1. The Chickens Come Home to Roost -- But Not for the GOP
In the mad, mad world of politicians competing to out-Jesus each other, the chickens come home to roost -- but only for those without the Jesus Shield. The architects of the Republican Party's 30-year project to consolidate the conservative evangelical vote have been the country's most outlandish conservative (and hypocritical) figures, but in our flag-lapel-pin-wearing, my-walk-with-Jesus-immunizes-me-from-criticism environment, they are given a free pass.
Sen. Barack Obama could not have been so naïve to think that a black presidential candidate who took a spiritual sojourn with a black liberation theologian would not be placed under a right-wing media microscope. Perhaps when he was running for statewide office in Illinois, and needed to have what Tulane University sociologist Shayne Lee, in an interview a couple of weeks ago, described as the "tremendous cachet" of being connected to the popular Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama didn't give it a second thought. For a national campaign, though, it's nothing but political trouble -- even though Wright performed the magic act that all politicians crave these days: he brought Obama to Jesus. But Wright could never give Obama the Jesus Shield.
This year, even the Republican nominee isn't evangelical -- although Sen. John McCain shed his Episcopalian skin and joined a Baptist church in Phoenix -- and both parties are intent on capturing the votes of evangelicals, who are looking for a new political home in the post-Bush era. But with the scramble to add Jesus to the list of campaign advisers reaching an obscenely calculated apex this year, the right -- which has controlled the Jesus Shield to date -- shows that it remains the dominant arbiter of who really knows Jesus, and who might be a closet traitor.
Obama realized, perhaps too late, that Wright could prove controversial, and sought to appease white and black evangelicals alike last year by naming T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren as his Christian role models. Both pastors are the face of the acceptable kind of megachurch, black and white, and are seen as this generation's standard-bearers for the evangelical movement. Jakes is the enormously popular black prosperity televangelist whose personal rags-to-riches tale is intended to demonstrate the power of faith to overcome poverty. In a way, this narrative makes Jakes the anti-Wright: No questioning of the powers that be; a higher power provides all. And Warren, despite his conventional portrayal as a compassionate moderate, joined hands earlier this year with some of the country's most reactionary moral crusaders to try to torpedo the global AIDS reauthorization because it was insufficiently fixated on abstinence and -- gasp! -- proposed offering HIV/AIDS treatment and contraception at the same clinic.
None of this dancing with the stars could release Obama from Wright as easily as McCain switched churches to put up his own Jesus Shield. McCain's religious pandering to controversial conservative figures is, of course, de rigeur for Republicans and barely even worth mentioning -- the very definition of the Jesus Shield. But Obama's relationship with Wright was seen as shocking, inflammatory evidence of treasonous inclinations. With a few angry Wright sermons, a lot of editing, and a big nudge by a McCain operative, the black guy with the funny name (and the scary middle name) is suddenly suspect. Not one of us, but The Other.
Americans "have always been good at Other-izing these groups, such as the Jews, such as the Catholic Church. Such as Muslims, that's all the rage now," says Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, and an expert on African-American religion. "But Americans have never been equally as comfortable indicting America itself ... Other-ize something, you place it outside of what it means to be American. And so thus when someone begins to give a scathing attack of America ... then it becomes uncomfortable."
The Christian right has been built on Other-izing: gay people, Muslims, liberals, and, in private moments, their supposedly good friends the Jews. But unlike Wright's statements, media attention on these controversies is fleeting at best.
2. Speaking of Other-izing the Jews ...
Let's take a walk down media memory lane, back to the pages of the New York Times, March 17, 2002, during the first term of George W. Bush, just one in a long line of American presidents to claim the Rev. Billy Graham as a spiritual mentor:
It seemed impossible, when H. R. Haldeman's White House diaries came out in 1994, that the Rev. Billy Graham could once have joined with President Richard M. Nixon in discussing the ''total Jewish domination of the media.'' Could Mr. Graham, the great American evangelist, really have said the nation's problem lies with ''satanic Jews,'' as Mr. Nixon's aide recorded?
Heavens. Say it isn't so. The article continues,
Mr. Graham's sterling reputation as a healer and bridge-builder was so at odds with Mr. Haldeman's account that Jewish groups paid little attention, especially because he denied the remarks so strongly. ''Those are not my words,'' Mr. Graham said in a public statement in May 1994. ''I have never talked publicly or privately about the Jewish people, including conversations with President Nixon, except in the most positive terms.''
Could it be that the press gave Graham a pass? Now that would be a shocker, wouldn't it?
It goes on:
That was the end of the story, it seemed, until two weeks ago, when the tape of that 1972 conversation in the Oval Office was made public by the National Archives. Three decades after it was recorded, the North Carolina preacher's famous drawl is tinny but unmistakable on the tape, denigrating Jews in terms far stronger than the diary accounts.
