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For many blacks, Obama's election is a matter of faith

Reliance on the power of God is second nature to most African Americans, so it's no surprise that some see his hand at work today. But don't expect them to shout it from the mountaintops.

January 18, 2009|Sandy Banks

I've heard the chatter for months across black Los Angeles, at cocktail parties, church socials and coffee shops:

The election of Barack Obama was not just about politics, but providence. Obama was anointed by prophecy to lead. His election is a reflection of God's grace and of black Christians' fealty.

But whenever I brought my notebook out, most people clammed up.

The sentiments were no surprise. And neither was the public unease.

"Don't go there," warned a shopper, who would give her name only as Martha when I broached the subject at Eso Won bookstore in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. I told her I wanted to write about it.

"Don't taint yourself with that," she advised. "Go the intellectual route instead."

Yet, in the wake of Obama's historic election, I found it hard to ignore the theories of religious destiny percolating through the black community -- fueled by theology, coincidence, history and a profound sense of awe that an African American man is about to become the leader of the world's most powerful democracy.

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"I have no doubt this is God's work," Latoya Jackson told me last month, as we sat at the bar and talked after we met over dinner at an Encino soul food restaurant.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, studying for her master's degree in international relations at New York University, she was intelligent, enthusiastic and refreshingly blunt.

"God said it's time," and Obama was uniquely prepared by virtue of his education and family background, Jackson said. "We needed a charismatic individual, and God sent him. It couldn't have been anyone else but Barack Obama."

She's convinced this country is on the verge of divinely inspired change. She pulled out her cellphone and showed me the scriptural confirmation she had sent, via text message, to her friends -- a passage from the Old Testament Book of Judges: "Arise, Barak, and lead away thy captives."

Some African Americans find the religious fulminating embarrassing, and worry that it tarnishes Obama's accomplishment and ignores America's social progress.

"Ridiculous," said Eso Won co-owner James Fugate, before I could even finish asking about it. "People forget this guy worked hard, got good grades, did work in the community. . . . He's a smart guy who knew how to present himself. And he ran the best campaign this country has ever seen."

But Fugate understands why so many blacks are tethered to religious interpretations. "Black people have seen the absolute worst America has to offer," he told me. "There's a lot of baggage people have carried for a very long time. It's hard to think it's over with . . . that America has changed."

And he understands the reluctance to talk publicly about it, particularly among middle-class, middle-aged blacks, raised to care very much what white people think about us.

When he was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, "we had to dress up for shopping trips," Fugate recalled. "Our parents wanted us to have a certain appearance, because if we went downtown, we didn't want the white people to think we didn't belong."

No one wants to be considered a religious nut. But reliance on the power of God is second nature to most American blacks. National studies consistently show that black people attend church more regularly than other races, pray more often, and are more familiar with the Bible and more likely to consider it the literal word of God.

Ninety percent of African Americans -- compared with 60% of whites -- say prayer is important in coping with life's problems. Even foul-mouthed young rappers make it a point to thank God from the podium when they accept their music awards.

Academics say this religious fervor is rooted in the black experience of slavery in this country. An abiding faith in a savior, salvation and divine justice sustained black Americans through centuries of brutal treatment and generations of legal discrimination.

"Collectively, as a people, Christianity and the notion of the divine is in our DNA," said Gabrielle Pina, an author and instructor at USC and Pasadena City College.

Pina hears conversations about a religious force propelling Obama from her young college students and her professional buddies. At a recent 40th birthday party in Phoenix for a black federal judge, "people were privately talking about it," she said. Politicians, lawyers, professors, doctors -- agreeing that God had a role in presidential politics.

"Try to tell black folk that God had nothing to do with this and you're asking for a fight," Pina joked. "You cannot separate black people from Jesus."

Or, as a Jewish friend of mine said, only half-joking, "Obama is your Moses."

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Assigning religious meaning to secular doings is not specific to black people.

Americans of all backgrounds have long seen the hand of God in the nation's affairs. Manifest Destiny -- the idea that America was chosen by God to lead -- embodied the young country's sense of purpose. Presidents have evoked that obligation in inaugural addresses throughout history.

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