Unmasking the Intention Behind the “Unmasking” of Obama

In last Sunday’s New York Times, op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof said the accusations that Barack Obama is a Muslim aren’t so much religious slander as they are an attempt to “Otherize” the Democratic candidate. 

Writing from “a sense of personal responsibility,” Kristof pointed his finger at journalists who serve  as enablers of this subtly racist strategy.

Kristof aptly points out that in trying to prove that Obama is a Muslim, “Muslim” itself becomes a negative.  “As it that in itself were wrong,” he says.

In a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 13 percent of registered voters said Obama is a Muslim, compared with 12 percent in June and 10 percent in March. What’s more, the study found that only half of Americans polled know for certain that Obama is a Christian.

The religious mudslinging becomes a political tool to disguise underlying racism towards the candidate—a tactic that Kristof calls an attempt to “de-Americanize” Obama.

Journalist Marty Kaplan described this “de-Americanization” in a column titled “But he’s a Muslim!” that ran in The Jewish Journal a few weeks ago:

“To enough voters that it matters for the outcome of this election, Muslims are as other, if not more so, as blacks. A Muslim running for president of the United States may just as well be the Manchurian Candidate, with al-Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Saudis, your-Islamic-bad-guys’-name-here, playing the role of the brainwashing North Koreans nefariously plotting to plant one of their own in the White House.”

Though Kristof underscores that McCain himself hasn’t raised doubts about Obama’s religion, in a recent TV ad sponsored by the McCain campaign, Obama is implicated not as a Muslim but as the Antichrist, as images of parting seas are paired with a voice-over declaring, “It should be known that in 2008, the world will be blessed. They will call him ‘The One.'”

Some bloggers have picked up on this idea. One blog—Is Barack Obama the Messiah?—even sells T-shirts and pins with “Messiah 2008” stamped above a photo of the candidate.

In a recent posting on Beliefnet.com, Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical Democrat who started Common Good Strategies, a consulting firm that helps Democrats reach out to Christian communities, describes the McCain ad as playing to the basest elements of human nature.  Vanderslice, who was the Director of Religious Outreach for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and the first national religious outreach liaison for a presidential candidate, scorns the McCain ad:

“…This ad implies that those who plan to support Senator Obama are looking for a new savior or replacement Messiah…How low can we go? It shows the McCain campaign is willing to make a mockery of our faith to feed people’s fears.”

Vanderslice touches on the most intriguing aspect of the ad – why would the McCain camp misappropriate religious imagery for political gain? What advantage outweighs the risk of offending viewers for whom talk of a Messiah is serious business?

Kristof hits the nail on the head:

“Religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian.”

When Obama appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” he tried to address the rumors about his being Muslim, sarcastically mentioning what he called “My Muslim faith.”  Within hours, that segment of the interview was posted on YouTube under headings such as “Proof Obama is a Muslim.”

Journalists, Kristof says, must do more than simply enable the racist impulses behind these political narratives.

“Journalists need to do more than call the play-by-play this election cycle. We also need to blow the whistle on egregious fouls calculated to undermine the political process and magnify the ugliest prejudices that our nation has done so much to overcome.”

Whether those prejudices are religious or racial – or both – reporters need to see through the coding and stop writing stories that perpetuate the problem.

This post first appeared on The Scoop.