History in the Making: Religion, Race and Gender in the Presidential Election

[Editor’s note: this column is adapted from a talk given by Professor Paris at Harvard Divinity School on October 20 of this year.]

Religion, race and gender have always played significant roles in America’s presidential elections. Yet that role is even more significant this year. Apart from the 1984 election, the final candidates have always been white men. This year the Democratic candidate for president is an African-American man, and a white woman is the Republican nominee for vice president. It is now a cliché to say that history is in the making, whichever way the election turns out.

Once again it was unpredictable that an African American should arise with astounding rhetorical skills to lead this nation to a new stage in the long arduous struggle for a solution to its historical race problem: a problem that was left unresolved by our founding fathers and has persisted as a malignancy in the body politic ever since.

Is it not a curious fact that since Barack Obama is genetically half-black and half-white that he should be viewed by everyone as black? In fact, after considerable struggle with his identity, he, too, concluded years ago that he was a black man from Hawaii in search of his full identity as an African American. The extent to which African Americans would accept him was in doubt for quite some time. Now, I know of no black person who has sold two best-selling books describing his/her racial identity.

Clearly, religion and race have been in the foreground of American history long before the beginning of this republic. The question of religion was constitutionally settled with the First Amendment in 1791, known widely for its non-establishment and free exercise clauses:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The issue of race took much longer to resolve constitutionally. Once the constitutional convention reached a stalemate on the question of the slave trade they agreed to let it remain in place for another twenty years until January 1, 1808, one hundred years after it had been terminated in Great Britain. Thus, this year marks the bicentenary of that event.

The termination of the slave trade did not resolve the problem of race in America. In fact, slavery itself was not resolved until the end of the Civil War, more than one-half century afterward, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (supported later by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively).

The brief Reconstruction period of 12 years ended abruptly in 1877 with an agreement that the Democratic votes of the former confederate states would support the election of the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, in return for his decision to withdraw the Union troops from the South. Needless to say, perhaps, all black Americans felt betrayed by the federal government at that time and for a long while thereafter.

As a consequence, it was not until 1973 when Congresspersons Andrew Young from Georgia and Barbara Jordan from Texas became the first blacks elected from the South since Reconstruction—96 years after the fall of Reconstruction and less than a decade after President Lyndon Johnson called a press conference in the middle of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic Party over the issue of all-white primaries in Mississippi. Thus, it is an understatement to say that race has always been a factor in presidential elections.

Then and now, religion has always functioned in support of both sides of the racial conflict. Although the first amendment prohibited the establishment of religion while permitting its free exercise, Americans continue to disagree about the appropriate role of religion in the public domain.

Those who think that religion has an appropriate place in the public domain fall mainly into two camps: (a) those who seek to have their religious beliefs and practices legislated by the state and thus, run the risk of violating the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment; (b) those who claim that religion informs their political understandings and, hence, cannot be separated from politics.

Those who strive to have their religious beliefs legislated strongly embrace the notion of American exceptionalism as the best possible metaphor for the nation. Such a viewpoint admits no wrongdoing on the nation’s part at any time in history. All claims to the contrary are readily repudiated and their claimants defined as unpatriotic.

Since Senator McCain’s position on religion is almost wholly private, it is unclear how it functions in relation to politics, he has had an uneasy relationship with the extreme right-wing Christian camp in his party which strives to legislate its views on such hot topics as abortion, prayer in public schools, intelligent design as a viable alternative to science, heterosexuality as the only normal condition for human beings; to mention only a few.

Senator Obama, on the other hand, has sought to demonstrate the seamless thread between his religious and political understandings. Because he views the First Amendment as protecting religion from the state and the state from religion, he is not afraid to expose the ways in which his religion informs, enlightens, and guides his political pursuits. Most importantly, he believes that the various checks and balances implied by democratic public debate provide sufficient controls against any form of religious imperialism. Accordingly, he invites all others to do likewise and willingly subject their religious viewpoints to the democratic process of debate as designed by our Constitution.

Obama’s faith motivates him to give priority to the claims of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society: the unemployed, sick, disabled, children, and the elderly. Doing justice for all provides substance to the American dream—health care for all, improving the quality of public education, redistribution of a portion of the wealth concentrated among a small oligarchy, protection of the environment, and ending the war in Iraq in a responsible way.

Unlike many of his most prominent African-American ancestors, Barack Obama is a pragmatic politician rather than a prophet to the nation. The difference between a prophet and a politician was seen vividly last spring when the media and his opponents vilified his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright as an anti-American apostle of hatred. Political expediency forced this pragmatic politician to break a twenty-year friendship with the one who had mentored him into the African-American Christian tradition, officiated at his wedding, baptized him and his children.

A careful analysis of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons reveals him speaking the truth with the kind of vitriolic rhetoric that the Hebrew prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea used many centuries ago. The purpose of such rhetoric is to demonstrate the prophet’s passionate hatred for injustice. Clearly, the American political process neither welcomes nor affirms such prophetic advocates for justice.

Obama was forced to make a decision: either sacrifice Jeremiah Wright or sacrifice his campaign for the presidency. He chose the former. Prophets do not run for public office or if they do, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they do not get very far.

Unlike his African-American ancestors Obama has an unusual name, a unique biographical heritage, and he is not a descendent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like Martin Luther King Jr., however, he calls for the kind of change that reconciles opposing sides by respecting their differences while persuading them to act intelligently for the nation’s common good politically, economically, and socially. It is a message that is inspiring hope in hundreds of thousands of people across all the superficial boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender. When have we seen a politician running for office drawing crowds of 100,000 persons as Obama did in St. Louis over the weekend?

Most important, Obama’s campaign has caught the imagination of the nation. He is now within reach of becoming the next president. It seems almost surreal that he should have nearly 3.5 million contributors to the largest campaign treasury in history. This measure of mass support seems as miraculous as Nelson Mandela being released from prison, presiding over a new constitution, and becoming the first president of the new South Africa. None of us could have predicted that happening in our lifetime. Nor could any of us have predicted an African American becoming president of the United States in our lifetime.

Briefly, I would like to say two things about gender in this presidential campaign. I consider Sarah Palin’s appointment as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate to be a chauvinistic, abusive, self-serving act of an impetuous man. In this campaign she has been greatly exploited. Unfortunately, her personal ambition and narcissism have made her vulnerable and seemingly oblivious to such manipulation.

A half-century ago, any accusations about a black man by such a person to a large crowd of white men—euphemistically called six-packers, bikers, and hunters—would be the prelude for a lynching. Congressman John Lewis’ experience recently led him to draw such a comparison between the McCain/Palin rallies and the lynch mobs he witnessed in the South. McCain’s response was to call upon Obama to condemn Lewis for this observation. It would certainly be impossible to convince McCain that he and Sarah Palin have been race-baiting their audiences by depicting Obama as “not one of us.”

Finally, let me say that as a moral exemplar in the public realm, Obama stands in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. by not racializing the goal he pursues. His hoped-for victory will not be one for African Americans alone but for all Americans. His policies will not privilege African Americans but will address the needs of all Americans. As King’s accomplishments in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 fulfilled the promise implicit in the Emancipation Proclamation, so Barack Obama’s election to the presidency will begin the process of fulfilling the substance of King’s vision of a world community built on the principles of freedom, love, nonviolence, justice and hope.

The long-awaited national discussion on race has been forced upon us by the circumstances of this election and we eagerly await the final results.