Friday, March 14, 2008

Strange Bedfellows and Other Inconveniences

When the United States was far smaller in size and population, this was already a remarkably diverse country, as the great de Toqueville described in his epic work nearly nine score years ago. Geographic expansion and population growth fed largely by successive waves of immigration have resulted in the further diversification of our society, a process that continues and makes our relationships more complex and also more fascinating. Except for the relative few who live entirely insular lives, at school and at work and in a host of primary and secondary contacts we interact with persons who are different in ethnic identity, beliefs, political affiliation, etc., and this means that we are likely to develop ongoing relationships with some persons whom we prefer would not be in our lives.

In a word, associations breed strange bedfellows, whether in friendship and family patterns or political activity or elsewhere and this phenomenon expands as society becomes even more diversified. In a country whose population has raced past the 300 million mark, we who vote in presidential elections invariably select one of two candidates, each of whom is likely to have policy positions that we disagree with and each of whom has forged a broad coalition that includes groups and individuals that we do not care for. In politics, our enemy may be the friend of our friend.

In a democracy, politics tend to be nasty and this encourages the meanspirited exploitation by opponents of strange bedfellow vulnerabilities. There is, I believe, more political negativity nowadays, perhaps because Googling makes it easier to locate dirt, but also because politics have changed. For decades, the Democratic Party had a bad case of split personality and strange bedfellowness, as Southern Democrats – more than a few were racist - sitting in the same big tent with liberal Democrats, an arrangement that allowed the party to control Congress and do well in the Electoral College. It was accepted that liberal Democrats needed to do no more than reject the attitudes of the Southerners. They did not have to reject their votes.

How times have changed. Barack Obama is under attack because the vile Louis Farrakhan says nice things about him and urges his followers to vote for him. It isn’t sufficient for Obama to repudiate Farrakhan. He is being pressured to reject the support of Farrakhan’s followers. Is this reasonable or fair?

A clue to the answer may come from the American Jewish experience. We who ardently care for Israel have our own strange bedfellows in the Evangelical Christians whom we warmly embrace because of their support of the Jewish State, this despite thorny theological questions and, more immediately, an imposing list of Evangelical public policy positions that most American Jews strongly reject. We do not tell the Evangelicals to get lost, the upshot being that we have very strange bedfellows. There is admittedly a difference between Farrakhan’s hate-mongering and the ideology of Evangelicals.

Where there are relationships, there are accommodations that suggest cordiality between parties that left alone would have little to do with each other, at least not in a friendly way. Like all other democracies, the U.S. has close ties with countries that stray far from democratic principles. Israel feels compelled, rightly so, to distance itself from criticism of Turkey’s abysmal record toward Armenians.

We need to ease up, to understand that life brings complications and inconveniences that are unavoidable or have no easy exit. This doesn’t mean going soft on the likes of Farrakhan. It means that more slack needs to be given toward Blacks who believe that the Nation of Islam leader has accomplished some good for Blacks. It is wrong to hold Obama to the fire because he is Black.

He is also the target of an excess of negativity regarding his religious affiliation. The crossroads of religious identity and politics bear some resemblance to the strange bedfellow issue, yet there is a distinction. Some of the language conveyed in religious texts or by religious speakers is parochial and not for a universal audience. What is being conveyed are messages to adherents and not to outsiders. When the context is removed and the words are parsed, what often emerges are thoughts that are strange and, at times, unacceptable and even offensive because they run strongly counter to the sensibilities of the overall society and of persons who are not members of the religious group.

Candidates for high office who are strongly affiliated with a religion run the risk of being confronted by textual teachings and homiletics that many reject. Nearly a half century ago, Jack Kennedy traversed this territory with enormous skill. Mitt Romney wasn’t as fortunate, although for sure it was more than his Mormonism that sank his candidacy. Now Obama is accused of being a closet Muslim and challenged by those who have a problem with Islam.

When Joe Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate eight years ago, he got something close to a free ride on his Judaism, with the focus being primarily and favorably on his Sabbath observance, shul attendance and other charming aspects of his life as an observant Jew. He did not have to justify texts or rabbinical sermons that persons who are not Jewish might have difficulty with.
When religious identity is a vital part of a candidate’s make-up, it is a subject that merits scrutiny. What isn’t right is for a candidate to be required to carry the burdens of his or her religion or to answer for someone else’s religious rhetoric. We need assurances that a candidate is fit for office, not that the religion is fit for office. It happens that our glorious Constitution does not allow a religion test, not to qualify anyone for office and not to disqualify anyone for office.