Cousin Tommy always marched to a different drummer. This is not to say that he ever harbored any radical or subversive ideas. Far from it. He is one of the most conventional people I have ever known.

What makes him different is his utter cluelessness. Somehow he has floated through life these 60 years in his own little bubble of self-absorption. He has somehow managed to stay married and raise three very bright daughters — obviously the product of their mother’s genes. The den of his house is filled with plastic model cars — a passion he has had since early childhood. Most of his conversation is still sprinkled with talk of cars — cars he has seen, cars he has driven, cars he wishes he had seen or driven.

If there is an angry or mean thought in Cousin Tommy’s head, he has never expressed it to me. He is one of the most placid and harmless people I know. I guess it should come as no surprise to learn that he is a Christian. Indeed, he is very Christian. And I have no objection to that. I am on his e-mail list, and I regularly get mass mailings explaining why evolution is a lie, showing me the face of Jesus in a photograph of a nimbus cloud, offering maudlin verse, and prose of little children dying and going to be with Jesus. All well and good. I’m cool with all of that.

But Cousin Tommy — like the vast majority of his white neighbors in the town of Kingstree, about 60 miles north of here — is also a Republican, and that’s where I start having problems. Because, you see, along with the sweet, sentimental, and silly religious e-mails he sends me, there are the other ones — the ones explaining why God hates gays and I should, too; the ones declaring that George W. Bush has been chosen by the Almighty to lead our country and anybody who doesn’t like it is a traitor; the ones informing me that all Muslims are evil and Jane Fonda is more evil than all Muslims.

I don’t know if Cousin Tommy even reads this nonsense before passing it along to his e-mail cluster that must include half the continent. It certainly is out of keeping with the laid-back, clueless demeanor he exhibits when I am around him.

But recently he sent me an e-mail that was so spiteful, so mendacious, that I think some response is necessary, but I still haven’t figured out what. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to turn it into a teachable moment, to use it as evidence of the pathological brand of politics some people in this country practice.

The e-mail dealt with Barack Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Like many large, urban black churches, it seems to offer a kind of American liberation theology, blended with a strong African identity. “We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” their website says in its opening line. Apparently that is too much for the originator of my cousin’s e-mail, who declined to identify himself.

“Barack Obama is a member of this church and is running for President of the U.S.,” the e-mailer writes. “If you look at the first page of their website, you will learn that this congregation has a non-negotiable commitment to Africa. No where is AMERICA even mentioned. Notice too, what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama’s church… B-L-A-C-K!!!”

This last statement is baldly untrue. Check the website for yourself.

“Doesn’t look like his choice of religion has improved much over his former Muslim upbringing?” the writer continues. “Are you aware that Obama’s middle name is Mohammed? Strip away his nice looks, the big smile and smooth talk and what do you get? Certainly a racist, as plainly defined by the stated position of his church! And possibly a covert worshiper of the Muslim faith, even today. This guy desires to rule over America while his loyalty is totally vested in a Black Africa?”

There is enough ignorance and misinformation in this paragraph to fill an editorial page of The Post and Courier. Of course, Obama’s middle name is Hussein (as the right wing radio nuts love to remind us) and he was not raised as a Muslim. In his autobiography, he tells a moving story of his childhood come-to-Jesus moment. But the vicious people who originate e-mails such as this are not looking for the truth. They seek to use the internet to smear and misinform. And witless souls such as my cousin are only too happy to aid and abet them.

I think Cousin Tommy needs to get a life.

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