hand & Bible
© n/a
A prominent Kansas elected official has made news in recent weeks after an email he passed around seemed to pray for the death of President Obama.

As president Obama made his way to the podium before his State of the Union address on Tuesday night there was a poignant reminder of the culture of hate and violence that has marked our public life in recent years. Obama paused for a sustained greeting and hug with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who had just announced her resignation from Congress to complete her recovery from an assassination attempt.

The shooting of Giffords and others outside a supermarket in Tucson was widely seen as the inevitable result of the era of hate radio and partisan invective in which political differences are vilified as treason, Nazism and even terrorism. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the overt race-baiting rhetoric of the Tea Party have fallen out of the news, but the effects have lingered. Indeed, a death prayer against the president by a prominent Kansas elected official has been in the news in recent weeks -- and has been brushed off by many as a joke -- as if the last three years had not happened.

Kansas House Speaker Michael O'Neal is resisting calls for his resignation in the wake of controversy over emails about President and Mrs. Obama he forwarded to the Republican caucus. In one of two emails he thought were funny, he compared First Lady Michelle Obama to the Grinch and called her "Mrs. YoMama"; in the second he (perhaps unwittingly) invoked an imprecatory prayer, in effect, calling for the death of the president.

O'Neal has apologized for both emails and insists that he was not calling for the president's death. But of course, even if the email was carelessly forwarded -- that is still what the verse he cited is about.

O'Neal invoked a line from the Bible, Psalm 109 verse 8 which states: "May his days be few; and let another take his office." (Translations used in press accounts vary, but the meaning remains about the same.)

O'Neal laughingly added: "At last - I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up - it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!"

O'Neal claims he was just wishing that Obama's days in office would be few. But having advised others to "look it up" it is not clear if he had done so himself and therefore knew that Psalm 109 is a dead serious call on God to strike down his enemies. The very next line, for example, reads: "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow."

"I understand the debate over the verse interpretation," O'Neal told The Wichita Eagle, "about which I have explained and for which I have repeatedly apologized to the extent anyone misconstrued my intent or was otherwise offended. I respect both the president and the office."

Political insiders seem to be taking it as a case of bad judgement and even the Democratic Minority Leader doesn't think O'Neal shouldn't resign.

But not everyone is buying O'Neal's explanation.

"The verse clearly refers to death, not to his days in office," Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told AlterNet in an interview.

"These are not amusing or harmless words," he said. "They are calling for someone's death and they ought to be recognized as such."

Potok, who has analyzed the ideology and rhetoric of hate groups for many years sees the Kansas imprecatory prayer bruhaha in the context of the "grotesque coarsening of public discourse" in which President Obama has been characterized as "a foreigner," "a Muslim," "an enemy," "less than human" even "the anti-Christ."

"Words have consequences," he said. "These are precisely the kinds of words that lead to situations like Gabby Giffords."

Regarding the slowness of the press and others to come to grips with the underlying meaning of Psalm 109, he said, "Americans in all walks of life, are afraid to criticize religion, particularly Christianity. But these words," he averred, "are not a theological argument, they are an expression of gutter hatred against our first Black president."

O'Neal was presented on January 19th, with a petition with some 30,000 online signatures demanding his resignation. Two ministers from Topeka, the state capital, delivered the petition on behalf of the liberal Washington, DC group Faithful America.

"Sadly, it's not unusual for Republican politicians to use vile and hate-filled rhetoric when speaking about President Obama," the group declared. "But when they exploit religion to do so, people of faith have a moral responsibility to condemn it."

The Merchandising of Death Threats

The public reemergence of this particular line from this particular Psalm against president Obama continues a controversy that has been going on since early in his presidency. It also suggests a certain desensitizing of people to the seriousness of language, and in this case, invoking a sacred text to call on God to make the president's days in office few. Even if we accept the that O'Neal was just being goofy and careless, he was at best being disrespectful -- turning a profound prayer into a crass political joke. But the issue runs deeper.

