President Obama’s 10-day Asia trip includes visits to India and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. The president chose not to visit the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar during his time in India because it required a head covering that his advisers feared would fuel speculation about his faith. A Pew study showed that nearly 20 percent of Americans believe falsely that the president is a Muslim.
The more Obama reaches out to Muslims, the more his critics are likely to slander him, implying that he is not a Christian. An example is his April 2009 speech in Turkey, in which he said, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation, we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” The president’s critics have seized on that statement, insisting that he rejects the Christian foundations of America. Is Obama stuck between a rock and a hard place? If you were the president, how would you handle this dilemma?
There’s a certain honor in holding your head high when others are persecuting you. If President Obama serves as an example, I think it’s fine with him. We are telling gay kids, in the “It Gets Better” campaign, to hold their heads high. We’ve apologized to the Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II; they had to hold their head high for a long time until the apology came. It may be too precarious for Obama to tell American Muslims to hold their heads up high — or to enter a Sikh temple for fear of know-nothing persecution back home. But he was perfectly correct to tell the Islamic world that America isn’t a country founded on any religion, Christian or otherwise.
To me, there’s only so much fighting against persecution that works. We’re only human, and it’s inevitable that 20 percent of people believe that the president is a Muslim. Demagogues form the right — and many speakers at Tea Party rallies — never fail to call him “Barack Hussein Obama,” and when you apply propaganda that continually, somebody is likely to believe it. Facts don’t alter the case. Just as the birthers already hated Obama before they promoted their ridiculous claims about his birth certificate, people who believe that Obama is a Muslim fly in the face of reason for emotional reasons. (As the old quip goes, “Don’t bother me with the facts. My mind is already closed.”)
I often ponder the sad fact that a majority of whites do not approve of the president’s job performance, to which one can add the fact that religious voters, meaning regular churchgoers, overwhelmingly supported Bush, the Iraq War, and the Republican Party in general. It bothers me that people who march under the banner of God, “values,” and their own self-appointed moral superiority can be so blinkered in areas where morality really counts. For a generation the Republicans have counted on bigots and the intolerant. This isn’t something they patented. Before the Civil Rights Act drove the South into the arms of the Republicans, it was the Democrats whose allegiance to the most racist part of the country marked them with shame. Adults have to learn about ambivalence, which means making friends with other people, even loving them, despite their weak and bad side. The opposite of ambivalence is to idealize heroes and paint situations in only two colors, black or white.
President Obama is clearly an adult, and he has resisted the temptation to portray his enemies in black and white. This even-handedness led him to call for bipartisan cooperation since his first day in office, an attitude that drives political operatives crazy. After the shellacking of the midterms, he continues to call for cooperation across the aisle, and for a very good reason. It’s the only way out of gridlock. Only time will tell if ideals have been defeated by human nature. Some would claim that Obama’s mildness did him in already, leading unscrupulous opponents to get away with lies on every front, beginning with “death panels,” “the death tax,” and of course, the birthers’ idiocies about his country of origin. We’re only human, and those things can’t be stopped. But I secretly wish Obama was only human. As much as I admire his adult behavior, it would be understandable if he stood up to the bullies on the right. It gets better, not by waiting and wishing but by making it clear that you demand the right to hold your head up high.