By now, everyone has seen the Newsweek poll indicating that a majority of Republicans believes President Barack Obama sympathizes with radical Islamists who would like to impose Shari‘a on the United States. It is impossible to know how many people really believe this, and how many just want to throw whatever mud they can Obama’s way. But the fires beneath this boiling cauldron of hatred are certainly fueled overtly enough by populist right-wing media, from the 700 Club to Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck. The feuds over the constructions of mosques in lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee are part of this story, and in that sense Obama’s recent vocal support for the longstanding ideal of religious pluralism in American life did nothing (alas) to turn down the heat. Certainly, political debates in America generally get fairly nasty whenever the defense of “the American way of life” is at issue. And in America such threats have had a long history of steering the popular imagination back to the question of race. But this time around, the mixture is especially volatile, I think, because race is once again being stirred into a mixture with religion.
The most obvious precursor for Pat Robertson, Limbaugh, and especially for the newly hyper-pious Beck, is the paterfamilias of all right-wing populist media darlings: Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin, who is sadly unknown even to most reasonably educated Americans today, was a Roman Catholic priest with a listening audience of, at his peak, perhaps one-third of all Americans—a share that would be lusted after today. His shift in 1934 from left-wing populist and internationalist support for Roosevelt’s New Deal to right-wing populist, isolationist, and virulently anti-Semitic support for Hitler’s Third Reich marked a turning point in the idea of populism itself. After Coughlin, it would increasingly appear to be the liberal, fellow-traveling, and (for a time) Jewish cultural elite that oppressed the farmer and working man, rather than the self-made Robber Barons who held the chains of power in populism’s earlier incarnation. Only Roosevelt’s expedient disregard of the First Amendment and the Catholic Church’s own distaste for one of its own finally brought Coughlin down. But his heirs live on, and the LDS-affiliated Beck is increasingly following in his footsteps.
In the Third Reich, race and religion were superimposed in a rather convenient manner—Jews, who had most often been considered as religious outcasts before nineteenth-century theorists discovered the science of biological race, could now be treated as racial outcasts. But, as Coughlin’s broadcasts after 1934 show, the popular appeal of religious ostracism never really went away. For the John Birch society, founded in the late 1950s, the godlessness of Soviet Communists was in no sense a minor flaw.
Today, by contrast, race is the third-rail of American politics: even the first black President touches it at his peril. But religious scapegoating is ironically almost as acceptable in public discourse as it was in Coughlin’s day, largely due to the hysteria that still grips the country (and not only this country) because of 9/11. Still, it is obvious that race and religion are tightly bound up with another. There has been surprisingly little commentary, either in print or on television, about the fact that the first experience of Islam most older Americans can remember is the religion of the Nation of Islam, the prison-born Islam of Malcolm X. While the worldviews of Obama and Malcolm X could not be more different, there is for me always an uncanny echo of Malcolm’s body-hexis, oratorical cadences, and wry, sarcastic humor in Barack Obama’s stage performances. Beck is probably right to think that he can do a better imitation of Martin Luther King, Jr. than Obama can. In any case, it is the far more radical and threatening Malcolm X, I think, who lingers in the media-inculcated political unconscious of white Americans over the age of 55 when they say they think Obama is a Muslim. And this is because Malcolm X was both racially and religiously other. What King knew, and Malcolm X disregarded, was that (as W. E. B. Du Bois predicted) it would be in part through the work of the African-American Church (largely Methodist and Baptist) that black Christians would finally be accepted as American citizens by white Christians.
Today, as a number of commentators have noted, right-wing populists like the Tea Party rarely speak of race openly, any more than do those who oppose the building of mosques, and yet they seem to be an awfully homogeneous group racially. And, to a remarkable extent in my view, almost no one publicly reveals racial animus toward Obama—even Beck decries Obama’s “reverse racism” (which for many of us is rather hard to find) rather than any character flaw due to race itself. (As, I suppose, even the die-hard racists are forced to admit, Obama is hard to caricature as stupid, lazy, or sexually incontinent). Instead, religion has become a surrogate of sorts for race: Beck talks about “restoring honor” through a return to the Christian-American God, and Sarah Palin, about the high maternal honor of birthing Christian soldiers in much the same tones that Blut und Boden writers after Germany’s humiliating and economy-wrecking loss in WWI pushed for a populist recovery of all that was strong and noble and (most of all) “honorable” in the likes of authentic (non-Jewish) Germans on authentic (non-Jewish) German soil. And all the while, the Rupert Murdochs of the world carefully tend the flames of hatred that turn Obama into the Black Muslim redux, only now with a world-wide conspiracy of Muslim terrorists to assist him.
We are, I am beginning to think, at a sort of Weimar moment in this country, as we suffer from the worst economic collapse since 1929, deal with the horrific humiliation of 9/11, work through a decade-long re-militarization of our society, and watch a leader unjustly tarred as a “socialist” (as were those who ran Weimar) try to keep an increasingly fractured nation together. The rabid populist demagogues who claim to have the answers are not far off. They are waiting in the wings for 2012, and they are good, chest-thumping Christians from an authentic, honorable, Christian America who have good Christian soldiers for sons.