Lack of respect for president hinders constructive debate

I'm writing this after listening to the president of the United States speak to our nation's schoolchildren. His patriotic, nonpartisan "values" based and motivational message reminded me why some people were opposed to and suspicious of his speech and refused to allow their children to hear it. In 30-plus years of pastoral ministry, I've encountered people who are critical of ideas presented but offer no alternative ideas and do their best to keep good ideas from being fairly presented and considered, lest they be embraced. That now seems to be especially true for President Obama's ideas.

Some of his opposition is politically predictable, since President Bill Clinton was under political attack from the day of his election and presidential candidate John Kerry was slandered in a way that turned voters away from him. Those who present no good ideas of their own can only resort to dubious, rumor driven attacks to generate fear and damage their opponents. In President Obama's case, however, the criticism has been even more shrill, threatening and irrational, and didn't begin with those who labeled his speech to our schoolchildren as an effort at "socialist indoctrination."

President Obama's citizenship has been questioned, his proposed health care reform has been challenged by angry and rude protestors -- some of whom have been armed in proximity to his public appearances -- and he's been branded a socialist and a fascist, which is at best an ideological stretch.

Since President Obama has patiently advocated bipartisan cooperation and has tried to reach across party lines, perhaps the explanation for the stiff opposition he's encountered lies in his race. Perhaps that's why one vocal "tea party" protestor at a health care rally called our President a threat to her "way of life" and tearfully said that she "wanted her America back." That language mirrors the rhetoric of those who called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a "communist" and an "agitator" who threatened their "way of life" in his time.

Perhaps President Obama has encountered withering, persistent and misleading opposition because he's not only a progressive president with an authentically American message of self responsibility, equity and hope -- he's also our first president of discernable African descent. Perhaps those who so hotly oppose him have resorted to mean-spirited and threatening behavior not only because he doesn't thoroughly embrace what passes for conservative ideology today, but because he challenges their comfortable racial stereotypes. Perhaps they're afraid that if he's allowed to simply speak, as he did to our schoolchildren, he'll hasten the demolition of America's enduring and troubling racial walls and make it plain that the color of one's skin doesn't determine one's intellect, ability or character.

That fear is understandable in the light of America's history, for those with money, power and influence have long enlisted those with a visceral fear of insufficient self worth to be their "foot soldiers" in civil disobedience. Southern planters who needed to assure that whites of modest means didn't cultivate linkages with enslaved Africans used racial stereotypes as a tool of division. Affluent Southern politicians who sowed the seeds of Southern secession stirred up their fearful neighbors of modest means to valiantly but vainly fight to defend their "way of life." Politicians who played the "race card" in the mid-20th century relied on the fearful masses to respond to their divisive and inflammatory rhetoric by brutalizing civil rights advocates.

If we are to be "one nation," as our Pledge of Allegiance calls us to be, then we must do better. School districts -- like the Charleston County School District -- must never again bow to those who wear their prejudice on their sleeves and make hearing an address by the president of the United States "optional," earnest political conservatives of good intent must openly and assertively urge their ideological "lunatic fringe" to welcome respectful dialogue instead of marching to the demagogic drumbeat of "talking heads" like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and our community must commit to an honest, earnest and respectful discussion about race. We can then have political disagreements but respect all of those who hold political office, even if they don't look like or think like us, and build a better nation together.

The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church.