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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.

That's the opening of an essay I published at AlterNet this morning.  In it I discuss the recent history of serious imprecatory prayers (calling on God to strike down his enemies) against the president, and the odd rightwing culture of "joke" versions of praying or wishing for his death.  The line between dire threat and offhand joke or political barb can be surprisingly thin. But whatever the seriousness of any of the individual statements, the cumulative effect is worrisome.

Here are a few excerpts from: Right-wing Official Pushes Bible Death Message.

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.”  

"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."

There is much more, and lots of links. Please check it out.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 29, 2012 at 12:29 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Abortion.

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