Obama, Romney, Bigotry, & Slander

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Director of The Shalom Center

The Shalom Center by law may not, and doesn't, choose between candidates in an election. But there is no legal, ethical, or moral bar to our denouncing the use of religious slurs and slanders when they are used against any candidate. Or more than one, as is the case right now in American politics.

Indeed, we are morally REQUIRED to condemn such slanders. And so are all of us. To say it NOW, before slander casts its vote against decency and ALL America loses the Presidential election.

During the present Presidential campaign, slurs against the religious beliefs of at least two candidates -- Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- became widespread.

Beginning with Obama's victory in Iowa, there has been an explosion of slanders that had circulated earlier to a much smaller audience – mainly that he attended a Wahhabist pro-terrorist Muslim school as a child, and that he is secretly a Muslim today -- and not only a Muslim, but anti-Semitic.

I am ashamed to say that these slanders have gained most of their currency in the Jewish community –- and I am proud to be able to say that leaders of some Jewish organizations have publicly and forthrightly denounced them.

For a number of major reports about the true facts and about the origins and impact of the slanders, please see a series of articles we have just posted in the "Interreligious" and "What is Anti-Semitism" sections of our Website. See –

So far as I am concerned, Obama's childhood years in the most populous Muslim country (not steeped in Wahabbi fundamentalism) could become an asset, if from it he has learned a nuanced sense of the complex world of Islam, rather than black-white rage against it.

Given all that, I am astonished by an editorial in the current issue of The Forward, a normally progressive and independent-minded Jewish weekly. The editorial defines the rumors about Obama as baseless –- except that he did briefly attend a Muslim school as a child in Indonesia under his father's tutelage. It diagnoses the fear that bubbles up in the willingness of some Jews to believe such rumors. It treats the call for honesty and an end to slander as merely the voice of an ineffectual Jewish establishment, as if the slanders were somehow the voice of "the people."

But the Forward never clearly and vigorously urges Jews at the grass roots to denounce these slanders.
Instead it says:

"Accusations of antisemitism take on a life of their own. … Moderate and liberal Jews who don’t share the
conservatives’ agenda will give the benefit of doubt to the accusers.
Thus the Jewish hawks have the final say, and the burden is on the
candidate to avoid falling afoul of them."

And it even says: "Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Almost certainly not."

"ALMOST?" I thought as I read this piece. "Where does this 'almost' come from?"

"The burden is on the candidate"? Of course in practical fact the candidate must address the slanders, but ethically the burden is on US. All us Americans. All us Jews.

So I wrote the editor:

“Your editorial says: ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Almost certainly not.’

I say: "Is J. J. Goldberg [editor of The Forward] a Christian? Almost certainly not. Even if he sang Christian hymns (as I did, because that's what children were required to do in those days) in public elementary and junior high school.”

“ 'Almost certainly not' ? Where does that “almost” come from, in regard to a person who for decades has fervently prayed in a Christian church?

"And you adulterate the ancient progressivism of the Forward into fake populism, giving a make-believe gloss of proletarian glamor to the paranoias you should be denouncing. Your editorial described the virulent effect of the “anti-Semite” smear on frightened Jews without clearly and nobly denouncing it.

"With blessings that you recover your clarity and your menschklichkeit, remembering that emet, tzedek, and shalom — TRUTH, Justice, and Peace — are the three pillars on which the world must stand."

There has been a more recent wave of attacks on Obama with a somewhat different focus, yet also attacking his religious beliefs and affiliations.

These have attacked his membership in an Afrocentrioc Christian church in Chicago, a church that has honored Minister Louis Farrakhan for his work in separating inner-city youth from drugs and gangs. Farrakhan has made a number of anti-Semitic remarks; so some Jewish bloggers have attacked Obama for remaining a member of that church, and for honoring its pastor as a crucial teacher of his.

Obama has denounced anti-Semitism in the Black community, and has criticized the honoring of Farrakhan. Not enough, say the attackers. He should presumably quit the church and denounce its pastor.

In my own estimation, a seriously activist, proactively Black church was a good place -- the right place -- for a community organizer who cared about the poor to join. Obama has publicly criticized the church's decision to honor Farrakhan, and of course has not repudiated the minister -- his teacher -- even while disagreeing with him and going beyond him in empathy for all peoples and communities. To expect or desire otherwise would be to want Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to denounce the Lubavitcher rebbes who taught him & beyond whom he has gone, or for me to repudiate my teachers beyond whom I have gone. Obama learned what he learned, he grew as he has grown, he is who he is. That should be the basis for supporting or opposing him.

This is not a problem of demonizing Muslims alone, and not a problem among Jews alone. The attacks on Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon are scandalous. The assertions by some candidates that the president must or should be Christian are scandalous. From them, one would never learn or guess that the Constitution says –--

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

That provision was never more needed than now. For me, that and the First Amendment are the most godly provisions God ever inspired into the American Constitution. And it is not enough to say that the "government" cannot violate these provisions but voters can. To work as a political framework, Constitutional provisions need broad cultural affirmation. Voters CAN corrupt their responsibility by voting on the basis of religious bigotry, but it is the task of all religious and political leaders to urge them not to.

Just a few words more about Romney and Mormonism. One of the sturdy families in American politics is the Udall family -- all Mormons. Most or all of the family members who became public officials have been creative supporters of environmental protection, justice for the poor, and racial equality. (This last as public policy even at a time when Mormon doctrine prevented Blacks from serving in the Mormon priesthood.) The politics of the Udalls and those of Romney have been quite different, though both are Mormons. Their faith has shaped and grounded their commitment to public service, but has -- obviously -- not determined their policies while in that service.

Similarly, many many Roman Catholic politicians have worked for full equality of women and men in public policy, while Catholic doctrine debars women from the priesthood.

There are plenty of reasons to support or to oppose any of the present candidates for president, or any other public office. Their religious origins and beliefs are not among them. How they translate their religious beliefs into public policy is.

And the burden is on ALL of us to say so, to say it in synagogues and churches and mosques and temples and shrines -- and yes, I will say it again: to say it NOW, before slander casts its vote against decency and ALL America loses the Presidential election.

Shalom, salaam, shantih, peace –

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