They say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I make no such promises about Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City is where I attended my first academic meetings as a publishing professional in 1991, the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. In those days, the publishing company I worked for customarily rented a suite in the convention hotel, ostensibly to meet with authors about book projects. But the larger purpose of the suite was as a sort of hospitality suite for Lutheran elders in biblical studies and theology, who gathered there each afternoon and evening to partake of our open bar, smoke, and talk shop.
This particular year, we hosted a late-afternoon reception in the suite honoring the contributors to a new, ground-breaking work on African-American biblical criticism. Most of the honorees were teetotalers, so our primary refreshments were soft drinks, with a few partaking of beer or wine. At 5:00, the usual Lutheran cohort of middle-aged white men showed up, unaware of the special event taking place. The first thing they noticed was the absence of hard liquor, and they scoured the kitchenette to find their beloved bottles of gin and scotch. It was only then that they seemed to notice that something different was going on around them.
One author with whom I had worked frequently strolled over to me, scotch and soda in hand, and said with dismay, “Who are all these black people; anyway, David?” When I explained that they were contributors to our new book, he looked askance and sneered, “Well, they aren’t serious scholars, are they?” Trying to hide my shock, I pointed out an eminent African-American scholar across the room, to which he remarked, “Oh, he’s quite good. I never would have guessed that he’s black.” Fortunately, he and the others decided to leave before they had a chance to ask our African-American guests to refresh their drinks for them.
Such unabashed racism was as shocking in 1991 as it is in 2011, but we would be mistaken to think that it’s a remnant of a less-enlightened time. African-American scholars still tell me that they feel pressure to prove themselves as “serious” scholars and to adopt a style of writing that is unnatural for them because it sounds more “academic.” Even as books in African-American studies have grown in numbers, their authors still fight against an attitude of “essentialism,” which suggests that there is a single, uniform black perspective, rather than a diversity of views among African-American thinkers.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the way that both overt and coded racist remarks about him have been not just whispered behind his back, but used openly, even proudly, to express disdain for his policies and to gain political advantage. Some of the Tea Party ralliers this past year hoisted signs that made pointed remarks about his race and his Kenyan background, sometimes using images of monkeys and apes to make their points. Indeed, the “birther” movement, which asserted that Obama was not born a US citizen, and thus is unqualified to be president, seemed to be predicated on racist grounds. Various public officials around the country have come under fire for using similar offensive racial imagery to criticize the president. And even former House speaker and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called Obama “the most successful food-stamp president in history,” and declared, “the Obama system is going to lead us down the path to Detroit and destruction”—comments that many have heard as coded racism.
As distressing as this sort of racism is, the growing tension over difference in American society today seems to be breaking more along ideological divides than along many of the old racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Hardliners among Tea Party conservatives refuse any sort of compromise on the issues on which they advocate and feel free to demonize other conservatives who work cooperatively with more moderate politicians. Foreign-policy battles are fought between so-called idealists and realists, as if the two visions are somehow irreconcilable or utterly incompatible. Even some peace activists I know have found themselves condemned within their movements for speaking sympathetically of interventionist measures in Libya or appreciatively of Defense Department members.
Despite these differences, there are some encouraging signs of growing tolerance of groups once scorned or of ideological lines being bridged. The revocation of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions on gays and lesbians in the military had wide popular support, and several recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Even as states such as Arizona enact draconian immigration policies, there has been a vibrant pushback against such measures in many quarters.
But the tension nevertheless remains, and it cannot be reduced to an easy Left-Right, liberal-conservative split. Progressives often pride themselves on their self-declared compassion for persons on the margins of life and for their embrace of tolerance. But a closer look suggests that many of us who identify as progressive or liberal are quite selective about exactly which margins we are willing to attend to and that our tolerance actually does know limits. There are people in our midst who are still considered fair game for scorn, ridicule, or marginalization, sometimes due to factors of race or class, sometimes for not holding to strict ideological standards.
A case in point is the response to the elation that followed the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Here in Washington, many people rushed to rally in celebration at the White House; similar gatherings occurred at Ground Zero in New York City and in other locations around the country. Almost immediately, many self-identified progressives responded online with disgust and dismay over the cheering crowds, declaring that rejoicing in the death of another is “unbiblical,” and that such displays reflected badly on the country. This immediate rush to judgment upon the revelers, however, seemed driven more by liberal ambivalence over the entire aftermath of 9/11 than by an effort to understand what was driving the celebrations.
This sort of pooh-poohing of public emotion served the powers of division more than the powers of unity: it was its own sort of “us vs. them” statement, of the sophisticated and sober over against the ignorant and bloodthirsty. Nowhere to be found was an effort among liberals to consider how this sort of emotion and energy might be tapped into for the causes of peace and reconciliation. Instead, an event that had the potential to be transformative served not only to reinforce old boundaries, but to build new ones that shut out those who might be powerful allies for progressive interests.
Similarly, the prediction of the Rapture on May 21, and its subsequent failure to occur, brought out some of the worst in progressives, particularly in religious progressives, who used it as an opportunity to mock others whose beliefs are in fact marginal and to adopt a holier-than-thou stance. A close look at those who were embracing this prediction of the end of the world by radio host Harold Camping reveals that many of these people live on the edges of life—sometimes unemployed, divorced, estranged from families, sick in body or mind. Yes, we say that we love those on the margins, but you can bet that we’re more than willing to be selective about what those margins are, particularly when their beliefs seem so extreme. Presumably these disappointed rapturists do not have any overt death wishes. But how many of us stopped to think of what one’s life must be like to make the end of the world seem like the best hope available?
And, let’s face it, there are millions of Christians around the world who do in fact believe in this sort of day of judgment, but who are far more reluctant to put a date certain on it in the way that Harold Camping and many other false prophets before him have. And that hope in such a judgment drives many of these believers into the civic arena to influence national policy on Israel, Palestine, and other dimensions of Middle East relations, to stop climate-change legislation, to shape family-planning policy (and not just on abortion), to fashion other public-policy issues in ways that reflect their belief in an imminent, but unpredictable, end of the world. As tragic as some of Camping’s followers have been, these other, more covert, rapturists are far more dangerous to our common life.
Wherever we fall on the political and religious spectrum, we can be reasonably assured that we have certain peccadilloes of which we are unaware or loath to admit, tendencies to use difference in divisive ways. As much as we want to think that we are more enlightened than those who came before us—less racist, more tolerant—we can always be caught off-guard by an attitude of bias or superiority that threatens to tear the social fabric. Depending on your perspective, those elder Lutheran academics may seem like either an anomaly or exactly what is to be expected of people from that generation and background. But we are all susceptible to walking into a group and asking, either out loud or silently, “Who are all these people, anyway? They surely can’t be serious!”
Hubert Humphrey once said that the right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously. Wise words those, but words that we should take with caution, for we may very easily find ourselves to be the ones heard but not taken seriously. Living together in civil society does demand that we listen to one another with humility, and that we not let ideology rob us—or others—of our humanity. Remember: patting oneself on the back is not exactly the most graceful of postures. That’s an unflattering picture that cannot stay secret for long, in Kansas City, in Vegas, or anywhere else in the society of tolerance and hope that we are forming together.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.