A Muslim, a Catholic, and a Mormon walk into a White House: Theological Racism in the 2012 Presidential Race

As the Republican presidential primaries ramp up for Super Tuesday, religion has, once again, become a central topic of public discourse. Rick Santorum, a Presidential hopeful, has been the most vocal and controversial in the last couple weeks, but Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have also gotten into the theological bashing. This explosion of religious rhetoric erupted after the Obama Administration faced off against the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops on issues of contraceptive healthcare coverage.

As public attention grew, advocates on both sides of the issue, both religious and secular, as well as Catholics and people from other traditions, turned this topic into two interestingly similar, yet distinct headlines: Obama’s War on Religion vs. Republicans’ War on Women. While a great analysis of these competing headlines is valid and needed, I am interested in deconstructing a new term that has been bouncing around in my head ever since I heard some recent remarks by Rick Santorum about Obama’s religious identity: theological racism.

In a recent talk given at an Ohio Christian Alliance event, Santorum said that Obama’s agenda is “not about you.  It’s not about your quality of life.  It’s not about your jobs.  It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology.  Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.”

Santorum’s critique hits at two important questions regarding what it means to be a liberal Christian and what differentiates a legitimate theology from a phony one. On the first point, Santorum responded to the notion that Obama was a liberal Christian in an interview in 2008, by questioning its very existence:

Is there such thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document [the Bible] and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer is, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.”

President Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Extreme hypocrisy aside (i.e., there is no way that those sweater vests are not mixed fabrics…), Santorum is implicitly suggesting that Obama’s theological tradition within the United Church of Christ is inherently a phony theology. The subtext to this is clear: the liberal Christian tradition and the social gospel movement are illegitimate.

In other words, the President’s agenda of improving the lives of the most vulnerable is anti-Christian. Santorum has framed Obama’s faith another way, labeling him a “Jeremiah Wright Christian.” And this is where we see the subtleties of theological racism spring forth. From my understandings of James Cone’s black theology, a central component of the tradition is to understand God’s participation within the struggle of, yet inevitable liberation from, black oppression.

Santorum is undermining the black church and the black experience, while failing to see God at work within this struggle and Obama’s political agenda. The very topic of phony theology emerged was when Santorum was critiquing the President’s “radical environmental agenda,” placing the earth above the needs of humans. I understand a conservative, dominion-centered interpretation of Genesis, but he fails to understand that our symbolic mother and father were kicked out of Eden because they were not able to live in harmony with the earth. Now we are facing the consequences, and instead of admitting that we have continued to rape and pillage the earth, Santorum prefers to play king and subdue it, which is inherently anti-Christ(ian).

Throughout time it has been the privilege of the oppressor to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Christian and what is not. This day is no different: white theology has the power in a white racist society to determine what constitutes Christianity. Franklin Graham, perhaps Santorum’s most bigoted religious advocate, has no qualms with Santorum’s Christian faith. One thing is for sure, as we move closer to November, this discussion will only become more passionate.

President Obama: stand up for the progressive Christian values that were instilled in you by your loving mother, grandparents, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I am not sure whether Santorum would support my Unitarian Universalist (heretical) faith tradition or theology, but nevertheless, I have faith that you will, in the end, do what is right and true to your faith as a Christian.

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