Category: Barack Obama

Haunted by America

By Alan Bean

It’s 3:41 am, but sleep eludes me.  I am haunted by America.

A few hours ago I walked from the Supreme Court building to the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and back.  Along the way, I stopped by the Lincoln Memorial, wandering among the perennial tourists.  A pudgy white boy of nine or ten, stood on the steps beside me.  “Hey, Larry,” he called to his friend, “‘I have a dream.'”

Looking back across the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial, I remembered that day, almost fifty years ago now, when Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary sang and Martin delivered his iconic speech.  The great divide in American politics and religion is between those who remember that day in 1963 with a aching veneration, and those who regard Martin’s Dream Speech with an odd mixture of respect, dread and discomfort.

I grew up with King’s speeches.  In my native Canada, the great civil rights leader was regarded as latter day prophet, a civil rights hero.  My generation of Canadian youth defined itself in opposition to America and its war in Vietnam.  We were impressed by America, a nation with ten times our population and fifty times our military and economic clout.  There was no sense that the great nation to the south meant us any harm.  But we were mystified by Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and cold war zealotry.  At the height of the civil rights movement, two teachers from my home town of Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories took a summer trip through the American South.  They told us of an encounter with a lovely woman in Georgia who made her Negro maids eat in the kitchen because it was improper for white and black people to share a meal.  Our teachers were appalled by such sentiments.

Canadians, of course, have our own species of bigotry but, like the woman from Georgia, we were largely blind to the sins that beset us. (more…)

The “theology” of a Lubbock Judge puts Texas back in the spotlight

Lubbock County Judge Tom Head talks with Texas Governor Rick Perry earlier this year. Head made comments about President Barack Obama this week that is drawing reaction from both sides. (Stephen Spillman)
County Judge Tom Head greets the Governor

By Alan Bean

Lubbock County Judge Tom Head wasn’t looking for national publicity when he set up an interview with the local Fox affiliate.  Head just wanted to plug a 1.7% tax increase that would fund an expansion of the sheriff’s department and put more money at the disposal of the DA’s office.

But Tom Head is now famous, for the moment at least.  Perhaps the County Judge thought the voters needed a really good reason to open their wallets.  How about this scenario.  There’s a good chance that Barack Obama will get himself elected (God forbid), and if that happens we’re gonna have as an old time insurrection, right here in Lubbock County.  And Obama, he’s not gonna like that so he’s just likely to call in UN troops, an army of foreign occupation, and force his will on the good people of Lubbock County at gunpoint.  And if that happens, I’m gonna stand boldly in front of those UN personnel carriers and say, “You ain’t comin’ in here!

I am paraphrasing.  You can find Mr. Head’s exact words here (and in several thousand other places).  His paranoid screed went viral.

Lubbock attorney Rod Hobson (who helped shut down the ill-famed Tulia drug bust) was so impressed by the judge’s rhetoric that he hung a UN flag outside his office.  “When I saw the story I thought, once again, Lubbock is going to be the laughingstock of the entire nation,” Hobson told a local TV station. “What makes it so sad is he is our elected county judge, who is in charge of a multimillion-dollar budget. That is scary. It’s like the light’s on, but no one is home. … I’d just like to think he’s off his meds.”

A few days ago, Fort Worth columnist Bud Kennedy expressed his relief that Missouri’s Todd Akin was deflecting attention from notorious Texas weirdos.  This morning he admitted that the prurient interest of America has returned to the Lone Star State.  To put things in perspective, Kennedy offers a little background on Mr. Head.

Folks, please understand. In Texas, we don’t choose our county judges or commissioners based on any qualifications besides who’s good at dominoes.

In the orchard of targets for TV joke writers, Texas county officials are low-hanging fruit.

Head, 63, is an administrator with only a psychology degree. He worked first in law enforcement as a Texas Tech University campus officer and city marshal, then as an elected county justice of the peace.

He moved up to county judge in 1999 and led his own mini-rebellion against Obama in 2009, posting literature and cartoons mocking him on a hallway bulletin board before commissioners removed them.

One of the posters showed jail book-in photos of nine arrestees in Obama T-shirts. Seven were African-American.