''They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,'' Mr. Graham said on the tape, after agreeing with Mr. Nixon that left-wing Jews dominate the news media. The Jewish ''stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain,'' he continued, suggesting that if Mr. Nixon were re-elected, ''then we might be able to do something.''
Finally, Mr. Graham said that Jews did not know his true feelings about them.
''I go and I keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal at The New York Times and people of that sort, you know,'' he told Mr. Nixon, referring to A. M. Rosenthal, then the newspaper's executive editor. ''And all -- I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.''
Graham initially claimed not to remember making the statements. Later he continued to plead ignorance or memory loss, repudiated the statements, and asserted his "love" of the Jewish people. But he was proved both a liar and a closet anti-Semite. And nobody, not a single politician, has ever had to give a speech about that.
Sally Quinn at the Washington Post raised the issue of Graham's anti-Semitism in several forums last week, including at her On Faith feature on Post's Web site and on MSNBC, but Graham's Jesus Shield continued to deflect all media attention to Wright.
3. .. And Other-izing Muslims
At first, no one noticed (except for the Columbus Dispatch and TAPPED) that McCain had danced with Christian dominionist and anti-everyone-else Pentecostal bad boy Rod Parsley just before the Ohio primary. Two weeks later, David Corn eagle-eyed a singularly bigoted statement out of one of Parsley's books, a statement as unsurprising to right-wingers steeped in the language of what Michelle Goldberg calls Christian nationalism as Wright's statements were to many blacks.
I've followed Parsley for three years; I've tried to catch up on Wright over the past couple of weeks. The entire body of Parsley's work -- and not just one or two sentences -- demonstrates that anti-Islamic bigotry is part and parcel of the dominionism that animates the religious right. In my 2005 piece for the Prospect, I quoted Parsley as saying, "I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam." Parsley is dangerous not just because he's a bigot, but because he motivates the shock troops to believe they're locked in spiritual warfare with Satan (and therefore should fight real wars), that they should fund Parsley's ministry to aid the fight, and vote for candidates who pledge to fight, too.
In God's Profits, I show how this spiritual warfare with Islam fits with the dominionist project of mythologizing America as a "Christian nation." At a conference intended to promote that mythology, televangelist Kenneth Copeland told the audience that "Islamofascists" are attacking Jesus personally. Defending America, then, is about defending Jesus. As Parsley told followers at the launch of his Reformation Ohio project (which aims to convert non-Christians to Christianity) in 2005: "Man your battle stations, ready your weapons, lock and load. Let the reformation begin." He was accompanied by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, and then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. But a right-wing preacher calling for war within our own culture is, apparently, just ho-hum. Parsley continued to be viewed as a rising star to watch and admire.
4. The Thirty-Year Itch
McCain's defenders say that he only recently stepped onto the Parsley/Hagee spiritual guidance bandwagon and hasn't attended Parsley's or Hagee's church for 20 years like Obama has attended Wright's. But McCain's relationship with Parsley and Hagee is part of an even longer and more insidious project, dating back to the 1970s, undertaken by the Republican Party to marry the religious right for its votes. Republicans have succeeded in making this alliance an accepted fact of American politics, in spite of mountains of loony sermons and speeches, scandals beyond human decency, and a hypocritical distortion of the Gospels into a handbook on how to bring down your political enemies for imagined sins while you become an expert on committing real ones yourself.
Mike Huckabee, who has managed with Zelig-like panache to at once embrace the religious right and reject it, was the only conservative to come to Wright's defense, urging his audience to "cut some slack to people who grew up being called names." But perhaps Huckabee is just forestalling the time when somebody finally, despite Herculean efforts to keep them under lock and key, releases one of his old sermons into the YouTube.
5. Evangelicals Against Gay Marriage: Not Going Away
Last week, a group called the Alliance for Marriage Foundation wrote letters to both political parties, urging the Republican Party to retain its platform language favoring a constitutional amendment to define legal marriage as heterosexual, and urging the Democratic Party to adopt the same. Signed by Niger Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (and one of the leaders said to represent the emerging "evangelical center"), the coalition portrays itself a multi-religious, multi-cultural group which "believe[s] in defending marriage's legal status, and especially for the sake of our children."
Then Innis and Rodriguez proceed to scapegoat gay people, something the "new evangelical center" claims to eschew:
At least 25 million American children -- more than one of every three -- are currently being raised in a broken home. This is not only a disaster for these children; it's a disaster for our society. Our most serious social problems -- from youth crime to dropout rates -- track far more closely with family breakdown than they do with other social variables like race or poverty. If we are to rebuild a culture of intact families in America, we also must defend the legal status of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Sounds like 2004, doesn't it?