While Barack Obama was still hot on the campaign trail in his first bid for presidency, many Democrats began to fear that his history of church attendance at Trinity United Church of Christ under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Jeremiah Wright would cost him the election. Four years later, as the NY Times reports that a Republican “super PAC” had plans to unleash an intense advertising campaign intended to resurrect the controversy, it’s important to reflect on why the G.O.P.’s use of the strategy mattered so much then and why it still matters now.
While Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who would have backed the proposal but has now disavowed himself from it, and Mitt Romney (like John McCain before him) have chosen to not participate in this form of character assassination, the mere existence of the proposal and the care that went into laying it out suggests to me that the G.O.P. has no problem playing on racialized fear in its campaign efforts.
The Jeremiah Wright controversy was about much more than what many believed to be unpatriotic sound bites coming from an Afro-centric sanctuary on the Southside of Chicago; it was also about advertising campaigns and conservative media outlets capitalizing on mainstream America’s discomfort with and lack of knowledge about black identity, culture and spiritual practices. The controversy sought to situate Obama outside of the “normative” American religious narrative by implying that he embraced a radical strand of Christianity, black liberation theology, that was not only subversive – but also hateful.
The reality of the matter is that millions of Americans have encountered black liberation theology at the most basic of levels – in the singing of “We Shall Overcome” at public functions, in encounters with seasoned black Christians who say they are determined to “keep on keepin’ on,” and in iconic figures like Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson who connect faith and social justice intimately in their rhetoric and action.
Yet, there are those within the Republican Party who wanted back then, as they do now, to send the message to Americans that there’s reason to look at Obama’s faith through a lens of suspension. “He can’t be trusted” is the intended message. After four years, the implication is that we still don’t truly know the man that we elected into the country’s highest office and have reason to fear him and what he believes – rather than accessing him on what he has done.
We have found ourselves once again discussing Jeremiah Wright in a political context. How did we get to this place? How did we go backwards?
In politics, a wide of spectrum of dishonorable strategies will often be deployed, but it’s only when we give in to these tactics that we must take responsibility for the outcome. If we allow political propaganda to elicit fear in us yet again, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and TheRootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter@RahielT.