Asked to explain himself to the Lubbock Avalanche-JournalHead boldly shared his Christian witness:

I cannot divorce my theology and my philosophy from my office.  I’m pro-life, I’m pro-gun rights and if you’re gonna vote for me and if you’re not for gun rights, then you probably don’t want me in office.

In other words, this isn’t a story about a single Loony-Tunes (check out his tie in the picture above) judge in West Texas–the voters of Lubbock County like this guy.

But wait a minute here, what possible connection could there be between Mr. Head’s “theology” and his paranoid take on Obama and the United Nations?

The judge is likely referring to Agenda 21, an uncontroversial fluff-document signed by 178 world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush, in 1992.  The idea was to encourage the efficient marshaling of scant natural resources in times of famine and natural disaster.  Or that’s what we originally thought.  Listen to Glenn Beck’s dispassionate take on Agenda 21:

Those pushing … government control on a global level have mastered the art of hiding it in plain sight, and then just dismissing it as a joke.  Once [internationalists] put their fangs into our communities and suck all the blood out of it, we will not be able to survive.

Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains the paranoid perspective on Agenda 21 in remarkably restrained language:

Under Agenda 21, these activists argue, the expansive American way of life, in which everyone can aspire to the dream of owning a house with a big yard and two cars in the driveway, will be replaced by one in which increasing numbers are crammed into urbanized “pack ’em and stack ’em” apartment complexes, and forced to use mass transportation and live according to a collectivist ethos. Once the UN’s radical utopia is achieved, gun ownership will be forbidden and the UN will raise an army intent on terrorizing the populace in the name of social order and equality, sustainability and smart growth — all words that anti-Agenda 21 activists believe signal the true intent of the UN’s plan.

The tattered remnants of the John Birch Society are all over this stuff, which would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that Tim LaHaye, author of bestselling “Left Behind” series, is a proud JBS stalwart.  LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins sprinkled Agenda 21 paranoia throughout their end times thrillers.  I distinctly recall sitting in a well-attended Sunday School class in Tulia, Texas (70 miles north of Lubbock) in which Mr. LaHaye’s eschatology was embraced as the gospel truth.

But this isn’t just about West Texas.  Texas is riddled with Anti-UN nuttiness.  Ted Cruz, the man expected to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison as Texas Senator, is mad as hell about the imminent UN destruction of American sovereignty.  In the mind of Ted Cruz, the Antichrist is George Soros, but the general thrust mirror’s the views of Beck. Cruz recently printed this rant on his personal blog:

Agenda 21 attempts to abolish “unsustainable” environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads. It hopes to leave mother earth’s surface unscratched by mankind. Everyone wants clean water and clean air, but Agenda 21 dehumanizes individuals by removing the very thing that has defined Americans since the beginning—our freedom.

Cruz is particularly concerned that the UN plans to abolish the game of golf.

All of which explains how a simple-minded Texas judge could see opposition to a US president and an innocuous (and largely meaningless) UN document as theological issues.  When the saints of God are raptured to heaven and the Antichrist (known as Nicolae Carpathia to Left Behind enthusiasts) comes to power, United Nations troops will spring to his assistance.

How do we explain this craziness?  Or maybe it isn’t crazy.  When the majority of people in a given locale (say, Lubbock, Texas) share a common delusion maybe it’s the unbelievers who are crazy.  Who gets to define normal?

Tom Head’s fears about Barack Obama reflect the deep dread many Americans feel about the future.  Where are we heading?  What is happening to America?  What’s it all about, Alfie?

How else do we explain the Tea Party’s undimmed enthusiasm for free market fundamentalism?  After the financial industry lied and swindled the world to the brink of financial catastrophe, how can anyone believe in the natural goodness of unregulated markets?

Because it’s all we have.  If the free market won’t save us, who will?  If the free market won’t save us, the glory that was America disappears.  It’s Ichabod time!

How do we explain why a great nation like the United States of America has a crumbling infrastructure and can’t pay its bills when the folks in collectivist dystopias like Canada, Norway and South Korea seem to be faring so much better?

We could blame the fact that we spend more on defense than all the other nations of earth combined.  We could point to our bloated prison system.  We could acknowledge that America is now a wholly owned subsidiary of a consortium of international corporations.

But that doesn’t sit right somehow.

