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.
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