Herein lie buried many things, which if read with patience may sow the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the twentieth century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. (W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [New York: Pocket Books, 2005]: 3.)
“But how can a Christian vote for Obama?”
I am paraphrasing a question asked of me while in attendance at the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference five weeks ago. It had become obvious to my interrogator that an African American, Democratic version of wrapping the Cross of Christ in the Stars and Stripes had taken a prominent place in the sermons of those preaching at the conference. We were being challenged by speakers to be diligent not to squander our moral responsibility to push Obama into the White House. Roaring responses of clapping and shouting followed these charges as if all of the thousands of African American church leaders and laity present were in full agreement.
Such laudation of the senator from Illinois, by those proclaiming to know the Creator through the Incarnate Son, bothered my friend. An Illinois citizen and theologically conservative Christian, he could not reconcile a vote cast for Obama with anyone who professed the name of Christ. To him, it was very obvious that Obama’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage are so far from what Scripture requires of us that, seemingly, to vote for Obama would be to deny the very things Christians believe. So he turned to me for some explanation of how African American Christians could vote in good faith for Obama without sensing conviction for endorsing one who takes anti-Christian positions on the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.
The Issue of Hope
I started by explaining that for African Americans, there is a sense of hope no longer being deferred. Instead, hope is at the front door knocking furiously, waiting to see if African Americans will answer. If we open the door, forty million African Americans are going to witness a fellow African American getting the largest slice of the American Dream Pie—a dessert many had hoped to see people of color eat in their lifetime, but the many fell asleep having embraced such promises from afar. As the struggle for social and economic equality has been a struggle for all African Americans, regardless of belief system(s), we all share in the joy when one of our own achieves the (presumptive) nomination for the highest office in the land—an office that has been reserved for white males only until now. Obama’s candidacy would allow all African Americans to say to our forefathers, “we finally did it! Your attempts at escaping slavery, deaths by lynching, scars from the scourge of slave masters’ whips, pain from the full blast of unleashed water hoses and muzzle-free police dogs, humiliation by white hecklers at lunch counters, degradation at “coloreds only” fountains and restrooms, indignation on the back of buses, forced acceptance of poorer educational materials and facilities, and marches at the threat of beatings and bombings have not been for naught! Hope, yea victory, is finally here! We are equal at the highest level!”
Factoring all of the historical pockmarks into the hope equation seems to be African Americans’ expression of the reality of “the problem of the Twentieth Century” (DuBois). For African Americans, Christians and non-Christians alike, race, racial prejudice, racial segregation, racial discrimination, racial injustice, racial hatred, racial educational and economic disparity, racial self-consciousness, the racialization of society and all attempts to address problems attributed to the majority culture’s mistreatment of African Americans in any form based on race alone only serve to remind African Americans of their “double-consciousness” (DuBois). As Dubois wrote, in this society African Americans are
a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world— a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world… It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder, (3).
The Issue of Identity
If we take DuBois’ musings as an accurate analysis of African American existence, we can see another factor involved in Christian African Americans’ support of Obama: identity. We now have a candidate who we think identifies with the experience of African Americans. He has experienced the struggle of the great-great-great-grandchildren of slaves (even though he is not one). So surely, it is supposed, he will fight for policies and programs that will be sensitive to the plight of his people and that work toward uplifting the entire race of people to the place where the playing field is level. Surely, as one of us, he will sign into law measures that will protect the gains made during the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights Eras. Because he is one of us, we have hope that we will no longer have to look at ourselves through the contemptuous eyes of others—i.e., white Americans. We now can look at ourselves through the eyes of the man who could hold the most well-known office in the free-world, and he can look at the world through our eyes. Such looking is inherent when one is in the majority culture; in that culture it is never hoped for or awaited. It is part of being in the majority. For African Americans, to deny Obama would then be, in some sense, to deny one’s own identity. Yet it remains true that no one ever thinks a white man not voting for Clinton, Bush or McCain is a denial of whiteness.
I would suggest that Obama, more than any other candidate, has the ability to say to African Americans, “my fellow Americans,” and do so with the implicit trust of African Americans. His Father’s Day speech demonstrated this ability, for he is the only presidential candidate who can risk bringing up a major social problem in the African American community in an African American pulpit without fear of ostracizing himself. He was able to play a black race card on an all black table in such a way that to outsiders it simply looked as if he still had his card in his hand. But those at the table gladly folded their cards having seen the winning hand.
Being able to see the potential for mutual embracing of identities in a candidate further means that African Americans will not feel the need to settle on the candidate who represents the lesser of two evils. By common consent, many African Americans feel that their votes are taken for granted by one major political party, and only courted as tokenism by the other major party. The votes do not result in policy changes that benefit African Americans as a whole no matter which party’s candidate wins office. As a result, African Americans often resign simply to give a vote to one of the two white candidates, without feeling that their best interests will be taken up truly. An Obama candidacy immediately changes the hopeless feelings of resignation as the fall approaches. His candidacy means African Americans will have the opportunity to make a choice excitedly and confidently. Higher than average African American attendance at the polls in November could be a reflection of the joy brought on by the ability to pick a candidate without mental or emotional reservation and resignation.
The Issue of Justice
I think there is a third reason African American hail Obama: justice. That is, we have placed faith in liberal government to save us when we perceived that those who were conservative politically were weak in running to aid those experiencing race-related injustices. Historically, it seemed that change in race-relations in America was slow to come about through personal moral change on a wide scale. As a result, African Americans looked to Federal policy to institute change in institutional structures. That is, “if you will not find it in your heart to grant me the same access to bid on business contracts, I will look to the government to enact legislation to make you give me access to bid equally on business contracts regardless of my skin color.”
An Obama nomination looks like a nomination for social justice – far more than does a nomination for someone from the other party. If the Illinois senator will carry both white and Black voters in November, unlike Democratic candidates from other ethnicities, he will not be able to make promises to African Americans without accountability to keep his promises. Instead, he will be under pressure not to let his people down judicially. He will have to reject policies that stand against the Democratic version of racial progress, and he will have to sign into law policies that stand for such progress. Anything short of this will bring more ire from African Americans than that directed toward any other president who fell short on his promises. Because the hope is greater, the expectation will be greater, and the backlash for perceived failure will be greater. But African Americans do not expect Obama to fail. They expect social and economic justice policies to find favor with this candidate, for Affirmative Action to be strengthened, for racial profiling and racial inequities in the legal systems to be brought into account and see diminishing statistics, and for “equal justice for all” to be more than words on the halls of justice.
An Obama presidency would portray justice in another odd sort of way. Akin to the issue of hope above, his election would be seen as vindication. It would have a self-correcting effect on the errors of America’s history, with its sins of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and ongoing civil injustices. What better way for African Americans to hear the country say, “join us in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!” What greater way is there for African Americans in turn to say, “We have overcome!” What an Obama in the White House would do for African Americans is allow us to feel we can say, “Now this country is going to treat us equally, fairly, justly.”
In order to understand the sentiment of African Americans as a whole – of whom Christian African Americans are a part – one would do well to consider that African Americans have not yet been free in this country for as long as we were slaves, (1654-1865, [211 years] vs. 1865-2008. [143 years]). Moreover, the Civil Rights Era only ended 33 years ago with the extension of the Voting Rights Act (1975). It was only ten years prior to this extension that Jim Crow laws were brought to an end with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of the citizens who rode through this era on the back of the bus are still alive waiting on even more gains for African Americans—gains they feel will not come at the hands of white leadership. These same citizens, who often daily drank in the fears of an Emmett Till episode or a Birmingham bombing—this while whites separately drank in American prosperity free from fear, at the expense of African Americans— diligently taught their children to trust African Americans to uplift African Americans. That generation, and their children to the third and fourth generations, sees in Barak Obama one for whom we can say, “finally, we’re driving this bus.” This attitude even has been expressed by African American conservatives, such as J. C. Watts and Armstrong Williams, who are considering jumping party lines in order to cast a vote for Senator Obama.
The Cross and the Ballot
The above thoughts do not make a judgment on whether Christian African Americans should or should not vote for Obama. The intention of this work is only to offer some reasons that explain why Christian African Americans might vote for Obama in the fall. It does not address the suggested contradiction between voting for a pro-choice candidate and claiming to be a voter who holds a pro-life position. Personally, I think that sanctity of life issues only deal with one of ten areas of sin in the Decalogue, so they are not to be elevated above all of the other prohibitions and commandments. I hold this belief in spite of the fact that my favorite modern Christian author, John Piper, who is a pastor, theologian, Christian statesman, and friend that I highly respect and with whom I rarely find disagreement, proposes a different view of the significance of one issue in an election process, writing “everybody knows a single issue that for them would disqualify a candidate for office.” (See the antecedent hyperlink for the full article and bibliographical information.)
I should also say that even the most simul justus et peccator among us vote both righteously and selfishly at the same time. As I have said elsewhere,
Preserving what we each value the most serves as the motivation for almost everyone’s vote. It would be difficult to find anyone who votes from a purely selfless stance, i.e., “this is in the best interest of the entire country.” Rather, we each vote from either a “survival” or “success” stance. Those who have experienced financial and/or material success generally care about issues that will ensure that such success is maintained. Issues of survival seem trite to them. In contrast, those attempting to survive, or to get to a certain level of social achievement—whether that is to gain the American Dream so as to get out of coal mining and Black Lung disease, to get out of a neighborhood of poorer schools and crime to the suburbs, or to keep from losing all they have earned in life—generally do not concern themselves with the issues of the successful. They want mobility, access, opportunity and aid.
What person of success would selflessly vote in the interest of those needing aid at his own expense? And what citizen simply trying to survive would vote for smaller government, although this would certainly be the wisest and best choice for any successful business owner? Yet believers are called to consider others better than themselves, to deny themselves, and to care for the poor, needy and oppressed. This calling cannot be set aside as one exercises one’s right to suffrage (“Believers at the Ballot Box,” Beauty for Ashes Magazine [July/August, 2008]).
While it might seem a contradiction for Christian African Americans to vote for Senator Obama, each of us votes with many contradictions in both the righteous and selfish hopes of having the best possible earthly government and society. Such hopes yield appointments of pro-life justices and unjust war decisions. But when we “pull the lever,” we vote our consciences, our blind spots, and unknown future actions of our candidates and those in their selected cabinets and staff. At best, going to the ballot box as believers is one great act of hope in the God who rules all things for good, who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion” (Dan. 2:21; 4:34). It is best that we look to his Son for true hope, identity and justice. This is the only way any of us will stop throwing cards on the table each election cycle.
Postscript (Summer Reading List)
I think this is a good time to suggest that our Summer Reading should include City of God (Augustine), Christ and Culture Revisited (Carson), The Souls of Black Folk (DuBois), The Invisible Man (Ellison), Leviathan (Hobbes), The Abolition of Man (Lewis), Animal Farm (Orwell), Modern Fascism (Veith) and Race Matters (West). If you want to understand more about the ways of African Americans, consider The Decline of African American Theology (Anyabwile), Experiencing the Truth (Carter, et al.), and Where Are All the Brothers? (Redmond).
© Eric C. Redmond, 2008.