I don't endorse political candidates, but I will defend them when it becomes necessary. On this, I agree with my friend, Richard Land, the conservative Southern Baptist leader who is often identified with the Religious Right. Richard and I agree that faith has a place in politics and, when we agree on fundamental moral questions, have worked together. Richard says, "I have defended various candidates from time to time when I've felt that they have been unfairly or inaccurately criticized. At other times, I have been asked by the media for my assessment of a particular candidate's chances or weaknesses and strengths. Neither defense nor assessment should be confused with endorsement. As a matter of policy, I have not endorsed, do not endorse and will not endorse candidates."
So I am going to defend my friend, Barack Obama, from an increasing number of ridiculous and scurrilous attacks on the Internet and in the media. The latest incident occurred when a loud-mouth radio talk show host in Cincinnati let loose with a barrage of disparaging remarks against Senator Obama and kept using his middle name--Barack HUSSEIN Obama--over and over, seemingly to tie into the Internet accusations that Obama is really a Muslim who, as a child, attended a Muslim "madrassa" school in Indonesia that taught Islamic fundamentalism, etc. As a Chicago Tribune blog piece commented, "Anyone who uses Obama"s middle name repeatedly, like Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham the other day, knows what he or she is doing and what feelings they are trying to evoke. There's simply nothing innocent about it."
The occasion for the shock jock's diatribe was his introduction of Senator John McCain at a rally. To his great credit, McCain denounced the remarks when he heard about them, disassociated himself from this kind of attack, and reaffirmed that his campaign would be conducted on higher ground. Good for you, John McCain. So of course, the local loud-mouth, Bill Cunningham, quickly withdrew his support from McCain and now is denouncing him too; which, of course, was quickly picked up by his mentor, the national radio loud-mouth Rush Limbaugh (whom the local Cunningham seems to desperately "wannabe"). And, of course, Rush is now denouncing both Obama and McCain.
I watched last night as other cable news shows told this story and subtly tried to add more fuel to the fire. Lou Dobbs downplayed the Cincinnati outburst as unimportant and suggested it was no different that telling the world that John McCain's middle name is "Sydney." Sure Lou; and it was interesting that Dobbs followed with more innuendos and rolled eyes over the moment in the Tuesday Democratic debate when Obama was asked about Louis Farrakhan, about suspicions that Barack's home Trinity Church on the south side of Chicago was "black nationalist," and about why Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, wouldn't come on Lou's show to discuss his alleged sympathies for Farrakhan, etc. It is certainly no mystery why Pastor Wright didn't cancel his retirement celebrations and drop everything to come on Lou's show. Would anyone?
An Associated Press story titled "Obama Fights False Links to Islam" commented on the new flare-up, "For Barack Obama, it is an ember that he has doused time and again, only to see it flicker anew: links to Islam fanned by false rumors, innuendo, and association."
During the Democratic debate, Obama again "denounced and rejected" the ugly anti-Semitic comments that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has often made, as he had done many times before. Farrakhan hadn't actually endorsed Obama, but recently said, "This young man is the hope of the entire world that America will change and be made better." Asked on Tuesday night about whether he would accept Farrakhan's support, Obama said: "I live in Chicago. He lives in Chicago. I've been very clear, in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate. And I have consistently distanced myself from him."
So let's set the record straight. I have known Barack Obama for more than 10 years, and we have been talking about his Christian faith for a decade. Like me and many other Christians, he agrees with the need to reach out to Muslims around the world, especially if we are ever to defeat Islamic fundamentalism. But he is not a Muslim, never has been, never attended a Muslim madrassa, and does not attend a black "separatist" church. Rather, he has told me the story of his coming from an agnostic household, becoming a community organizer on Chicago's South Side who worked with the churches, and how he began attending one of them. Trinity Church is one of the most prominent and respected churches in Chicago and the nation, and its pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is one of the leading revival preachers in the black church. Ebony magazine once named him one of America's 15 best Black preachers. The church says it is "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian," like any good black church would, but is decidedly not "separatist," as its white members and friends would attest.
And one Sunday, as Obama has related to me and written in his book The Audacity of Hope, the young community organizer walked down the aisle and gave his life to Christ in a very personal and very real Christian conversion experience. We have talked about our faith and its relationship to politics many times since. And after Obama gave his speech at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference in June 2006, E.J. Dionne said that it may have been "the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican."
Like his politics or not, support his candidacy or not - but don't disparage Barack Obama's faith, his church, his minister, or his credibility as an eloquent Christian layman who feels a vocation in politics. Those falsehoods are simply vicious lies and should be denounced by people of faith from across the political spectrum.