05/16/2008 02:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Racism Is Real - And Christian Leaders Can Help

Racism in the United States is real. Social scientists know it, the Republicans know it, the Clintons know it ... and African Americans absolutely know it. Racist appeals are being used against Obama, and a new "postpartisan" generation of white Christian preachers is in a unique position to respond.

Americans need to understand that there are two ways to react to racism in American life: One is to exploit it, as politicians from Nixon to Clinton1 have in my lifetime. The other is to change it and help eliminate it. Will Rick Warren and others heed the call?

My recent post on West Virginia's primary, where I spoke (perhaps a little too bluntly) about the racist subgroup of voters there, ignited a firestorm of angry reactions. Most of them were on the "no, YOU'RE the racist" plane of discourse. (Some of the extremist pro-Hillary websites also chimed in - the kind that claim Kos of DailyKos is a secret CIA agent. They're out there, but I won't encourage them by linking to them.)

These responders want desperately to believe that racism is a thing of the past, and that it had no impact on this week's primary. So, first, let's talk statistics: Those who said I was calling all Southern whites racist aren't very careful readers. In my first paragraph I said there is "an avidly racist percentage" of this group. Second - and this is important - I didn't call them racist: they called themselves that. Roughly 1 in 5 white West Virginia voters said race played a strong role in their vote, and they went overwhelmingly against Obama (80% for Clinton). And if 1 in 5 said that, a lot more than that feel that way.

Let's look at the numbers: Clinton beat Obama by forty percentage points. 1 in 5 white voters equals 20% of 95% of West Virginia voters. That means nearly half of Clinton's victory margin comes from voters who say race played a major part in their choice. And that's a very understated number, since most racists are reluctant to admit their prejudice to a complete stranger. If you double that 1 in 5 to account for the shame factor, her entire victory is theoretically attributable to this bias.

Now comes the next wave of anti-Obama race-baiting: This is the part where the Christian leaders come in. White Christian religionists are circulating a series of anti-Obama emails. A friend sent me one last night from Celeste and Loren Davis, American missionaries who are actively converting Africans to Christ with U.S. contributions. The Davises generated an email which is getting widely circulated on the Internet, saying things like this:

We are living and working in Kenya for almost twelve years now and know his family (tribe) well. They are the ones who were behind the recent Presidential election chaos here ... Obama, under "friends of Obama" gave almost a million dollars to the opposition campaign who just happened to be his cousin, Raila Odinga, who is a socialist trained in east germany. He has been trying to bring Kenya down for years and the last president threw him in prison for trying to subvert this country! ...

Obama and Raila speak daily. As we watch Obama rise in the US we are sure that whatever happens, he will use the same tactic, crying rigged election if he doesn't win, and possibly cause a race war in America.

What we would like you to know is what the American press has been keeping a dirty little secret. Obama IS a muslim and he IS a racist and this is a fullfilllment of the 9-11 threat that was just the beginning. Jihad is the only true muslim way. We have been working with them for 20 years this July!

He is not an American as we know it. Please encourage your friends and associates not to be taken in by those that are promoting him. It is world wide jihad ...

By the way, his true name is Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama. Won't that sound sweet to our enemies as they swear him in on the Koran!? ... Jesus Christ is our peace, but the new world order of Globalism has infiltrated the church and confused believers into thinking that they can compromise and survive. It won't be so.

American missionary work is big business in Africa, and business is good for the Davises. (Never mind that after twenty years they can't spell "Barack," and don't know the difference between a "tribe" of millions and a "family.") The Davises are part of the Christian Dominionist movement that has been trying (with a good deal of success) to hijack American government for many years. But time is working against them. As minister and social researcher George Barna2 has documented, younger generations of Christians are rejecting the rigidity, prejudices, and political extremism of the Falwell/Robertson axis.

A new generation of ministers has risen up in response. Most prominent among them are Rick Warren (who's already been attacked by the Davises as "un-Scriptural") and Joel Osteen, both of whom have rejected a political role for themselves in favor of neutrality in the public sphere. There's a new generation behind them, too, and it's coming up fast. These young Christian leaders are represented by preachers like Jay Bakker, Jim and Tammy Faye's son, who recently brought a group of gays and lesbians to worship at Osteen's megachurch in Texas.

With Obama the inevitable Democratic nominee, it's time for these Christian leaders to speak up - not for Obama, but against spreading bigotry in Christ's name. (And if you think this is an argument for choosing Hillary over Barack, forget it: The Davises have already attacked her as part of a worldwide Socialist conspiracy. Her nomination would mean another six months of Vince Foster lies - not to mention sexual innuendos from traditionalists who think a strong woman must be gay, and that "gay = bad." Racism doesn't make her more electable.)

This campaign is a history opportunity to attack racism at its roots. Here's what Reverends Warren, Osteen, Bakker et al. can and must say to the Christian community:

1. Lying violates one of the Ten Commandments.
2. Inflaming racial and religious hatred violates Jesus' message.
3. Americans should choose their leaders based on policy and character, not faith-based lies.
4. Racism in all forms is contrary to the word of God.
5. Christians should stop giving contributions to people like Loren Davis.

It's not only in our country's interest to have these faith leaders say this. It's in their interests, too. The generational tides are shifting away from Christianist politics and bigotry, even in white Christian strongholds. These leaders can both accelerate that shift and remain part of it.

I'm agnostic about what happens after death, and I don't believe in Heaven in the Biblical sense. I'm one of those "Jesus is a spiritual teacher" types, which according to the Davises makes me a "New Age" servant of "Satan as an angel of light." Still, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it. But if I'm wrong, I hope I'm allowed the mercy of standing behind the Davises in line for the Pearly Gates. It would be some comfort to hear Jesus say to them, "Depart from me, you that work iniquity."

(That's Matthew 7:23, Rev. Davis, in case you want to look it up. A little review of Matthew might do you some good ...)

RJ Eskow blogs:

A Night Light

The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

1Yes, the Clintons have had a sterling record on civil rights. No, I don't believe they're personally racist. But they have undoubtedly made race-based appeals - some coded, some overt - in this campaign. And where is Hillary's retraction for that "hard working Americans, white Americans" comment? Prediction: We'll get it after she concedes.

2George Barna's research organization publishes some very interesting and useful research on faith in the United States.