How much better to believe that America has been hijacked by ultra-liberal socialist big-spenders like Barack Obama who give their true loyalty to Allah and/or a One World dictatorship.  That way, we simply turn the reins over to pro-business folks like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz and an unregulated market will gradually drag us back to prosperity.

Sound good?

If you’re Tom Head, it does.

Is “evangelical” a white word?

Molly Worthen

By Alan Bean

Molly Worthen’s NYT essay on the social cleavage between white and black evangelicals is a statement of the obvious and a work of art.

Worthen teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her writing reflects a deep understanding of evangelicals black and white.

The term “evangelical”, in its common usage, refers exclusively to white folks.  This may be the best explanation for a curious fact: only 35% of Americans in a recent Barna poll correctly identified Barack Obama’s religious faith as Christian.  Ask African-Americans about Obama’s religion and I suspect over 95% would get it right.  So I can’t help but wonder about the results from Caucasian respondents.  My guess is that fewer than 25% of white people know that Obama is a Christian.

If we use political affiliation as a rough proxy for race (which, tragically, it is) the figures are interesting.  52% of Democrats know that Obama is a Christian (African-American respondents likely skewed this figure upward); but only 29% of Independents and 24% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Christian (with 18% believing he is a Muslim). (more…)

Southern Baptists poised to elect a black president; is this significant?

The Rev. Fred Luter is running unopposed for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here, he delivers a sermon during Sunday services at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
The Rev. Fred Luter

The Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first African-American president.  Is this a big deal, or a cynical ploy?

Neither, really.

As this Morning Edition article makes clear, Fred Luter isn’t just a prominent African-American preacher; he’s a transformational figure who stuck with his New Orleans congregation when the sanctuary washed away with Hurricane Katrina.  Luter is that rarest of preachers, a man who rose from the streets, understands poverty, and spikes his call to conversion with a strong dose of compassion.

In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just placing a token black man in an honorary position to deflect attention from the denomination’s racist past; Luter rose to prominence the hard way and deserves all the accolades he is receiving.

But there is another side to the story embodied in the passionate minority report filed by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.  McKissic is as theologically conservative as a Southern Baptist can be.  He preaches against “the gay lifestyle” with notorious gusto, but he is even more passionate about racial injustice. 

Fred Luter notwithstanding, Rev. McKissic sees little evidence that the moral fervor of the overwhelmingly white SBC “messengers” who will attend this year’s convention extends to civil rights.  

This impression was reinforced in a particularly painful way when Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, launched into a racially tinged radio rant that made him sound like the reincarnation of George Wallace circa 1962. 

Land lost his radio program over his diatribe (largely because his racist comments turned out to be an unacknowledged quote from an obscure right-wing zealot), but he kept his post with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  Land has apologized for dismissing prominent civil rights preachers as “race hustlers” and suggesting that Barack Obama only addressed the Trayvon Martin case in a desperate attempt to improve his standing with black voters. 

Is Richard Land truly repentant?  McKissic is hedging his bets.  And for good reason.

As law professor Michelle Alexander points out, New Jim Crow racism differs markedly from Old Jim Crow bigotry.  Richard Land has renounced his denomination’s support for Old Jim Crow segregation and the overt commitment to white supremacy that was part of that package.  But when it comes to the New Jim Crow realities associated with mass incarceration and the creation of a black male undercaste, the high-profile Baptist preacher is essentially clueless. 

As Michelle Alexander points out, you can’t understand the dynamics of the New Jim Crow unless you are willing to sympathize with the plight of poor young black men who are making all the mistakes Fred Luter made as a young man on the mean streets of New Orleans.  Luter loves these guys, even as he laments key features of their lifestyle.  So does Dwight McKissic.  White Baptists like Richard Land has come to terms with a long-dead Martin Luther King Jr., but isn’t ready to acknowledge the full human dignity of the pre-conversion Fred Luter.

For savvy black Baptists in the SBC like Dwight McKissic, that’s a big problem.

Southern Baptists See Their Future In A Black Pastor

NPR

June 19, 2012

The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to elect its first black president on Tuesday: Fred Luter, a former street preacher who turned a dying New Orleans church into a powerhouse. His election is a milestone for the 167-year-old denomination at a time when minorities make up a growing share of a shrinking membership.

