Behaving Badly

I confess: I live in the country and drive a lot. I know that’s a sin against the environment. But my real guilty secret is that while doing all that driving, I sometimes listen to the local Christian talk radio station to check out what a large percentage of my neighbors are hearing.

One day early this year I heard something new. It was an advertisement for a gun dealership and shooting range, and the announcer’s voice was a fairly decent impersonation of our recently inaugurated president. The gist of the message was that he—the faux president—intended to outlaw firearms soon, so you’d better stock up on assault rifles and ammo while the getting was good.

A few months later, an evangelical Christian church in the same metro area decided to honor Independence Day by hosting an “Open Carry Celebration.” This “bring your gun to church” day, held on a Saturday, was not billed as a worship service. Still, the imagery of a church filled with pistol-packing parishioners was disturbing.

But not nearly as disturbing as the image that emerged this summer of an Arizona citizen with an assault rifle strapped to his back outside a hall in which the president of the United States was speaking. Or of the guy in New Hampshire who, again outside a presidential appearance, held a sign saying, “It is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty!” and had a large pistol strapped to his hip. The sign was, of course, a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s statement that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In saner times that could have been interpreted as an actionable assassination threat.

Also this summer, public opinion poll data came out showing that a majority of Southerners and nationwide Republicans answered “no” or “not sure” when asked if Barack Obama was born in the U.S.

There’s a madness afoot, and it is not just on the powerless fringes of the political spectrum. According to the online magazine Salon, 17 Republican members of Congress have either “supported or refused to oppose” assertions that the president is really foreign-born, and so not constitutionally eligible for his office. During the president’s speech to Congress on health-care reform, virtually the entire Republican side of the aisle displayed fundamental disrespect for the man 54 percent of Americans chose to be their leader. Then almost all of them lined up in support of Joe “You Lie” Wilson on the vote to censure him for his rude behavior.

Former President Jimmy Carter is on to something when he attributes President Obama’s most vicious opposition to deeply ingrained racism. For centuries, white working-class Americans have been fed on the lie that the black man (not the rich white one) is their ultimate enemy. We shouldn’t be surprised that some of them still act on that assumption. But Republican collusion with those attitudes is the real story here.

Forty years ago, during the first Nixon campaign, the Republican Party began making alliances with white Southerners outraged by desegregation. Reagan sealed the deal in 1980 when he appeared at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi and gave a speech about “states’ rights.” But now the neo-Confederate wing of the GOP is almost all that’s left. And America no longer has a “loyal opposition.”

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

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