On Thursday night, the IRCPL and the African American studies department treated all those in attendance to a thought-provoking conversation entitled Race, Religion, and the 2012 Election. The discussion was between Katrina vanden Heuvel, of The Nation magazine, and living-legend Jesse Jackson. It was moderated by biblical scholar, Dr. Obery Hendricks. Our own lively lecture-hopper, Zachary Hendrickson, was there to cover the event.

Reverend Jesse Jackson

The night started off with the question of whether or not the panelists agreed about the importance of this generation regarding the quality of democracy. Rev. Jesse Jackson compared this election to the importance of the Civil War. “All that we’ve fought for in the past half-century is now on the chopping block,” says Jackson. He used the example of voter suppression as one of the most basic rights that has now come under attack. According to Jackson, the suppression of voters could mean a win by negation instead of a win by affirmation.

Katrina vanden Heuvel echoed Jackson’s statements saying that this election is about a group of right-wing individuals that are trying to undo the 20th century. She cautioned that this election is about so much more than just the president. It is about who can wield influence over the Supreme Court. That could have drastic consequences regarding a whole slew of important policy issues. She was also claimed that any real change must come from the people.  They represent the only true chance of pushing someone beyond their politics and toward meaningful change. Therefore, we must “be at Obama’s back until November 6th and in the streets on November 7th.”

This sentiment was followed up by Jackson who talked about his frustration with the recent presidential debates. According to him, there was not enough talk about issues such as violence or poverty. The reverend made it clear that when politicians talk about bottom up, that should not mean the middle class down.

The next question was about the importance of religion in this election. Once again, vanden Heuvel started off the conversation. She brought up the fact that religious faith has not played much of a role except concerning issues over women’s rights. She also mentioned that it’s troubling how often religious groups talk about restriction rather than freedom.

Jesse Jackson expanded on this point by noting how when he was growing up in the South, race and culture quite frequently trumped religion. It’s not so different today. Jackson wishes to see a political discourse that better reflects the Biblical teachings in the sense that it’s the lower-class that needs protecting. We need more “I was hungry – you fed me, not I’m working – you gave me a vacation,” proclaims Reverend Jackson. Ultimately, it is not the character of religion that is in question but those who follow it.

At this point, the conversation shifted a bit to a discussion about the relationship between the people and government. Jesse Jackson mentioned that in every instance, equality requires investment. That investment first requires the people to push that good president to aspire to greatness. Jackson calls us to remember that “Martin Luther King Jr. supported Kennedy, but we still had to march on Washington.” He expressed his hope that we as citizens do not fail this good president by allowing him to settle for anything less than greatness.

As far as how people can bring about change in this country, vanden Heuvel says that it’s all about the tone. Too often good movements end up pushing people away. She said that that’s what The Nation is for—reporting the unreported in a way that brings people in – not turn them off.  “You have to move people in a way that advocates hope and aspiration…” says vanden Heuvel. However, Jackson pointed out that those who do what’s right often pay a heavy price. He used Jesus’ work as an example. “Jesus was the first to occupy. He occupied the temple!” Jackson exclaimed.

Following this, there was a short discussion on the link between spirituality and politics. Jesse Jackson says that the link is clear. In short, the way spirituality manifests itself is through action. Without action spirituality means nothing, and that’s what politics is about too – the transformation from words to action.

The last of the official questions was directed toward Rev. Jackson. Hendricks asked what advice Jackson picked up during his two presidential campaigns that President Obama could benefit from, more specifically what he needs to do to win. Jackson instead talked briefly about how frustrating it was to feel politics begin to overshadow the questions that he truly wanted to raise. Then he switched gears and called attention to the strength of Obama’s record. He emphasized three specific points: Obama’s action in Detroit, the Affordable Care Act, and ending the war in Iraq.

The evening wrapped up with each of the panelists emphasizing the importance of voting and people making their voices heard. It was a perfect segue to a round of questions from the audience. These involved everything from the importance of media to the corporatization of the political debate process and even student debt forgiveness. After the event, the stage was swarmed with students trying to get their picture taken with the Reverend. He was more than happy to accommodate. It was an inspiring event that left everyone I talked to afterward with a powerful desire to act. After all, it’s not every day that you find yourself in the presence of a living legend.


Jesse Jackson  via Wikimedia Commons