Obama, Race, Religion, and Slavery

I had been toying with the idea of writing a piece on Obama, his religion, and the legacy of slavery for some time. Recent questions about his attendance to the church of Rev. Wright appear to have brought the first two issues to boil for Obama as well, and delivered a masterful speech this week on race in America.

In terms of content, I have no problems with his comments. However, I think he still misses something important in his approach. Over a year ago when the question of Sen. Obama’s faith became an issue, I felt he inadequately addressed the question of his being Muslim, and I was not alone. My immediate response would have been that to call him a Muslim is insulting to Muslims and to Christians, and those who suggest he is a Muslim are ignorant of both traditions. Sen. Obama makes a terrible Muslim because he doesn’t believe in the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) and he believes in the divinity of Jesus (PBUH). However, both of these beliefs make him a good Christian. To imply that he dons the garb of a Christian insults the idea of Christianity as a faith of conviction, and demeans the sacrifices Christians make to practice their faith. Finally, Sen. Obama did come out, through surrogates, and say to call him a Muslim is really an insult to Muslims, and more importantly, even if he is a Muslim, so what? (see also Snopes and Kristof)

Now Sen. Obama is being attacked for his Christian church. At that moment I began to realize that the language we were hearing was the language of slavery. It is no longer appropriate to directly target people because of their race, but the new language is the same old language, the language of control. During the slave era exercise was exerted over slaves by controlling the most intimate and private parts of a slave’s life. This included family life and religion. The war against women is an extension of that type of control, but it now crosses racial boundaries. However, control of religious life is not reaching a new level of sophistication because Sen. Obama is proof that religion is not fully controlled by the reactionary class.

Over a third of all slaves brought to the US were Muslim. On one hand, these slaves were prized because they were literate, which is more than most slave owners could say. On the other hand, their faith was proof that they were not truly civilized and slavery was a great blessing to them as it offered them all the pleasures of civilization, including being introduced to Christianity, for only the price of their freedom. However, the Christianity that was offered to slaves was of a particular type. This Christianity justified slavery and taught turning the other cheek if you were weak and disenfranchised. Obey the master was the emphasis of this faith.

If you look at the arc of how religion is discussed regarding Sen. Obama, it is the language of slavery. He is well-educated and Muslim. He can be used for certain things, but it needs to be emphasized that he is not truly civilized; he is not like the reactionary class that controls so much of the conservative political discourse. However, Sen. Obama deflected that concern, if not deftly, at least well. Now his Christianity is being challenged as not being truly Christian. His faith is clearly not one of subservience; it is a faith that challenges the believer to make the world a better place. That challenge requires action, not quietude. Action is the wrong type of faith for a slave. Ultimately, that is what the discourse about Sen. Obama’s faith is about: slavery.

I don’t believe Sen. Obama directly addressed this point in his speech. He spoke of the legacy of slavery on blacks, but not on whites. He spoke of the victims of racism, but not of racists. I agree that not every white person is a racist, and there are complex reasons behind community breakdown that manifests as racial discord. However, slavery is the most direct manifestation of racism in this country, and while obvious racist language is no longer acceptable in the mainstream, the thought and language of slavery as a metonym for racism persists. The reason people of color have a memory of, and are subject to racism, is because there are racists. These racists are part of the reactionary class of pundits who envision an America where they are in power by virtue of being white males. (There are exceptions, such as those who wish to be taken care of by powerful white males, and by those who think that they can join the club of white males, but they are rare and obvious). In order to reach that level of power, women and people of color must be subjugated and their religious vision must reign supreme. Their God cannot love; their God can only hate.

This language of slavery permeates our discourse. Jeff Jacoby asks why Sen. Obama did not challenge Rev. Wright (h/t Dave Weinberger). However, he does not seem to challenge Sen. McCain’s embrace of Rev. Hagee, a hateful speaker if there was one. Black Christians are different from white Christians. The key difference is that language of slavery does not have space for positivist vision of America. Rev. Wright’s comments are poorly chosen, but they are embedded in a tradition of hope that sees something wrong and wants to fix it. The reactionary class sees something wrong with this country and says its because they don’t have complete control, and this need to be rectified by tearing down all that has been built in this country.

I wish that Sen. Obama recognized that when there is a victim, there is a perpetrator. If we wish to deal directly with questions of race, we need to understand the current language of racism and the role religion plays in that language.

3 thoughts on “Obama, Race, Religion, and Slavery

  1. I’m deeply troubled by Senator McCain’s connections with Reverend Hagee, for obvious reasons. Hagee’s theology is distressing to me, and on a meta-level I’m angry that so much attention has been paid to Senator Obama’s connection with Rev. Wright and not to Senator McCain’s connection with Rev. Hagee.
    Anyway. Thank you for this post.

  2. Thanks, my friend, for an excellent reading of the situation. I’ve written several things on race in the last few weeks – some of which were not well received when I cross-posted them.
    As far as Wright goes, I’ve heard worse. But if Clinton and McCain are going to berate Obama because of his pastor’s sermons, it seems like they should be willing to allow their pastors’ sermons to be scoured in the same fashion. However, I can’t find any information as to which congregation either attend. Clinton claims membership in the United Methodist Church and, I believe, McCain claims to be a Baptist – but where do they attend services?
    If it doesn’t matter, then shouldn’t they say that whenever someone brings up Rev. Wright?

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