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A Conservative Minister Watches Out for Obama in Smalltown West Virginia

By Alec MacGillis
In the past few days, two of my colleagues here at The Post have set out to describe how false rumors about Barack Obama spread within the electorate, both on the Web and within small communities. The rumors have become so widespread that it has come to the point where, as a reporter, one almost expects to be presented with colorful falsehoods about Obama when canvassing voters in many parts of the country. What's more unusual is when one observes one of the rumors being challenged -- which is what happened on a recent visit I made to Grafton, W.V.

I was in the town, a former Baltimore & Ohio railroad junction in north-central West Virginia, to report an article about West Virginia's shift into the Republican column in presidential elections, contrasted with the Democratic turn of next door Virginia. Among the Grafton residents I interviewed was Sandra Murray, the 61-year-old wife of a railroad retiree, who was sweeping the steps of the Blueville Church of Christ, an evangelical Christian church in a modest brick building on the edge of town near a Wal-Mart, when I stopped to chat with her.

We talked a bit about the changing political climate in West Virginia before the conversation turned to Obama. Murray said that she had voted Republican in recent years but that her husband was a loyal Democrat. This year, though, he was not sure how he would vote, she said. Both of them, she said, had talked at length about Obama's relationship to Islam, and how, she asserted, "he was a Muslim when he was a child and lived in that country."

(While Obama lived in Indonesia, a mostly Muslim nation, for several years with his mother and stepfather as a small child, there is no evidence that he was raised as a Muslim. He attended a Catholic school and later a government school. Obama "is not, and was never, a Muslim," his campaign spokesman has said. For more, see "Was Obama Ever a Muslim?" by Fact Checker Michael Dobbs.)

Murray said she realized that Obama had joined a church in Chicago, but she said she still worried that he remained a Muslim at heart, just the way "Catholics are always Catholics -- it's instilled in them. I'm afraid that in his mind he's going to go back to being Muslim."

(Again: Obama has repeatedly made clear that he was never a Muslim.)

Murray and her husband and others in her family had discussed, she said, whether Obama might "help the terrorists" once he's in the White House. On the one hand, she said, they realized that there were checks and balances in the U.S. government that meant that you "can't do that alone." On the other hand, they worried that a president could "do things undercover."

A moment later, the church door opened and out came Jeff Johnson, the 45-year-old minister. An Army brat from Georgia who moved to Grafton when the church was looking for a new minister, Johnson considers himself a true swing voter, put off both by the Democrats' stance on abortion and the Republicans' close ties with the coal industry, which he thinks is spoiling the state, and their role in starting the war in Iraq, which he thinks has needlessly cost thousands of lives.

But this year, he said, there was one thing that was particularly upsetting him: the criticisms of Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and the false rumors being spread by e-mail about Obama's purported Muslim roots. Johnson thought that those decrying Wright needed to take into account the perspective of older blacks like Wright and elements of the "African American experience" that contributed to Wright's anger. He recalled what it was like when he had once taken a bus from Atlanta to Montgomery, Ala., and found himself as the only white person for much of the trip -- the feeling of suddenly finding oneself in the minority.

Most of all, Johnson said, he could not understand how anyone could lambaste Obama for his association with Wright at the same time they call Obama a Muslim. "I've done everything I can to tell people that if he's a Muslim then he wouldn't be having such a problem with his church," he said.

At this point, Murray broke in to repeat her concerns, looking to Johnson for confirmation of her theological theory that someone with a Muslim background (which Obama does not have) was always a Muslim, no matter what came afterward. Johnson did not try to hide his dismay at what she said, even though Murray was a longtime member of his church who was out volunteering on a very hot day to sweep the church steps.

Johnson laid out the facts of Obama's youth -- that his Kenyan father had come from a Muslim family but was not observant and had, in any case, left Obama's life at age 2, and that Obama's elementary school in Indonesia had not been a religious school.

