Illustration of Barak Obama looking down, with shadow outlines extending in all directions around him


Unfinished Business

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Peter J. Paris

It was unpredictable that another African American should arise with astounding rhetorical skills to lead this nation to a new stage in the long arduous struggle for a solution to its historical race problem—a problem that was left unresolved by our founding fathers and that has persisted as a malignancy in the body politic ever since.

Religion, race, and gender have always played significant roles in America’s presidential elections. That role was more obvious and significant this time around. Apart from the 1984 election, the final candidates have always been white men—it was, therefore, all the more interesting to see a white man, Joe Biden, appointed to a position that is subordinate in authority to an African American man.

Religion and race were in the foreground of American history long before the beginning of this Republic. The question of religion was constitutionally settled with the First Amendment in 1791. Although the First Amendment prohibited the establishment of religion while permitting its free exercise, Americans continue to disagree about the appropriate role of religion in the public domain. Then and now, religion has functioned in support of both sides of the racial conflict.

The issue of race took a much longer time to resolve constitutionally. The Constitutional Convention reached a stalemate on the question of the slave trade. As a result, the officials of that time agreed to let it remain in place for another 20 years, until January 1, 1808, 100 years after the slave trade had been terminated in Great Britain. And yet the termination of the slave trade did not resolve the problem of race in America. In fact, slavery itself was not resolved until the end of the Civil War, more than a half century afterwards, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, supported later by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively.

The brief Reconstruction period of 12 years ended abruptly in 1877 with an agreement that the Democratic votes of the former confederate states would support the election of the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, in return for his decision to withdraw the Union troops from the South. Needless to say, perhaps, black Americans felt betrayed by the federal government at that time and for a long while thereafter. It was not until 1973 that Andrew Young from Georgia and Barbara Jordan from Texas became the first blacks from the South elected to Congress—96 years after the fall of Reconstruction and less than a decade after President Lyndon Johnson called a press conference in the middle of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic Party over the issue of white primaries in Mississippi. Thus, it is an understatement to say that race has always been a factor in presidential elections.

Unlike some of his most prominent African American ancestors, Barack Obama is acting in the public sphere as a pragmatic politician rather than as prophet to the nation. The difference between a prophet and a politician was seen vividly last spring when the media and Obama’s opponents vilified his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as an anti-American apostle of hatred. Political expediency forced this pragmatic politician to break a 20-year friendship with the one who had mentored him into the African American Christian tradition, officiated at his wedding, and baptized him and his children.

A careful analysis of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons reveals him speaking the truth with the kind of vitriolic rhetoric that the Hebrew prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea used many centuries ago. The purpose of such rhetoric is to demonstrate the prophet’s passionate hatred for injustice. Clearly, the American political process neither welcomes nor affirms such prophetic advocates for justice. Prophets do not run for public office or, if they do, they do not get very far.

Obama has an unusual name, a unique biographical heritage, and he is not a descendent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., however, he calls for the kind of change that reconciles opposing sides by respecting their differences while persuading them to act intelligently for the nation’s common good, politically, economically, and socially. It is a message that has inspired hope in hundreds of thousands of people across the boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender. When have we seen a politician running for office drawing crowds of 100,000 people?

Obama’s campaign caught the imagination of the nation. It seems almost surreal that he should have had nearly 3.5 million contributors to the largest campaign treasury in history. This measure of mass support, which was borne out in the election results, seems as miraculous as Nelson Mandela being released from prison, presiding over a new constitution, and becoming the first president of the new South Africa.

Though he is not a prophet, as a moral exemplar in the public realm, Obama stands in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., by not racializing the goal he pursues. His victory is not one for African Americans alone, but is a victory for all Americans. His policies will not privilege African Americans but will address the needs of all Americans. As King’s accomplishments in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 fulfilled the promise implicit in the Emancipation Proclamation, so Barack Obama’s election to the presidency will begin the process of fulfilling the substance of King’s vision of a world community built on the principles of freedom, love, nonviolence, justice, and hope. Certainly, the long-awaited national discussion on race has been forced upon us by this election.

These words are adapted from the panel discussion “Religion, Race, and Gender in Presidential Politics” held at HDS on October 20, 2008.

Peter J. Paris, Visiting Professor of Christian Social Ethics and African American Religion at HDS, is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Emeritus, at Princeton Theological Seminary. His forthcoming edited book, Religion and Poverty: Pan-African Perspectives (Duke University), marks the end of a four-year study by African religious scholars from nine countries in Africa and the African diaspora. 

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