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Modern-day know-nothings

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 8:54 a.m. CDT

For as long as I’ve lived in Arkansas, most of my adult life, people like the now-famous state Sen. Jason Rapert have made most of the noise and lost most of the elections. Now they’ve come to power, courtesy of Southern Republicans’ cultlike rejection of President Obama and large infusions of corporate campaign cash. And with the state legislature in session, the tragicomedy is under way.

It’s happening all across the South. Sample news story: “Representatives approved a bill titled ‘The Church Protection Act of 2013,’ 85-8, to permit concealed handguns in churches and other houses of worship.”

Because Jesus, of course, was all about smiting them dead before thou art smitten.

Anyway, “famous” may be an exaggeration with regard to Sen. Rapert. But a YouTube clip of the man haranguing a 2011 Tea Party gathering about his anger at “minorities” running the country has gotten Arkansas lots of unfavorable national attention. Meanwhile, his indignant, if not particularly honest, denials have succeeded only in generating more ill will and bad feeling.

Full disclosure: This same Jason Rapert is also my neighbor in rural Perry County. He invited us to a Memorial Day picnic three years ago where his bluegrass band provided the entertainment. He’s a genial host and a terrific country fiddler and guitarist. A few days later, his wife graciously dropped off a CD the band had recorded. She pretended not to mind when my horse left deep hoof prints in their yard. The couple has two lovely young daughters.

However, the same fellow is also a stone religious crank who’s absolutely certain that God agrees with every one of his opinions, and also that everybody who disagrees is going straight to hell. Jason’s not shy about telling you about it, either. He once advised me to leave the U.S. on account of supporting Obamacare. I reminded him that my side had won the 2008 election. (And good luck finding a country without “socialist” health care and with indoor plumbing.)

But I’d never have suspected him capable of the kind of insidious rhetoric he displayed for the Tea Partiers. The video, first unearthed by Lee Fang in The Nation, captures Rapert in full revivalist mode. No, his speech wasn’t “racist” in the simplistic way liberals often charge. I’m confident he’d vote for Condoleezza Rice, for example.

It’s not President Obama’s color that offends Rapert’s sensibilities — although I’m less sure about his audience’s. It’s everything else about the man that makes him suspect from a paranoid, neo-nativist perspective.

Delivered in a countrified drawl that’s more his preacher’s voice than the one he uses in his daytime job as an investment advisor, Rapert’s speech hits all the conspiratorial high spots: Obama’s supposedly missing birth certificate; his sympathy with gay rights; and, most ominously, his secret belief in the wrong God.

Anyway, here’s the business end of Rapert’s speech:

“You’ve got to change the hearts and minds of the people that live around you. You’ve gotta pray. It says ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’ And I wonder sometimes when they invited all the Muslims to come into the White House and have them a little Ramadan supper, when our President could not take the time to go attend a National Prayer Breakfast. I wonder what he stands for.

“You know what, what they told us is ... what you do speaks so loudly that what you say I cannot hear. I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t represent the country that I grew up with. And your values is not gonna save us. We’re gonna try to take this country back for the Lord. We’re gonna try to take this country back for conservatism. And we’re not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in.”

Does it help to know that President George W. Bush never missed a Ramadan dinner? Nor has President Obama skipped a National Prayer Breakfast. New York magazine posted photos of him presiding at every single one.

What’s most alarming isn’t Rapert’s racial views, but his continuing indifference to the truth and his disdain for religious liberty. His views are scarcely distinguishable from those of the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s. Then it was German and Irish Catholics who were suspect; today, it’s Muslims.

Over time, it’s a losing strategy. Eventually, Americans come around to supporting the First Amendment and rejecting religious bigotry.

How things will play out in the shorter term is harder to say. It’s one thing to dislike Obama, quite another to embarrass an entire state, region and political party. Arkansans in particular have been touchy about their image dating back to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and beyond.

If politicians like Rapert don’t learn to moderate their tone, their ascendancy could be a short one, even in the South.

———

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.)

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