Luter, who is running unopposed for president of the nation’s largest Protestant body, is a departure from his predecessors. He was the middle child of a divorced mother, and until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God.

Then God changed him, he told NPR earlier this year.

“I grew up in the ‘hood, and my mom worked two or three jobs. So I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done,” Luter said. “And so, when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing.”

Soon, Luter was preaching on the streets in New Orleans. In 1986, he was invited to take over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Under him, its congregation grew from a couple of dozen people to 7,000 — the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, destroying the sanctuary.

“It would have been easy for Fred Luter to have said, ‘I think God’s calling me elsewhere,’ ” says Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “And he could have gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country.

“And yet, he stayed,” Moore says. “And he stood with the people of New Orleans and said, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll rebuild’ — and became a spiritual anchor.”

‘The Future Of The Country Is Urban’

Luter’s decision to stay, and his personal charisma, propelled him to national prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention, says pastor David Crosby.

Crosby leads First Baptist of New Orleans, which shared its space with Luter’s congregation while they rebuilt. He adds that Luter brings something else desperately needed to this denomination, which has seen its numbers drop: He understands how to reach the only growth area of religion.

“The future of the country is urban; the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban,” Crosby says. “We’ve got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively.”

The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was “as white as a tractor pull,” as one critic put it. Now it’s 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter’s election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.

“It’s as historic a moment as Southern Baptists have had,” Land says, “because the president of SBC is not just an honorific — it is a position of real power.”

Maybe — and maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

‘A Historic Moment’

“This is a great job, but it’s somewhat symbolic and ceremonial,” he says.

McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.

Some say there’s a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land’s radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.

“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election,” Land said on the air.

“It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” McKissic says. “It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.”

Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.

“I don’t want anything I’ve said, or any mistakes I’ve made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice,” he says.

Luter has forgiven Land; he says it’s time to look forward. He notes that if he’s elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.

“It won’t be because of the handful of black folk that’s going to be there,” Luter says. “So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing.”

NAACP rallies behind the president on marriage equality

By Alan Bean
Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he favors marriage equality was a game changer.
Nearly 60 percent of African Americans report supporting marriage equality according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, up a remarkable 20 points from about 40 percent in similar polling earlier this year.
You would have seen a similar shift among white conservatives if, say, Ronald Reagan had suddenly come out for an easing of the war on drugs.
Most of us aren’t at all confident in our grasp of moral issues and tend to take our lead from a small cadre of respected opinion leaders.  Obama’s “evolution” on the gay marriage issue won’t impact Tea Party types because, in their eyes, the president doesn’t qualify as an opinion leader.
There is an odd dance, of course, between opinion leaders and the constituencies they influence.  If you get too far ahead of the parade, you may glance over your shoulder and notice that no one is following.  But gay marriage, as an issue, has finally come of age and when that happens, public opinion can shift quickly.
I find it interesting that only two NAACP board members objected to the group’s decision to endorse the principle of marriage equality since the Black church has traditionally taken a conservative stance on the issue.
But, as Pastor Amos C. Brown notes in this article from the Associated Baptist Press, the perception that some on the right hoped to use the gay marriage issue to win support among African-Americans played a large role in the sudden shift in Black opinion.  It is one thing to be disappointed in your president; it is something else altogether to vote for the opposition.  You may be screaming mad at the quarterback; but cheering for the other team is out of the question.
People of color tend to empathize with the GLBT community for the same reason American Jews were disproportionately supportive of the civil rights movement; they’ve seen this movie before.

Pastor Defends NAACP Marriage Stance

The NAACP voted overwhelmingly May 19 to oppose “any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.”

By Bob Allen

Associated Baptist Press

A Baptist minister and board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said May 26 it would have been hypocritical for the 103-year-old civil-rights organization not to pass its recent resolution supporting marriage equality.

Amos C. Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s local NAACP branch, is a member of the organization’s national board of directors, which voted May 19 to oppose “any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.” (more…)

Super PAC ad exploits white ignorance of black church

By Alan Bean

I frequently tell audiences how our family was virtually excommunicated from polite society when we questioned a corrupt drug bust in Tulia, Texas.  I write about this bewildering experience in my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.  In the eyes of respectable, church-going folk, we were just flat wrong.  From this mainstream perspective, our stand looked crazy, illogical, and possibly even demonic.

Moral perception involves a subtle interplay between personal experience and community narrative, the value-laden stories we grow up listening to.  The Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story is a classic example of a value-laden story; so is the story of Rosa Parks, the Black seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus.  Community narratives are the stories that define a culture.  If you are part of the culture, you hear the stories. 

Both personal experience and community narrative vary tremendously from culture to culture.  In Black communities, for instance, children grow up hearing stories about the need to persevere in the face of prejudice and rejection.  Personal experiences are interpreted through a narrative lens fashioned by this community narrative.  “Oh, so that’s what daddy was talking about,” we tell ourselves.

In White culture, community narrative tends to validate authority figures and the social status quo.  “Police officers are there to protect you, Johnny,” White parents tell their children, “so you shouldn’t be afraid of them.  I know that gun looks scary, but he will only use it on the bad guys.”  In general, personal experience bears out this expectation.

You hear very different stories in Black and Latino communities.  Authority figures aren’t demonized in the moral narratives that circulate in minority communities, but they are viewed with a measure of suspicion.  You don’t always call the police when something bad goes down on the street; innocent people might get hurt.  And when a family member is facing trial no one expects equal justice.  Personal experience tends to validate this community narrative.

One consequence of being excommunicated from Tulia’s respectable white community was spending a lot of time with Black and Latino residents.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Albuquerque witnessing a debate between Asa Hutchison of the Drug Enforcement Administration and New Mexico governor Garry Johnson.  We were primarily there to talk to both sides about what was happening in Tulia.

The planes hit the Twin Towers just as we were packing for our return trip and we listened to updates on public radio all the way back to Tulia.  In the van with me were several members of Tulia’s black community, most of them associated with the Church of Christ.  They were appalled by events in Manhattan, but they weren’t surprised.  In fact, they wondered why it had taken so long.  A simple phrase was repeatedly endlessly, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

I thought of that road trip seven years later when Jeremiah’s incendiary rhetoric played a central role in the electoral campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama.  “No, no, no,” Wright roared, “Not ‘God bless America.  “God damn America.”

When I first saw the clip of Reverend Wright in full cry I was reminded of Billy Graham’s remark that if God didn’t punish America He would have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Wasn’t Jeremiah Wright saying much the same thing?

Yes and no.  When Billy Graham suggested that the wrath of God would soon fall on America he was speaking out of the moral narrative he grew up hearing in Baptist circles in North Carolina.  Like ancient Israel, America is called to be a chosen people, a city set upon a hill.  But we will only be blessed insofar as we remain faithful to our calling.  Our tolerance for lewd music, R-rated movies, gambling and general debauchery is a rejection of our Godly birthright and will inevitably lead to divine judgment.

Jeremiah Wright was thinking of a different community narrative when he delivered his infamous sermon in the wake of 9-11.  America flatters itself as a beacon of democracy, but we prop up tin pot dictators in to enhance the profits of multinational corporations even if it spells untold suffering for millions of people.  Did we think God would turn a blind eye to such cruel hypocrisy forever?

Graham and Wright applied the same Deuteronomic logic to very different facts.  One was lionized for speaking hard truths; the other was demonized as an anti-American racist.  Until you step into a Black barber shop and ask the brothers for their take. 

From the dominant White perspective (liberal and conservative) Jeremiah Wright was talking crazy.  How could anyone be so insensitive in the wake of the worst national disaster in recent memory? 

This explains why a super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts plans to use the president’s historic ties to Jeremiah Wright to bring about ‘The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama’.   The assumption is that Wright’s “God Damn America” rhetoric is so extreme that White Democrats will dissociate from the president while Black America will be silenced. 

If this ad airs (and since a prototype has been leaked to the media, there is a chance it may not) Black America will not take it lying down.  Instead, attempts will be made to humanize Reverend Wright by placing his remarks in social and historical context.  

I hope the ad envisioned in the prototype never materializes; but if it does, the moral divide separating Black and White America will be more apparent than it has been since the halcyon days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Franklin Graham and the black-white gap in American evangelicalism

Franklin Graham impersonates his famous father

By Alan Bean

I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.

Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?

Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.

I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.

Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals.  Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.

Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests.  True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism.  (more…)