mixing political calculations with the covenant? Would the media and his critics go to great lengths to research the backgrounds of all the pastors at this new church? What about the other worshipers who simply want to pray and enjoy Sunday fellowship without having to worry that the punditry will badmouth their church?

This gotcha game when it comes to religion has shifted from an unseemly though passably politically relevant exercise (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) to an outright offensive distraction. Not only is it offensive to the people who worship at the "offensive" church (nobody likes to have their church and their congregation branded as "wackos"), but it's also offensive to the millions of voters who don't care about this stuff at all and would much rather learn more about how our presidential candidates plan to handle Iraq, the struggling economy, fighting terrorism, and addressing gas prices.

The United States has a serious complex when it comes to religion. People who don't go to church at all are branded as God-haters. Non-Christians who seek to have their faiths be afforded the same level of acceptance or prominence in society as the Christian faith are excoriated for "forcing their beliefs" on others. Now people who don't go to churches "we" approve of are demonized as insufficiently Christian. And worst of all, this manufactured controversy surrounding Obama is giving license to others to demand that their political enemies pay for the actions of those to whom they are only tangentially related.

I sense that this latest controversy surrounding Obama will only make these "protest voters" even angrier or create a whole legion of new ones. And uncommitted voters and nonpartisan observers who are wondering how to make ends meet are probably looking at this supposed "pastor problem" and wishing people would just give this guy a break and let him run his campaign. People who were already against Obama don't need to be further swayed by yet another "offensive" sermon. But calling on him to sever ties with people for offenses they once ignored in the past reeks of political opportunism and is deeply offensive to people who don't believe anyone should have to worry about accounting for the shady characters that may or may not exist in their six degrees of separation.

If our nation continues down this road, there may be no one left deemed "decent" enough to run--unless he never befriended anyone or joined any group or organization whatsoever.

11 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Whatever the case may be, there is no crying in politics. Hillary showed weakness when she cried and there is no taking that back. The way Obama has been attacked over the past months, shouldn't he be the one who is crying? Has he? No. I do not want a president who cries at the drop of a hat. We have villans out there who want us dead to deal with and they would just laugh at her and attack us if she was the commander-in-chief. Go home and take care of Bill for a change and wait for Chelshea to get married and give you some grandbabies.

Brett said...

I blame on the insanely networked and visceral news that gets promoted these days. Even as late as 10 years ago, news didn't hammer around this quickly - but now, this type of thing comes up. It bounces around the blogosphere and networks (who are all insanely competitive and hungry for news, particularly since they've spent all of this money paying for pundits who do nothing but comment on the horse race (like David Gregory on MSNBC), each time spreading and picking up outrage, until it becomes (yet) another tempest in a teapot.

That said, how often do protest "voters" actually vote? Considering how turnout in even presidential elections here in the United States is usually quite pathetic, it would seem that the general reaction to those pissed off at politics is apathy, not outrage and retaliation.

Thomas said...

Nice commentary. If you get a chance, please check out the following:

Thomas said...

Sorry, I give up. Here's a link to cut and paste:

Candi said...

I disagree with Anonymous -- Hillary didn't cry "at the drop of a hat". Crying is not a sign of weakness and that moment in New Hampshire was a special one. I was actually glad that she allowed that side of her to show. I also appreciate her willingness to make fun of herself.

However I have admired her over the years, though, I have been completely turned off the longer this campaign has lasted, especially as Obama has increased his lead. She and her campaign have attempted to change the rules and their perspectives every time a previous attempt failed. This ambiguity I find highly unethical and suspicious.

Father Pfleger's presentation was divisive, but he was correct. Hillary and her supporters (I was one in the very early days.) did believe she was almost guaranteed to become the Dem's nominee. Their whole approach to the campaign is evidence of that; they didn't work that hard until they saw they had some competition.

I disagree that Hillary has any specific problem with Obama because of his race. The problem is rooted in being able to let go of a nomination that she believed she was entitled to in this season.

The ambiguity she's displayed to date -- finding her voice, attacking, being conciliatory, agreeing with rules, trying to change the rules -- her perspectives and arguments change with the wind; they change according to how she thinks she can win -- with this ambiguity I cannot trust any of the honorable reasons she claims as reasons for her to remain in this race. Reasons like honoring all votes, ensuring all voices are heard, honoring her supporters, etc. sound noble, but are probably not in her heart.

Like she said when she kicked off her campaign -- she's in it to win -- that was and is her bottom line.

That's why I support Obama -- wholeheartedly -- a man sincerely committed to leading this nation in true change, a man with a consistent message from the beginning, a man with an outstanding organization that has run a fantastic campaign.

I do hope in the end -- like in the next few days -- Hillary is able to find a voice of reason and humility. Concede the race to Obama and rally her supporters toward a Democratic victory in November.

Anthony Palmer said...


I agree with you, but not for the reasons you may think. I don't think it's wrong to show weakness by crying, but I do think it's a political loser to cry because voters don't like to see their elected leaders wither under pressure. For Clinton, as the first credible and viable presidential candidate, she should have known that the spotlight would be on her and the media and punditry would have been ready to write her obit if she as much as sneezed.



I think "protest voters" will actually go to the polls this time because my sense is that people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. How many people were traveling over Memorial Day and paying $60 to fill up their tank? How many of these people then turned on the television and got sick of hearing about pastor problems and politicians drinking alcohol? It seems like everyone is out of touch. To these "protest voters," Obama represents their way of saying enough is enough, even if he is a flawed candidate. My 2 cents.



Have you noticed how many pundits and media outlets talked about the offensiveness of Pfleger's remarks about Clinton, but did not address whether his words rang true or not? Clinton did think she was the inevitable candidate. Remember that interview with Katie Couric where she said "It will be me" (the nominee)? She didn't start griping and scapegoating until she started losing.

Now I think a lot of Obama's supporters consist of "anti-Clinton" voters and not just "pro-Obama" or "I'm fed up" voters. Thanks for commenting, and please come back soon!

Anthony Palmer said...


That is a very intelligently written article. For anyone who has the time, I recommend giving it a look. Here's the proper link:

Click here.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

its all a comedy of errors now

Anonymous said...

What the heck is anti-Catholic? Catholics have hijcked USA policy in East Europe, Rwanda, Timoor, Phillipines, Vietnam. They were responsible for slavery and bigotry (Roger Taney, John Wilkes Booth) and the socialist labor corruption (Tammany, Daley, Hitler, Hoffa, Meany). They never hesitated to spread their bigotry against democracy (Pio Nino said voting was immoral), Jews or Orthodox Christians. It is not racism to say this because Catholicism is a choice, not by birth.

Anthony Palmer said...


I'm not sure who your comment is directed towards, but you could make the case that no religion is exempt from malice or vice. I don't think the Catholic Church has a monopoly on that. In the context of Obama's (former) church, I think Pfleger's remarks were more damaging to "Black churches" in general than to the Catholic Church per se even though Pfleger himself is a Catholic.

All of this craziness surrounding religion in this campaign makes me wonder, however, why the nation is so averse to having an atheist president.

Thomas said...

Anthony, I think all the imbroglios about religion this year just prove my point that religion should be a private thing. Making something public will have the effect of cheapening it because, of course, a public person will water down their religious beliefs to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

When I taught high school, a social conservative friend of mine questioned not allowing prayer in the public school where I taught. I told my friend that some of my students were very religious and that they prayed before they ate their lunch. No one stopped them. They prayed the way they wanted without some school bureaucrat telling them how to pray.

I know my religious students were happy with this set-up.