The National Catholic Review
A front page story in this morning’s Washington Post highlights the effects of persistent false rumors about Barack Obama. The rumors are spread on the Internet and by word-of-mouth, this last still being the most effective means of communication devised by humankind. Indeed, the story’s protagonist admits that he has seen news accounts that show these rumors to be false, but that "it’s hard to ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it." In response, Obama’s campaign has set up a special website called "Fight the Smears." Maybe this will work, maybe not. Once a story is being passed by word-of-mouth, be it these nasty rumors or a good review of a new restaurant, it is very difficult to refute. Ten percent of the American people, according to several polls, believe that Obama is a Muslim. All of this puts me in mind of my mother. She taught fourth grade for thirty years and each year, her class received free copies of the local paper, the Hartford Courant, and spent their morning learning how to read a newspaper, the difference between a news account, news analysis and an opinion piece. This was done as part of the reading curriculum but it was really an early lesson in civics too. Because she taught in an inner-city school, many of the children’s parents were poor and had never read a paper with any regularity. Their children taught them how to do so. None of the alumni of my mother’s fourth grade class would fall for these anti-Obama smears. But, my mother is no longer with us. The clergy, however, are with us and this is the kind of issue that should engage pastors of all denominations, all ideological dispositions, and all partisan leanings. For Catholics, there are some good reasons to be against Obama. For example, he is pro-choice and runs at the head of a rigidly pro-choice party. That is a good reason not to vote for him. Believing a false rumor that he "refuses" to wear a flag pin or that he is a Muslim is not a good reason. This is fodder for some sermons: citizens have an obligation to educate themselves and cast informed votes. There is also an opportunity for Obama here. He should call for the return of civics to America’s high school curriculum. Part of the reason so many people are ill informed about the processes of our government is because they have never been taught. My generation got new math (and I still can’t do calculus) but we were not taught civics. In fact, Obama can make it a twofer: call on John McCain to join him in the pledge that whoever wins in November, federal funds will only go to schools that have civics classes. Love of country is about more than flag pins. To really love our country we need to know something about it. Will it matter? A recent poll showed that three in ten Americans admit to some measure of racial prejudice but only one in ten say a candidate’s race matters to them. That means that two in ten know they harbor prejudice but that it is somehow wrong. Obama has a clear self-interest in demonstrating why it is wrong, but so do America’s churches. Priests and bishops and ministers should mount their pulpits in the weeks and months ahead and urge their flocks to educate themselves, to not be swayed by rumor-mongering which happens to be a sin. This is how religion should be involved in politics. And, Obama should go to small town America (the town in the Post article, Findlay, Ohio, might be the place) and, for once, not have the advance team carefully select those who will ask questions. He should answer any and all questions. The enemy here is ultimately bigotry, and just as John Kennedy had to go to the Houston Ministerial Convention to confront anti-Catholic bigotry head-on, Obama must confront the bigotry he faces head-on. It could be his finest moment. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 11/25/2008 - 6:59am
Rumors are common to any political campaign. In fact, rumors are commonplace in everyday life but it doesn't make every rumor true. For in every rumor, is a piece of the truth but the rumor in some cases may be an exaggeration. Or just an attempt to smear somebody.
Anonymous | 7/3/2008 - 3:24pm
Winters' criticism of all the ''persistent false rumors'' about Obama is difficult to refute. A ''false'' rumor is by definition ''false''. But, concering Obama, there are many rumors out there. Is every Obama rumor a ''false rumor''. Might there be a ''truthful'' one, or two? I could only buy into Winters' argument if he had listed the ''false rumors'' he had in mind when preparing his piece and then refuted each with the truth. Without this head-on approach, Winters words are just a one-sided premise of an Obama supporter without substantiation.
Anonymous | 7/1/2008 - 11:31am
Obama gave a wonderful Civics lesson in his speech yesterday, June 30, 2008 in Independence MO. The sound-bytes from mainstream media did not do justice to the speech. The presentation of the speech and discussion regarding rumor mongoring which followed on PBS Jim Lehrer News Hour last night was excellent. Obama has also given a speech regarding his religion. He comes closer to being someone who confronts the issues head-on as anyone I've heard in recent years. I agree with you that the ''front'' people could use some training. They sometimes are too zealous in their desire to present a ''winning'' candidate who meets the criteria of the uniformed electorate. Robert Kennedy was a good example of straight talk and moving away from what was the traditional political traditions of the time in 1968. His speech in Indiana after the Martin Luther King murder is an example. Thank you for the article. I have passed it on the several friends.
Anonymous | 7/13/2008 - 4:22am
Willard Joseph Isenberger asks what the ''false rumors'' were -- the most important rumor is stated in the article above, which is the false claim that Obama is a Muslim. The article in the Washington Post is linked to this article, and it also mentions rumors that Obama was born in Africa and that Obama is unpatriotic (as demonstrated by his allegedly refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or to wear a flag pin). These rumors are false; the ''Fight the Smears'' website shows Obama's birth certificate to prove that he was not born in Africa, and there are responses to the other rumors also.
Anonymous | 7/2/2008 - 9:50pm
An interesting note about the Washington Post article: Not surprisingly, it turns out that Findlay, OH and its surroundings historically vote heavily Republican. Here's how Hancock County voted in the last four presidential elections: 1992: Bill Clinton won 25% 1996: Bill Clinton won 31% 2000: Al Gore won 29% 2004: John Kerry won 29%