Early in the president's term the slogan "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8" was emblazoned on a range of merchandise from tee-shirts to teddy bears to bumper-stickers available from merchandise companies Cafe Press and Zazzle.com. These were taken as encouraging violence against the president, and the companies banned them. Zazzle announced:
"...we have determined that these products, in the context of the full text of Psalm 109, may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest physical harm to the President of the United States. In deference to the Office of the President of the United States, and in accordance with federal law prohibiting the making of threats against the physical well being of the President of the United States... We have begun efforts to remove them from our website, and we will be vigilant to the publication of similar products moving forward."
Author and former Religious Right leader Frank Schaeffer said on the Rachel Maddow Show at the time: "Really, this is trolling for assassins. This is serious business."

He knew that if people are labeled as enemies of God often enough, they may very well be targeted by people who believe they should act on what they have heard and that it was no joke.

But even as the merchandisers backed off, the slogan lived on -- seeping endlessly into the culture in forwarded emails such as the one received by Speaker O'Neal who then forwarded it to his GOP colleagues. Although it has been extensively covered in the Kansas press, this time there was no national media controversy, and editorial outrage was pretty much limited to liberal blogs.

Imprecatory Prayer Goes Mainstream

In the 90s, imprecatory prayer was most publicly visible among antiabortion militants such as Rev. Matthew Trewhella, leader of the Milwaukee-based Missionaries to the Pre-born, and well-known for issuing imprecations against everyone from abortion providers to public officials who got in his way. But in recent years, the practice has gone so mainstream that it is has become acceptable to many to emblazon it on coffee mugs and to include it in supposedly funny emails. What's more, the age of the Internet and You Tube have given imprecatory prayers and those who issue them a far wider audience and more ready access to national media.

For example, Christian Right activist and former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenshmitt issued an imprecatory prayer in 2009 based on Psalm 109 against Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It was unambiguously titled: "Imprecatory Prayers Against Anti-Jesus Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein". He read it aloud as his Evening Prayer posted on You Tube:
"Let us pray. Almighty God, today we pray imprecatory prayers from Psalm 109 against the enemies of religious liberty, including Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein, who issued press releases this week attacking me personally. God, do not remain silent, for wicked men surround us and tell lies about us. We bless them, but they curse us. Therefore find them guilty, not me. Let their days be few, and replace them with Godly people. Plunder their fields, and seize their assets. Cut off their descendants, and remember their sins, in Jesus' name. Amen."
Rev. Wiley Drake, a California radio broadcaster and former top elected official of the Southern Baptist Convention has openly issued imprecatory prayers against the president and acknowledged and justified himself to Fox News radio host Alan Colmes. He has also publicly engaged in imprecatory prayer against the leaders of Americas United for Separation of Church and State and said that the 2009 assassination of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller was an answer to his prayers.

Rev. Steven L. Anderson of Tempe, Arizona has repeatedly engaged in imprecatory prayer against the president (and homosexuals), declaring in one sermon: "[I] pray for Barack Obama to die and go to Hell." He has also acknowledged and defended his prayers for the death of the president to a national radio audience on Colmes's show.

Drake and Anderson, who are clearly serious about their imprecatory prayers deny that they are calling on anyone to go out and harm anyone else, but they confess that they would be gleeful if God found a way to do it. And this is where the trouble comes. "It should be obvious how such prayers could be really lethal in their toxicity," David Neiwert, author of The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the Right has said."They impart upon both the speaker and the hearer a kind of religious benediction and sanction for murdering and/or harming other people. Moreover, it not only sanctions such acts, it almost impels them - a serious devotee will take such a task upon himself as a spiritual duty. Which is a deeply disturbing prospect."

Other Obama death controversies occurred in 2010 on Facebook. One Facebook page that featured a poll asking whether the president should be assassinated. The Secret Service investigated and the page was taken down. But Facebook kept another page featuring another "joke" prayer that nearly a million people "liked." "DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN."

(The original page seems to have been taken down. But there is now a replacement page.)

Arguably, the citation of the slogan "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8" in an email or on a bumper-sticker does not carry the same force as a religious leader issuing it in a fiery sermon from the pulpit or on the radio. Certainly not taken by itself. But taken together with everything else we have seen there is little question that wishing death for the president is deeply infused into the culture.

Frederick Clarkson is the co-founder, with Bruce Wilson, of Talk to Action. He is an independent journalist, author and lecturer who has written about politics and religion for twenty five years. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.