The big question used to be, when did you leave the Communist Party? And the answer was always, too late, because the questioner had either left before you or had never joined. In this campaign season, the question is, why didn’t you leave your church and disavow your pastor earlier? For a while, it was posed only to Barack Obama, not to other candidates who, over the years, had attended churches or accepted endorsements from pastors who were antigay, did not believe in equal rights for women, or subscribed to theories of Armageddon that required Jews to disappear from the face of the earth. These other candidates carried the protective armor of whiteness, which Obama lacked, so their protestations that their faith was personal and that they shouldn’t be held responsible for the statements of others were taken at face value. Only Mormon Mitt Romney took almost as much heat. Some on the left treated Hillary Clinton’s membership in a conservative prayer group as if she were in a bizarre cult, while the rest of the country, where prayer groups are common, could have cared less. Relentless exposure of the anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Islamic beliefs of two of John McCain’s supporters finally forced McCain to reject their endorsement weeks after Obama had to distance himself from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
Nobody at my church (full disclosure, it’s affiliated with the same denomination as Obama’s former church) thought Obama should have left, and nobody among my secular left-wing friends understood how he could have stayed so long. I joked on Sundays that I was sure glad none of us were running for office. We didn’t have to ask if we should have left in 1967, when our charismatic minister started publicly helping women find safe, albeit illegal, abortions, or in 1970, when we hosted an anti-war art show featuring the American flag and heard a sermon on symbols and idolatry.
Should we have left when the church started advocating for decriminalization of prostitution? No, I thought, my leaving a church would have had to be earlier. The year was 1960. A Catholic was running for president. In my central Pennsylvania Republican town, our pastor was worried. After one particularly bitter Sunday diatribe, my family debated whether we should get up and leave the next time it happened. My parents never had any interest in protest, so just the discussion was remarkable to this thirteen-year-old. Still, there was never talk of leaving the church. The election would end; the church, with all its imperfections, would still be there.
In Protestantism the major schisms over race had occurred more than a century before, but during the civil rights years, many pastors lost their pulpits in white churches for being too “militant.” And over the decades, as I’ve watched friends leave the Catholic church over homosexuality and ordination of women and have watched others be hounded from Protestant denomination...
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