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FIRST-PERSON: Race, religion & politics: America’s great controversies

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Politics, race and religion are woven so deeply into the fabric of American life that they sometimes make telling, but strange bedfellows. They reign as America’s great controversies. How strange they are can be understood just a little when gauged by the scope of national reaction to former Senate majority leader Trent Lott’s recent nostalgic comments in praise of the rigid 1948 segregationist presidential platform of retired centenarian Strom Thurmond.

Politics were more than evident with the conspicuous silence of President Bush and his administration as he distanced himself from Lott.

And while Lott grappled too long over his next move after his faux pas, politics and race merged center stage.

As a second political salvo in the matter, Bush forcefully declared that Lott’s comments “do not reflect the spirit of our country, and any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong.”

Enter stage “right”: Religion.

Bush’s platform of compassionate conservatism is the religious bridge that he hopes will smooth the way, through faith-based initiatives, for more religious groups and minorities to trust and align with the Republican right.

Whether Trent Lott’s racially charged comments indicate that he harbors racist ideals and sentiments was of little consequence as many who were horrified held him to a high moral imperative.

And Lott clearly thought himself beleaguered and set upon because of his conservative Christian values.

That or not, the nation was obviously unwillingly and unwittingly thrust back to a time of great racial, religious and political controversy, a time when Martin Luther King decried the fact that Sunday School and Sunday church was the time of greatest polarization in the racial divide of the country.

Citizens of Mississippi disconcerted by Lott’s comments felt they had been placed in a light that no longer represents their individual race, religious and political sentiments.

America, with its plethora of issues, great diversity and need of racial and political inclusiveness and religious tolerance, is also a nation continuously involved in deep “soul work” and political and racial and religious change.

The Lott controversy, which may appear on the surface to be a controversy of right and wrong along racial, political and religious boundaries, nonetheless on a much deeper level does represent and clarify America’s national ongoing life and death.

The outcry against this life-changing episode for Lott also represents life in a nation for what is inclusive of all its citizens. It is indicative of forgiveness of those who forget and stumble and are allowed to move on with personal leadership objectives. It represents, despite the controversies fueled by race, religion and politics, how the nation can and will move forward as one nation.

The resolution of the Lott controversy represents death to the past of an old way of life that represented death to a nation capable of resurrection, metamorphosis and much great good.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd