When I first watched the YouTube videos of Barack Obama’s fiery pastor, Jeremiah Wright, last week, it furthered a conviction I already had: religion in public life gets divisive.
In this election cycle presidential candidates have tried to build cohesive support among voters, and their only option when it came to their core beliefs was to acknowledge their religious faith but move away from the specifics. I saw Hillary do this in Iowa and I listened to Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in December. In both, the seasoned politicians acknowledged that their faith was important to them but didn’t say why.
In this tightly packaged, heavily-scripted and heavily-scrutinized world of politics, it didn’t seem like there was room to be forthcoming about things like say, secret garments and impassioned prayer. But then Obama gave his speech yesterday, which dealt with both religion and race, and I was proven wrong. Totally wrong.
As opposed to Romney’s much-anticipated speech on faith, Obama tackled concerns about his less-than-mainstream background with vigor. In December, Romney hugged tightly to historical precedent and barely spoke of the importance of his lifelong commitment to the Latter-day Saints and primarily insisted that his religion would not affect his governance. Romney tried to appeal to religious conservatives by taking a swing at secularism.
“In recent years,” Romney said, “the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
Fine, but then Romney doesn’t get into any of the specifics of what that faith that is so important to him is made up of. He mentioned the word Mormon once.
In stark contrast, Obama’s speech yesterday was aimed at dealing with his preacher who had made divisive comments about race. This response seemed like a two-headed beast, trying to speak to an audience of what would be millions about two of the most controversial of topics.
But Obama did the unexpected by being very specific and very detailed about who Jeremiah Wright was to him, and what he wasn’t, and then used Wright’s opinions on race to talk about the larger meaning of race and faith in America. Instead of showing fear of these topics, Obama embraced them, mentioned his pastor’s name over and over and talked about racism and belief in a way that seemed to make everyone want chime in with their own stories of bigotry and prejudice.
So maybe I was wrong. Obama offered a new model yesterday in communicating charged topics, be they race or religion or gender or anything else that make people freak out. He transcended the fear that surrounded his topic by being detailed and forthright and sincere about what he believes–and his audience responded. Maybe the divisiveness of religion when put on a public stage isn’t religion itself but all the fear that people have of the opacity that surrounds it.