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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Optics of Obama’s Gospel Event

One of the more interesting aspects of contemporary politics is the variable impact of “events” on different media in different places. And you get a full measure of that variability in reading about Barack Obama’s South Carolina “gospel tour,” which hit Columbia last night with “ex-gay” singer Donnie McClurkin in the cleanup spot. McClurkin basically ended the event by denying he was an anti-gay bigot because he’s “suffered the same feelings” as gay folk, and reiterated his belief that God “delivered me from homosexuality.”
To read many progressive bloggers, Obama’s decision to involve McClurkin (introduced to him, reportedly, by Oprah Winfrey) was a cataclysmic mistake. So says Kos, who called it the lowpoint of the “worst [week] I have seen from any candidate in this presidential cycle.” So says Atrios, who described Obama’s explanation of his decision as “incredibly insulting” to, well, just about everybody. So says Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, who dismisses arguments that Obama just screwed up, and accuses him of “dog-whistle outreach” to gay-bashers.
So how did the brouhaha play down in South Cackalacki itself? Well, the Columbia State, which features massive political coverage every day, didn’t bother to cover Obama’s Columbia event. It did publish an AP story with the title: “McClurkin Wins Cheers At Obama Event Despite Gay Protests,” which gives you an idea how seriously the writer took the cataclysmic-disaster interpretation of Obama’s gospel tour.
These different optics reflect the very different issues Obama’s campaign was dealing with in putting on this kind of event. On the one hand, it deeply offended not only gays and lesbians, but many progressive activists who want to support Obama as an alternative to Clinton, but suspect his commitment to the kind of ideological rigor and partisan zeal they consider essential in a nominee. On the other hand, it might have done him some good in SC, where his candidacy may ultimately rise or fall based on his ability to wrest a sizable majority of African-American votes away from HRC.
I realize I am analyzing this episode from a purely political, not moral, point of view. But so, too, are many of those who are blasting Obama nonstop today. Nobody really believes that Barack Obama is homophobic, and nobody (at least on the Left side of the political spectrum) really doubts the sincerity of his religious faith. There’s no contradiction there, since Obama belongs to a faith community, the United Church of Christ, that proudly ordains gay and lesbian clergy. It’s sad and ironic that he’s wound up sponsoring an event where faith and inclusion have come so sharply into conflict from sharply different optics. And it will be an important test of his claim to be a “transformational” politician to see how he gets himself out of this particular trap moving forward.

One comment on “The Optics of Obama’s Gospel Event

  1. noexpert on

    Excellent post that puts this “controversy” in greater perspective. I followed it on the blogs over the weekend without really understanding why it’s such a big issue for so many progressives. I attend church in a welcoming congregation, support gay marriage, and don’t have a problem with Obama sharing the stage with a singer who has different experiences and beliefs. It seems like many snarky progressives lack compassion for McClurkin and his struggles with abuse and his own sexuality.
    If anything this little flap strengthened my support for Obama, as I think he made the right choice to keep McCkurkin on tour as scheduled. I think the candidates and progressive supporters would all do much better discussing bigger issues and going after the current administration and the GOP candidates (who appear to be just as bad if not worse.)


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