Obama and the bigots
Published: March 10, 2008
The ugliest prejudices in this campaign season are not directly about race. Barack Obama's skin color may cost him some working-class white voters, but it's also winning some votes among blacks and among whites eager to signal their open-mindedness.
Sexism seems more of a factor. Americans have typically said in polls that they are less willing to vote for a woman than a black, and Shirley Chisholm (a black woman who ran for president in 1972) always said that she encountered more prejudice because of her sex than her race.
Yet the most monstrous bigotry in this election isn't about either race or sex. It's about religion.
The whispering campaigns allege that Obama is a secret Muslim planning to impose Islamic law on the country.
Incredibly, he is even accused - in earnest! - of being the Antichrist. Proponents of this theory offer detailed theological explanations for why he is the Antichrist, and the proof is that he claims to be Christian - after all, the Antichrist would say that, wouldn't he? The rumors circulate enough that Glenn Beck of CNN asked the Rev. John Hagee, a conservative evangelical, what the odds are that Obama is the Antichrist.
These charges are fanatical, America's own equivalent of the vicious accusations about Jews that circulate in some Muslim countries. They are less a swipe at one candidate than a calumny against an entire religion. They underscore that for many bigoted Americans in the 21st century, calling someone a Muslim is still a slur.
There is a parallel with presidential campaigns in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when one of the most common ways to attack a candidate was to suggest that he was partly black, or at least favored racial intermarriage. For example, the Federalists charged that Thomas Jefferson was "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." And the word "miscegenation" was coined in 1863 and 1864 in charges that Abraham Lincoln secretly plotted for blacks to marry whites, especially Irish-Americans.
As late as the 1920 presidential campaign, a quarter-million letters were sent to voters accusing Warren Harding of being descended from a "West Indian Negro. May God save America from international shame and domestic ruin."
In looking back at that history, you wish that a candidate had responded not only with, "No, I don't have any black ancestor," but also with, "So what if I did?"
Likewise, with countless people today spreading scurrilous rumors that Obama is a Muslim, the most appropriate response is a denial followed by: And so what if he were?
Granted, that's not politically realistic as a comeback. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans said they would vote for a black candidate for president and 88 percent for a woman. In contrast, a Los Angeles Times poll in 2006 found that only 34 percent of respondents said they could vote for a Muslim for president.
Even if a prejudice is directed to a matter of choice, like religion or long hair, it's still prejudice. It's possible to believe that Catholics have every right to be president while opposing a particular Catholic candidate who would ban contraception; likewise, it's possible to believe that Muslims have every right to hold office without necessarily embracing the candidacy of particular Muslims who advocate enveloping all women in burkas.
To his credit, Obama has spoken respectfully of Islam (he told me last year, on the record, that the Muslim call to prayer is "one of the prettiest sounds on earth at sunset"). If he were to go further - "and so what if I were Muslim?" - many Americans would see that as confirmation that he is a Sunni terrorist agent of al-Qaida who is part of a 9/11 backup plan: If you can't reach the White House with a hijacked plane, then storm the Oval Office through the ballot box.
This is a case where Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain should take the initiative and denounce the fear-mongering about Obama as hate speech. The wink-wink references to "Barack Hussein Obama" and lies about his going to a madrassa are the religious equivalent of racial slurs, and McCain and Clinton should denounce them in the strongest terms. This is their chance to show leadership.
When Clinton was asked in a television interview a week ago whether Obama is a Muslim, she denied it firmly - but then added, most unfortunately, "as far as I know." To his credit, McCain scolded a radio host who repeatedly referred to "Barack Hussein Obama" and later called him a Manchurian candidate.
Martin Luther wasn't a model of tolerance, but even he took the position that, "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian." In this presidential campaign, we should at least aspire to be as open-minded as 16th-century Germans.