If you want to oppose Obama, that's fine, he told Murray. "But make it a legitimate reason," he said. "Don't spread that."

Obama is not planning to compete very hard in West Virginia. But in Grafton at least, there's a conservative evangelical minister watching his back.

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 1, 2008; 1:37 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: McCain Picks Fight Over Justices
Next: Obama Weighs in on Clark Comments


Thank goodness for the truth-teller. I find it shameful to see the level of ignorance in this country. It's just unbelievable to me.

Posted by: JDB | July 2, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

As others have said, very nice piece. Perhaps you can work toward a story contrasting the views and actions of those who are sticking with (and spreading) the false stories about Sen. Obama and people who, without obvious partisan interest, are working to correct those falsehoods.

Posted by: JRG | July 1, 2008 8:12 PM | Report abuse

What's sad, to me, is that this woman will now hold the (absolutely correct) belief that Obama is not a Muslim, but solely because her ecumenical authority figure told her it was so. Why can't Americans do honest research and learn things on their own?

Sigh. Well, at least there is one less Mountaineer living in the GOP's alternative reality. God, what a messed up country.

Posted by: Mark | July 1, 2008 6:32 PM | Report abuse

I wish the Post would hire this Reverend Johnson as its new media critic to replace Coward Kurtzy. He sounds a lot more even-minded and decent than the joker currently in the job.

Posted by: Exasperated with the Post | July 1, 2008 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I am from that small town of Grafton WV and this is a good indication of the thinking of those people who do not read the whole story of a public figure. I would like to send my thoughts to them about Obama who is NOT a Muslim.
Sun City AZ

Posted by: Jo Telarski | July 1, 2008 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Jeff Johnson:

Thank you for using civility and grace to combat fearful ignorance.

That's one more rational person filling in the ranks of truly dedicated Americans!

Posted by: Arbiter | July 1, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

This is a wonderfully encouraging scene of life as it should be in the United States: citizens trying to honestly inform themselves about the presidential candidates, challenging the slovenly thinking and dirty gossip that has attached itself to this campaign thanks to GOP swift-boaters. God bless Rev. Johnson.

Posted by: dee | July 1, 2008 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I think that Alec MacGillis needs to take a class in logic, because he doesn't understand the difference between things that are objectively true and things that are just alleged to be true and are unprovable.

See this for more on the WaPo's continued failure to make that important distinction:

I'll leave it to the reader to sort through the description of this video:

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | July 1, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse

After reading the hate-filled people that usually come here to rant unfounded and outright lies about Obama it is nice to be reminded that there are decent people in America. I agree, don't vote for Obama if you disagree with his policies. However, don't be so lame that you have to use lies and gossip to excuse your disinterest.

Posted by: Shannon | July 1, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Can we get Minister Jeff Johnson to monitor the Post's open boards?

Posted by: drossless | July 1, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

This blog from Alec MacGillis doesn't absolve him from being a weak, biased, right wing, Republican reporter.

I wonder whether he even tried to correct Ms. Murray when she mentioned the false rumors about Obama. Most likely not. Never let the truth and facts get in the way of "journalism."

Posted by: AzynAm247 | July 1, 2008 3:02 PM | Report abuse

What a great story about "the power of one." Political leaders are saying more than ever this year that voting comes down to face to face contact and one-on-one conversations -- one reason that grassroots volunteers really do matter. This story brings that to life in a way that generalities cannot.

Kudos to Jeff Johnson for speaking when it would be easier to be silent. He reminds me it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Posted by: Fairfax Voter | July 1, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you--that story just restored a little of my faith in humanity.

Posted by: CJ | July 1, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Good to know that the Republican fear machine is being countered by real americans!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 1, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

What a fascinating look at the grass roots struggle in this country over Obama's candidacy and his background. Can';t think that it doesn't all go back to race.

Posted by: matt | July 1, 2008 1:57 PM | Report abuse

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