A recent telephone call illustrates the problem.
Deb Geissler of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is working the phone bank for Barack Obama headquarters in her home state, when she reaches a man who bristles at the mention of her candidate’s name.
“Obama?” he asks, sounding offended. “Isn’t he the Muslim one?”
“No, sir” answers Geissler. “He’s a Christian.”
“Well, I heard he’s Muslim.”
Faith in Barack
Geissler recounts this story to me on an unseasonably cold, gloomy Friday in Aiken, South Carolina. It’s the day before the South Carolina Democratic primary, and Geissler—a middle-aged nurse with piercing blue-grey eyes—is fresh off a six-hour car trip from Tuscaloosa. She is driving around a low-income black neighborhood of Aiken in her silver Honda Civic hybrid, along with three students from the University of Alabama: Ruthie Puckett, Crystal Murray and Jarvis Edwards. Like Geissler, they’ve come to help any way they can in the hours before Obama’s most important primary yet.
On streets like McCormick, Dillon and Toole, the houses sit close together. Many feature wooden front porches, held up by cinder blocks, and cars, as often as not, sit parked on the lawn. The four volunteers take turns hopping out of the Civic with a list of addresses where they have permission to place Obama door hangers. Together, they make up a diverse quartet, representing in miniature their candidate’s broad appeal. They are black and white, younger and older, and even American and Canadian—Geissler is a native of Nova Scotia.
In her almost stereotypically polite, North-of-the-border accent, Deb Geissler expresses her faith in Barack Obama. And she explains that in her eleven years in Alabama, she’s seen how much nastier America’s politics can be than their Canadian equivalent. For her, there is no clearer example than when she spoke with that man back in Tuscaloosa, wondering how he got his information or, frankly, why it would even matter.
Faith, the Facts
Nobody is exactly sure where the rumor came from. Newsweek, which not long ago published an article about unsubstantiated accusations against Obama (all of which the magazine found to be maliciously false), wagered that the alleged link between Islam and the Illinois senator has been circulating in emails since January 2007 or earlier. But discredited or not, the whispers continue, and seem to be shaping votes, and not only in the Southern Bible Belt. On NPR last week, a reporter on the other side of the country interviewed a California handyman for a story about the popularity of Hillary Clinton among Hispanics in that state. The man sounded more frightened by Obama than in favor of the former First Lady.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “I mean, we’re fighting over there in the Muslim world and we got a candidate that’s Muslim. That trips me out.”
It’s encounters like this one, and like Deb Geissler’s, that have prompted the Obama 2008 campaign to post a page of “Faith Facts” on its official website. And it’s why, in the weeks leading up to the state primary, the South Carolina branch of the campaign has printed stacks upon stacks of “faith lit,” a series of brochures catered to Sunday worshipers, which make the radical case that Barack Obama, a twenty-year member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, is not a Muslim.
We Asked Nicely
The Aiken County Democratic Headquarters, at 329 Richland Avenue just outside downtown, is a small, cream-colored building that could pass for a roadhouse. It sits back from Richland (Aiken’s main street), directly behind a Local Cash Advance, surrounded by a gravel parking lot. Outside the front door, signs stick out of the ground for all three of the party’s main presidential candidates, but inside it’s all Obama. A few older women work the desks in the entryway, where the phones sit and fliers are strewn about, but otherwise youth is the dominant feature in the cramped rooms. Young people, both volunteers and staff, are walking around frantically before a meeting. One girl laughs as she inquires how Obama’s camp managed to take over the Aiken Democratic Headquarters.
“We asked nicely,” answers a grinning, scruffy male staffer in his twenties, wearing flannel and a vest (campaign protocol prevents staff workers from talking on the record, so naming names is discouraged).
After my visit with Deb Geissler and the contingent from Alabama, I’ve come back to headquarters to get a hold of some of the “faith lit.” Understandably, everyone’s a little scatterbrained on the eve of the primary, and no one seems to know where any copies might be.
“I think we handed them all out,” the staffer tells me, as he hunts around in boxes. “We gave out a ton of them on Sundays.” He goes outside to keep looking.
Another young woman expresses her surprise. “We had so many of them,” she says. “That’s all I did the last two weekends.”
Pundits have asserted that the Palmetto State’s African-American voters will likely determine the primary’s outcome (they comprise nearly half of the state’s Democratic electorate), and many of them are evangelical Christians—not a group that would typically approve of a surreptitiously Muslim candidate. The “faith lit” is largely for them.
Called to Christ
After a while, the staffer returns with two colorful brochures. They seem to be the last copies remaining after weeks of intensive canvassing. Each features photos of Obama in not-so-subtle poses, speaking in front of stained glass windows, or giving witness from a pulpit with a cross in the background. Messages ornament the pages—phrases like “Committed Christian,” “Called to Christ,” “Faith. Hope. Change.” In one, Obama talks about his belief in the power of prayer, and about his conversion at his predominantly black church on Chicago’s South Side.
What is not found anywhere on the brochures is the word “Muslim” or “Islam.” Obama’s campaign has expressed its respect for the religion, but refuses to dignify the email whisperings about their candidate by printing anything about them on their handouts. Instead, they aimed to hammer away at a different picture: one of Obama the Christian, looking at home in his Christian house of worship.
On the following evening, the South Carolina primary is called for Barack Obama within an hour of the closing of the polls. By the time all votes are tallied, Obama’s total doubles that of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. Obama alone nets nearly the same number of votes as were cast in the state primary in 2004.
African-Americans came out in record number, and 80 percent of them voted for the man from Trinity United Church of Christ. Quite possibly, those who remained undecided until the final week received some “faith lit” after their Sunday service, and saw a little bit of themselves in the man featured in the pictures.
Next Tuesday, nearly half the country’s Democrats will have the chance to vote in a supernova of state primaries that might very well decide the party’s nominee. In one of those states, Alabama, Deb Geissler—who became a U.S. citizen in June—will cast her very first primary ballot, for Barack Obama. And in all of those states, Alabama and California included, campaigners will be out in force, combating the rumors with the facts, with a huge stack of brochures, and a little faith of their own.