Joseph Lane: Ok, There’s Jeremiah Wright, but What About John Hagee, Pat Robertson?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Joseph Lane is the Hawthorne Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Emory & Henry.]

Jonathan Martin writes in The Politico that some Republican operatives think that the discovery of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory sermons suggest that Barack Obama may be a much easier candidate to defeat in the general election than they first suspected. In Martin’s interviews with the Republicans who orchestrated the attacks on Harold Ford and Max Cleland, they claim that they can now paint Senator Obama as the angry black man, tied closely to the black power movement and hostile to white America. If this proves to be the Republican attack plan, we should all note that this approach could backfire with deep problems for the GOP and more to the point, could poison American politics for another decade or longer. No one should ignore either prospect.

On so many fronts, John McCain is the best possible candidate the Republicans could nominate. As a maverick who can distance himself from both President Bush and the widely reviled GOP congressional majority of 2003-2007, he could appeal to many constituencies and some swing states that a Romney or Huckabee campaign would have been forced to write off. However, when we consider the possible “Jeremiad Wars,” McCain has an unprotected flank.

His relationship with the most inflammatory leaders of the Christian Right is strained, and they are suspicious of his loyalties. When he rebuked an otherwise little known Christian conservative talk show host in Ohio, he was forced to endure a weeklong firestorm of denunciation from conservatives who saw any criticism as a sign that McCain was not really one of them.

However, it is foolish to think that we will have a campaign in which the Jeremiads of the Left, as exemplified by Reverend Wright, will constantly cited as evidence of Obama’s disloyalty without the Republican candidate being asked (again, and again, and again) whether he will denounce the Jeremiads of the Right: John Hagee’s suggestion that Katrina was retribution for the “sexuality” of New Orleans, Pat Robertson and others who have suggested that the U.S. deserved 9/11 because we had strayed from God’s path into the sinful ways of the “homosexual agenda,” and the lords of Bob Jones University whose segregationist view of the Bible repudiates any intermixture of whites with the “Sons of Ham.” Each in their own way, and many others, have deeply disturbing readings of the interaction between God’s views of sin and the progress of American history in which “God damns” America for ignoring His laws, refusing to help His chosen peoples, or coddling His enemies.

McCain cannot craft any suitable answer to these questions. If he refuses to condemn the ministers of intolerance in his party, the critique of Obama will soon ring hollow as little more than partisan opportunism. If he does so vociferously, he will reopen the rifts that he has tried so hard to close during the last month.

Furthermore, even leaving aside the possibility that he would be asked in debate after debate to renounce Falwell, Robertson, Bob Jones, et al., we would have to expect that if Reverend Wright’s theology is at issue in the campaign, right-wing Christian leaders (especially those with a very racialized view of the gospels) would want Senator McCain to go after Wright and Obama in the type of indignant, heavily theological language with which the GOP candidate is both uncomfortable and clumsy. This campaign will not work for him.

More importantly, however, the anti-Jeremiad campaign would be a disaster for American politics. As the Philadelphia speech amply shows, Senator Obama does not have a simplistic view of the complex and tragic ironies that plague American political culture. To his credit, neither does Senator McCain.

We have (and this is a rarity in American politics) at least two candidates who have espoused nuanced views of very deep-seated problems that plague the United States (e.g. McCain on immigration policy). Thus far, at least in the messages and promises of their campaigns, both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have proven willing to challenge important constituencies in their respective parties, but there are forces in each party who want to draw them back to the wings, to reframe their messages into the comforting dichotomies of us v. them, black v. white, the patriotic v. the treasonous, and the right v. the wrong that make American politics easy but ugly, dichotomies that consistently undermine the real business of negotiating solutions to our most pressing problems.

Senator Obama’s speech at Philadelphia offers the prospect, however hazy and remote, of something better – the idea that we might understand those of whom we are suspicious, envious, and afraid, that we might come to appreciate the fears of others and frame policies together in a way that will transcend the reliance on the demonization and bigoted attacks that are leveled at groups of people based on their mischaracterizations of their opponent’s motives and based on the assertion that “those types of people are just that way.”

If it ultimately fails to defuse a political culture that makes every decision on the simplistic notion that you must be either with Jeremiah Wright (or John Hagee, or Pat Robertson) or against them, we have reason to be worried about the prospects for American democratic self-government.
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