The Race for the Whitehouse
The race for the White House is managing to combine racism, ageism, sexism and maybe even classism. And if you include that picture of Sarah Palin holding a gun in her hands we’ve also got militarism.
It reminds me of a class I did while studying in the USA. We called it the ‘isms’ class because in it we conducted theological explorations of the above ‘isms’ and others: handicappism, heterosexism. Was this an indulgent exercise n political correctness? Of course – and it was one of my most stimulating educational experiences ever.
These ‘isms’ are real powers. They are evils which thread their way through our society and create discrimination and prejudice. In the process they protect certain groups – in fact, only one group: white, heterosexual males. It is possible to interpret each of those powers – each ‘ism’ - as a manifestation of patriarchy, by which I mean the privileged position which those white, heterosexual males occupy, assume they have the right to occupy and which western society by default gives them. Patriarchy is the reason why women had to fight to get the vote, why women still cannot be ordained in some churches, why men who do not act in stereotypical powerful ways usually do not achieve status and why gay men are seen as a threat (much more so than lesbian women, who are doubly marginalised by patriarchy.) Please also note that in those pictures we see of traders buying and selling shares, making money out the money market, it is invariably white men who are working these global, financial levers of power. Or they were.
Anyway, back to the US elections. The race to The White House is certainly proving to be more entertaining than current British politics: there’s more charisma and controversy around. To say that it is notable that there is an African-American as a candidate for President is a huge understatement: the significance of Obama is huge. He is an embodiment of the American dream – that cliché that anyone can end up as President, even the child of a black single mother, born in poverty, who works his way up. The fact that the emancipation of black people in the USA had its key turning point within his own life-time (the 1964 Civil Rights Act which accorded African-Americans equal rights as full citizens) shows how quickly and how radically American society has changed – or much of it. If Barack Obama is not elected as President of The United States of America on November 4 it will arguably be for one reason: that racism still holds power in American society. In this context racism says that it is unacceptable for a black person to be President. Racism will ignore the policies, the abilities, the charisma and everything else: it will boil down to the one fact of race and colour.
Most of those ‘isms’ above are about acceptability: the notion that certain people are more or less acceptable within society than others, on the grounds of their colour, race, gender, age, sexuality, physical abilities and so on. Notions of acceptability are rooted in irrational fears. One fear s dominant: that white, heterosexual males will lose their privileges. Yet these fears are often wrapped up in a garb of philosophical, theological or other form of rational argument.
Anyway, back to that ‘isms’ class. One of the books we were invited to read was called ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ by Adrienne Rich. It was the beginning of my awareness that there is a power at large in our society which creates a norm of heterosexuality and from that norm no-one ought to deviate. It is this power which makes it so hard for people to accept themselves as lesbian or gay and to come out. Heterosexism is a power which makes homosexuality unacceptable in the same way that racism is a power which makes black skin colour unacceptable. It is racism that oppressed the black population of South Africa under the respectability of a political ideology called apartheid. Those powers create fear, victims and crucifixions.
Churches are notoriously heterosexist institutions and so the debate goes on over whether lesbian and gay people (and lesbian and gay Christian people) are acceptable or not. There have been congregations which were looking for a minister where their nominating committee decided that they were not ready to have a gay minister – and a same-sex partner in the manse would be unacceptable. There are other congregations which have affirmed and accepted their minister in the wholeness of who she or he is. (Please identify yourselves with pride!) Gene Robinson, the openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America has referred to his election as a bishop as a sign that patriarchy is ending: that is good news.
If Barack Obama is elected as President of the USA on November 4 it will be a wonderful sign that the power of racism is weakened. A black man is acceptable as president. But when will there be an openly gay man or woman as president, or as Prime Minister in the UK. As a society, are we ready for that?
Final thought: if my talk above of the powers which create discrimination and fear has disturbed you then please hold fast to the subversive words of St. Paul, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”