Obama’s cardinal sin

Barack Obama didn’t realize he was breaking one of the cardinal rules of American political life–never speak honestly about guns, the military or religion.  Hillary Clinton knows this rule because she watched her husband live by it through several tempestuous decades of political life in Arkansas and Washington. 

Mr. Obama was asked why his campaign was having trouble gaining traction with working people.  The Illinois senator was in a relatively intimate setting and he decided, unwisely, to answer an honest question honestly.  Working people feel shut out of the political life of the nation, he said.  They work hard, but have little to show for it.  Factories close, jobs disappear and nobody in Washington seems to be paying attention.  “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Obama wasn’t suggesting that people go hunting when they get frustrated, or that folks turn to God in their hour of need.  He was suggesting that when people feel their backs pressed against the wall they separate the world into two camps: the familiar and the dangerous; us and them.  They lash out at the immigrants (legal and illegal) who are snapping up jobs that should be reserved for native Americans.  Just as they want a few guns in the home to repel intruders, they favor the use of force against America’s enemies. 

Most significantly, beleguered people typically embrace a dualistic, us-against-them religious vision.  The world is divided into the saints and the sinners; the saved and the damned; the children of light and the children of darkness.  America becomes the New Israel, and God protects her because she is the quintessential Christian nation.  

Thoroughgoing advocates of this worldview comprise a distinct minority; but in blue collar and lower middle class congregations, this defensive posture dominates, albeit in a somewhat diluted form.  Few pastors could survive more than a month or two if they were to denounce this worldview from the pulpit. Republicans get elected by merely hinting that they resonate with this us-against-them religious vision.  Preachers and politicians who disagree learn to keep their dirty little secret to themselves.

Hillary Clinton is making the most of her opponent’s faux pas.  She was raised with God and guns, she says, and is on good terms with both.  Obama is guilty of liberal elitism; he is talking down to the masses. 

In 1932, John D. Rockefeller asked Harvard’s William Earnest Hocking to head up a “Rethinking Missions” investigative study.  People like Pearl Buck were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional missionary model.  They didn’t want to convert people away from their inherited religions; they wanted to encourage creative dialogue between communities of faith.  Hocking envisioned a Christianity so big and comprehensive that the citizens of the world could call themselves Christians without rejecting their inherited religious beliefs. 

The idea didn’t play well in Peoria.  In fact, it created chaos within the mainline Christian denominations that participated in the Hocking-Rockefeller study.  From that day to this, every major Christian denomination has had a conservative wing constantly threatening to break away in protest.  Some have done it.  More evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists, have essentially excommunicated all those uncomfortable with the us-against-them religious vision. 

This helps explain why most Protestant pastors rarely speak honestly about religion unless the people in the pews are of a common mind.  They rarely are.  The United Churches of Christ, the liberal denomination to which Barack Obama belongs, endorses an inclusive religious outlook.  By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s United Methodists are deeply divided.  Seminary professors and denominational leaders generally favor gun control, a liberal immigration policy, urge extreme caution in the use of military force, and favor inter-religious dialogue over the traditional conversionist model of missions.  My guess is that Hillary Clinton (and her Baptist husband) share these convictions.  But wise Methodist pastors and Methodist politicians avoid these subjects.

When a small group of black and white residents stood up to a bogus drug bust in Tulia, Texas, we quickly learned that the criminal justice system is the ultimate expression of the us-against-them vision.  The defendants in Tulia were convicted without meaningful evidence because they were already outcasts, pariahs, “those people”, them.  Prison is the temporal equivalent of hell. 

The cancerous growth of prisons over the past quarter century cannot be explained by crime rates or public safety concerns alone; there is something deeper and more sinister at work.  Prison is now reserved for the portion of the population that cannot or will not adapt to the rigors of a highly competitive marketplace in which unskilled jobs have become an endangered species.  Our prisons are filled with the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol addicted, and high school drop outs.  The Children’s Defense Fund talks about a “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” specifically designed for children born into poor and socially chaotic environments. 

Ironically, those most deeply affected by the collapse of the old industrial economy who are most likely to favor prison expansion.

Hillary Clinton’s new status as a gun-toting, flag-waving, Bible-thumping American may win her a few votes on April 22nd, but it isn’t likely to convince genuine us-against-them enthusiasts if she is still around for the general election.  Bill Clinton dealt with an upsurge of us-against-themism in the 1990s by building prisons and pouring billions of dollars into the war on drugs.  The abject failure of these policies has created a backlash and Hillary Clinton now favors a more temperate approach.  In both cases, I fear, policy has been driven by political expediency.

By gently and compassionately critiquing the us-against-them mentality, Senator Obama has committed the cardinal sin of American politics.  Can he survive?  This is a serious question.  Ms. Clinton clearly tastes blood in the water and is moving in for the kill.  Much depends on whether Mr. Obama can reframe the debate.  In America, his options are limited, but I hope he gives it a shot.

Alan Bean