Further Reflections on a Historic Election

A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.

Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.

As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.

My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.

By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.

Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.

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Brief Reflections on an Historic Election

Today is Election Day and I am NOT watching the returns on TV. I cast my vote during early voting and am just waiting to find out who will take the job of president for the next four years, barring any unforeseen circumstances. I am however grateful that this long election cycle has come to an end.

I have ling been an avid follower of politics and this year has been no exception. I have always voted and consider myself well informed as to the issues. I am also interested in the political game itself, and have some personal reflections on things that have happened this cycle which are somewhat disturbing to me as a believer.

Race – It must be said that racial politics have loomed exceedingly large in this election. Many people are intrigued by Obama’s campaign and the symbolic nature of electing a Black man (really bi-racial) to the White House. It seems to me though that he and his campaign have brought this issue up (along with the media) far more than his opponents, which may complicate race relations going forward. Electing a Black man as president does not magically address issues of economic disparity among the Black populace in this country.

Gender – I have for the first time in my Black life had my eyes opened to the prevalence of gender discrimination and bias on a wide scale. First against Hillary Clinton I watched and heard people disparage her campaign for reasons only tangentially related to politics, and then in more personal contexts, I have seen people justify a vote for Obama on the “issues” when he and Sen. Clinton have similar policy platforms. Some of these same people are choking over the prospect of Gov. Palin being VP due to a perceived lack of “experience” though Obama has less experience than she does. This is alongside all kinds of other slights, insults, subtle put downs and blatant stereotyping that has gone largely unreported and un-commented on by the media.

Media – the American media is the vaunted fourth branch of government and is supposed to present information so that American voters can make informed decisions about candidates. This year, people on many sides of the political spectrum and independent analysis has demonstrated a blatant disregard for journalistic integrity from the major media outlets. Gotcha journalism has replaced investigation and politicians are permitted to make randomly erroneous statements without the least challenge from the media. It was clear in 2000 and even more clear today that media are not interested in effective journalism, but in what will sell and in promoting their own biases and narratives as “fact” to the American public. This is a danger to our democracy as we are dependent upon an independent and objective media in order to effectively participate in our political system.

Finally I can say that I am fairly disappointed overall. The election season that was supposed to be above the usual political fray has been the most divisive in my memory. Irresponsible charges of racism, unreported instances of misogyny, electoral and voter fraud, sexist and racist paraphernalia have proliferated and I do not believe this will be easily mended, though I think it could have if:

– both candidates had stuck to their commitment to receive public financing, thereby reducing the role of money and the appearance of “buying” the election
– both campaigns early and often condemned and restrained irresponsible race baiting and sexism
– both campaigns gave full disclosure to their histories and associations rather than lying or seeking to explain away uncomfortable facts.
– the media recognized and reported on the reality that the election will be historic no matter who wins; it is a HUGE deal that a woman could be VP, but that has been consistently downplayed.