"There is much in religion, when misused, that does lead to a fascist state....And it is the corruptors of religion who are a major menace to the world today, in giving the profound patterns of religious thought a crude and sinister distortion." -- Kenneth Burke
I have not been able, until now, to understand fully the debate about President Obama's religious commitments. How some Americans move seamlessly from questioning Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright to accusations that he is Muslim genuinely baffles me. The fact that he is our first black president offers a bit of an explanation. But something deeper is going on here -- and something quite familiar.
President Obama has become our national scapegoat. He leads the nation in a moment in which economic and political upheavals threaten our social order -- where the very myth of American progress has fallen on bad times. Many Americans have selected him to represent all that is wrong and irresolvable about our current malaise and to transfer their iniquities onto his body and into his policies. In doing so, Obama as scapegoat becomes the occasion to give voice to an alternative vision of social life. Glenn Beck happily offered his version. Other Republicans will do so as we approach November.
Of course, Obama isn't alone in this regard. As Linton Weeks noted "hating on the president is a great American pastime." We need only recall the Bush and Clinton years. But the response to Obama is different. The fact of his blackness, whether we acknowledge it or not, links this ritual to the complex histories of race that shadow our democratic form of life. And the rites of renunciation that have characterized so much of our politics today -- by the "Republican party of no" and by the Tea Party, an ironic iteration of the mask of American beginnings (after all, they did dress up as "Indians" in Boston) -- make possible a new sense of unity, a new social order among some "white folks."
Threats, real or imagined, to the social order in the US have occasioned historically ritual acts to consolidate "white identity" and the idea of community that gives it life. For example, during the era of Jim Crow, lynchings became an important tool not only to defend segregation but, through the ritual act itself, enabled a collective disavowal of the obvious ways segregation contradicted our professed democratic commitments. Christianity often played a key role.
In June of 1903, a mob gathered in Wilmington, Delaware, determined to sacrifice George White, a black man accused of rape and murder. Speaking to the angry crowd was Reverend Robert Elwood of Olivet Presbyterian Church. He took his text from Corinthians 5:13, "to expel the wicked man from among you," and he urged the courts to determine White's guilt immediately so that justice could be administered. Here the language of religion sacralized the violence that would offer the community an exit from their guilt.
George White was transfigured into that symbol which contained all of the anxieties of a group. Like most black victims of lynching, he was the rapist and murderer. The realities of their lives, lives haunted by violence, were emptied as they were transformed into a dangerous threat to the social order. And the endless repetition of the stereotype came to stand in for the actual human beings; black folk would become the anti-social deviants who threatened the social order and were in need of vigilant policing.
African-American participation in the public domain would require, and still does, constant negotiation of the stereotype. Either we have to become Bigger Thomas or Biggie Smalls, or we have to become, as James Baldwin noted, blank -- raceless.
Black scapegoats then trade in stereotypes, and Obama has not been able to escape their scandalous work. It began with the unsettling idea that Obama was not who he claimed to be -- that he was of foreign birth, that lurking beneath his cool exterior was an angry black man waiting, as Thomas Jefferson had predicted, to exact revenge. Subsequently, Obama has been transposed as a militant black Christian, as a sympathizer with the New Black Panther Party, or believed to be a Muslim, the latest standard representation of threat to social order.
His ritual sacrifice enables those who have robbed the national coffers in the name of security and who have lined the pockets of the rich at the expense of everyone else to collectively disavow the contradiction of their practices with our stated democratic ideals.
I want to be clear. I am not referring here to intentional acts of racism or expressions of racial hatred. That's too easy. Moreover, such accusations too often downplay the real and deeply-felt sense among many Americans that they are losing ground. What I am noting is a ritual practice that reproduces certain meanings about race, undermine our democratic commitments, and block the path to a new imagining of the nation. Americans are really good at exorcising demons, especially our racial ones, in order to affirm our inherent goodness, but we find it terribly difficult to look directly at ourselves in the mirror.
Obama's role in this scapegoat ritual only deepens our evasion of the reality of American life. Many refuse to see him. They rather deal with endlessly repeated lies of who he is; and religious talk like Beck's that shade too easily into troublesome patriotic calls can sanctify these ideas. But Obama also engages in what can be called self-scapegoating. In his evasion of the issues of race, in his insistence on occupying a version of the stereotype (a "blank man" of sorts), he has enabled the ritual to tighten its grip on our national psyches. What other options does he have?
Much more is required of us all. But, first, and it is a necessity upon which our destiny depends, we must look ourselves squarely in the face and confront who we truly are if we are to be release into a new future.