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Commentary: Race, faith and politics

  • Story Highlights
  • Martin: Barack Obama's recent speech dealt race after remarks from his pastor
  • Martin: Race, faith and politics America's most emotional, divisive issues
  • Martin: When we truly listen and learn from one another, our world view changes
  • Martin: We can't forget how our past defines us today
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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(CNN) -- The revelation of controversial comments made by the longtime pastor of Sen. Barack Obama, and the equally hot aftermath from the general public that led to the junior senator from Illinois delivering a strong speech/sermon on race in America, has opened anew the explosive connection between three of the most volatile issues today.


Roland S. Martin says race, faith and politics are the most emotional, passionate and divisive topics in America.

If a poll were taken, there is no doubt that race, faith and politics would be the most emotional, passionate and divisive topics. Why? Because all three are so deeply personal. What one person sees as a negative, another would determine as a strength.

Republicans strongly believe that they are superior and right on the direction of the nation compared to Democrats. African Americans are protective of their culture and ways of living, while whites routinely ask why we can't just be one nation with no labels. Catholics contend they are the one and only true church, while Baptists will say that being dipped in the water after making a personal decision to give your life to Christ is the true way of salvation for the believer.

As a Christian, I've seen church members go toe-to-toe when discussing either one of these issues, and can remember some late night debates in college that would have made the toes of Lincoln and Douglas curl.

So why did the comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright strike such a core, and how did it lead to Obama to give a speech on race? That was the question posed to me in a number of e-mails, and like Obama stated in his speech, it's really America's lack of understanding -- no, refusal to accept -- how the different races live and act.

The Kerner Commission stated in 1968 that we were living in two Americas -- one black and one white. When we examine the TV shows we all watch, those in the top 10 for whites are vastly different than those for blacks. Musical tastes vary, so do cultural norms. We all kid ourselves that during March Madness, the courts are loaded with mostly African American ballplayers, yet when the College World Series tips off in May, you will see mostly whites on the baseball diamond.

But we are also separate when it comes to worship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the most segregated hour of the week is 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. And it still is. For Christians, we may celebrate the same Jesus, but how we do so and with whom is very different.

I fundamentally believe that whites, blacks -- and yes, Hispanics and Asians -- reacted differently when hearing the snippets of Wright's preaching. Not solely because of content, but also style. For African Americans and a lot of Southern whites who are accustomed to a certain style of preaching, the thundering voice that drops to a whisper, the weaving of social issues with the theological, is common.

Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- while not embracing Wright -- agreed with that point.

Yet our view of America is also different. Justified? No. Just different.

While many white Americans will look at Memorial or Veterans Day as an opportunity to celebrate our armed forces, African Americans do the same, but also will think historically about black troops hung from trees, still in their uniforms. They will think of black soldiers returning home to America during World War II forced to sit in the back of the train, while German Nazis got to sit up front.

When Wright was castigated for being anti-American for saying "God damn America!" -- which was not delivered in his speech about September 11, 2001 -- I couldn't help but think about that famous speech Dr. King gave at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, when he blasted America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

King was disowned by many of his supporters, was denounced as a traitor to the nation and his speaking fees dried up.

See, even the man who many conservatives quote today with fervor, was treated as an outcast in his own country.

Our shared experiences today may not be so raw and overt as America's racial past, but we can't forget how our past defines us today.

Are these excuses? Nope. Just a dose of reality.

I watched Joe Scarborough on MSNBC say, while qualifying that these weren't his views, that a blue-collar man in Youngstown, Ohio, didn't want to hear about race from a black man who went to Harvard and his black wife who went to Princeton.

He's probably right. But what Scarborough failed to mention is that same black man came from a single-parent home where the mom had to go on welfare just to feed her family. That same black woman lived in a two-bedroom home and saw her parents bust their butts to make ends meet, and scrape together every penny to send their children to the nation's finest schools.

Isn't that the dream of every white, blue-collar parent, and every black, blue-collar parent? So why should such success be seen as anger towards someone else?

When we sit down, break bread together and truly listen and learn from one another, our world view changes.

For the last few months I've seen that experience up close and personal at my church in Chicago, Illinois.

The Rev. James Meeks, founder and senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation, has been engaged in worship with another predominantly white mega-church, Willow Creek, led by its founder and senior pastor, Bill Hybels.

The pastors of Illinois' two largest churches have been engaged in the swapping of youth members and choirs, have preached at each other's church, and have made it their mission to break down the racial and economic walls that exist between Christians.

It has been rocky at times. Watching the faces of African Americans at a Willow Creek worship service, it is clear they find it a bit jarring -- from the style of preaching to the music. But the common denominator is the same: Jesus.

There is no doubt that a lot of Americans are angry and confused by Obama staying at Trinity United Church of Christ and not disowning his pastor.

Folks, that's just not what church folks do. I don't recall folks asking members of the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson to leave their churches in droves. They knew their leaders are fallible and make mistakes. Should they be criticized for hateful and divisive comments? Absolutely. Disowned?

I would never say that.

This is an opportunity for us. Those of us in the media, as Obama said, can continue to run the same clips, but is that providing healing to America?


What we can do is begin to show where communities are coming together, talking openly and honestly about their hurts, frustrations and pain. Will we get angry and upset because of the other person isn't fully getting what we are trying to say? Of course! But until we decide to look in that mirror, and confront our deep-seated fears of the other because of their race, religion and political affiliation, we'll remain a fractured nation.

The Bible says don't put new wine in old wine skins. So let's stop using the resentments and anger of the past against the people of today and the future.

So, what are YOU prepared to do?

Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian communications at Louisiana Baptist University. You can read more of his columns at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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