Race, Religion, and the Election
The New Year began with bang. When it comes to presidential politics, we certainly saw some new beginnings. Sen. Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African American to win in Iowa, making him the clear front-runner (well, at least for a week or so). But after Sen. Clinton won New Hampshire, not only did it become clear that this would be one of the most interesting and most-watched presidential races in history, something else rose to the surface. We were reminded that while this may be a year of new beginnings, some things have not changed.
After Sen. Clinton won New Hampshire, pundits and reporters began to raise questions about race and if, in the privacy of the voting booth, white people would not vote for a black man. Now it is clear from the results in Iowa and the support that Sen. Obama has been receiving from people of all races since the beginning of his campaign, that he is perceived by many as a candidate who transcends race. It's clear that for many people, a candidate's race is not their major concern. However, given the media's fascination with race-based on the outcome in New Hampshire and their inability to find a rational answer for the turn of events-some assumed it must be Obama's race. The reality is that we do not live in a colorblind society, because if we did there would have been no need to point out that Sen. Obama made history as the first black man to win in Iowa.
This got me thinking about the role that race plays in religion, the most intimate and personal aspect of our lives. Just yesterday I was asked by a reporter what I thought about how the religious community would respond on Feb. 5. Well, we have all heard it said over and over that church on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Churches, like our public schools and neighborhoods are still, in general, very segregated.
Even religious leaders and those aspiring to lead congregations have to deal with the issue of race in their churches. I remember when I was a student at Duke Divinity School, a student said to me that her church welcomes everyone regardless of race and that they wanted more black people to worship with them. My response was that it's one thing to let us worship with you, but another thing to allow us to share power in the pulpit. And I asked her, how would people in your church feel about having a black pastor or blacks on the trustee or deacon board? If we want equality then we have to be willing to share power and leadership. She responded with a question that I'll never forget. "If we let you do all of that then what makes us white?" My answer was simple: your racial identity should not be tied to your ability to control power and access. Would it be fair to think that race wouldn't impact how a person would vote if they believe that their racial identity is linked to their ability to control access and power?
My point is this: People of faith are just like everyone else in our society. If we are not careful, we can allow our biases to impact how we live out our faith even when it comes to our politics. But if we believe that God is in the business of restoring relationships and healing us when we are broken, then we have a responsibility to set that example for society. That's what makes us different - the fact that we are wounded healers guided by our faith in God to be agents of change and healing in a world where hurt people continue to hurt people. Our vote should not be based on gender or race but on our values - looking at candidates through the lens of whether or not he or she has the ability to improve the quality of life for all people so that all of us can live up to our God-given potential.
Is it possible that people of faith, consciously or subconsciously, similar to voters, show up in the pew and allow themselves to be led by the pastor because he or she looks like them and perhaps therefore can identify with their concerns more? Would people who are used to receiving their spiritual guidance from someone who looks like them be as easily led by someone of a different race? If we think they would not, then why would we think that kind of bias wouldn't have an impact on their vote? The same thing can be said for our view of women as faith leaders-and for that matter, leaders of the free world. In many denominations, regardless of race, women are still not allowed to become pastors or even answer a call to ministry. This makes one wonder if people who still hold these beliefs would ever be able to vote for a woman to become our commander in chief. We cannot choose to believe that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) only when it's convenient or fits into our personal agenda. It applies at all times, and that includes the voting booth.
This is why I have to wonder: What are pastors preaching on Sunday morning? I can't recall ever hearing a sermon on healing as it relates to racial reconciliation and the wrongs perpetuated against women, African Americans, or any other race, for that matter. It seems like people are able to walk into church and worship God and then walk about still carrying the burden of gender and racial discrimination. I am also guilty of this sin.
When I spoke to that reporter I mentioned earlier, he asked what I thought was the difference between white voters in Iowa and voters in New Hampshire. Sen. Obama's campaign did some extraordinary organizing in Iowa and also in New Hampshire. But a part of me wonders if - unlike Iowa where during a caucus people have to publicly show their support for a candidate - some people in New Hampshire publicly supported Sen. Obama but in the privacy of the voting booth changed their minds. I'm told by a friend who is a political professional that this notion was "debunked and that people did not lie about voting for Sen. Obama." This is what folks in politics and the media call the Bradley or Wilder affect, and many believe that it did not happen in New Hampshire. However, after speaking with the reporter, I called a friend who is a prominent, well-respected pastor and supporter of Sen. Obama to see if I was being unfair. When I told him about my assertion he said, "that's exactly right, my wife and I had this discussion the other day, white people will support you publicly but not privately." So maybe I wasn't too far off in my answer, or maybe he and I represent a small segment of the African American community and most people feel otherwise. I don't think so. A recent Pew report showed that most African Americans still believe that racism in a factor in their everyday lives, while most white people feel that racism in not a factor in our society. As people of faith we have a responsibility to resist the temptation to allow the pain of our past to impact our future. This presidential cycle will have a tremendous impact on our lives and the lives of our children. All of us, who hold a deep and abiding faith, should pray for the strength to rise above our biases, whatever they are, so that they don't affect us at the voting booth.