10.16.2011 _____________________

I met Steve Jobs once, and shook his hand. In San Francisco. A fleeting moment. Had I known better, I would’ve given him a hug and kissed him, Syrian-style, on both cheeks.

Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know he was born a Syrian Muslim. Not a secret, but no one dwelled on it. He became a Buddhist. Apple’s competition never called him a Muslim, nor feared he had jihadist sympathies. No one thought of him as “the Other.”

I met Muhammad Ali twice and had my hand crushed by his. In New York. In Bahrain. Born Cassius Clay, raised Baptist, Muslim convert, he was reviled for becoming a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, arrested and stripped of his boxing titles. Ali appealed to the Supreme Court, and won. Many thought Ali was rejecting America, but they were wrong. I believe he was fighting on behalf of the dispossessed, rejecting inequality and injustice. He embraced “the Other.”

I met Barack Obama, and shook his hand, too. In Exeter. Obama’s father was Kenyan and Muslim. Many people still dwell on that, even though Obama proudly proclaims himself Christian. The truly ignorant fail to accept his affirmation of faith, asserting incorrectly that anyone born of a Muslim father will be Muslim forever. His detractors never tire trying to paint him as foreign, Muslim, “the Other.”

Presidential contenders Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and others proclaim themselves Christian. I accept that. Mitt Romney says he is a Mormon, and a believer in Jesus Christ. I accept that, too. Many American Christians call Mormons a cult. His fellow aspirants hesitate supporting him as Christian. Sad. In spite of himself, Romney’s become “the Other.”

I’ve never shaken any of their hands.

Obama had to disassociate himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his liberation theology. Where are the cries from the right for Rick Perry to renounce his supporter, Rev. Robert Jeffress, and his Christian exceptionalist theology?

Which example of Jesus Christ do such Christians follow as they attempt to marginalize Americans Obama and Romney? Which exemplar of the Jew from Galilee, who embraced the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the lepers and prostitutes, do they embrace? Where do you think the Son of Mary would stand today — with the money-changers or with Occupy Wall Street? Would he stand with the teachers and unions, would he support universal health care and immigration reform, or would he stand with the privileged, the protectors of the elites, the union busters and exploiters of labor?

We know the answer.

Rereading the Constitution should be mandated for those who choose to divide Americans based on religious preferences or origins or color. In too many places politicians and proselytizers, aspirants to power, exploit followers who are weak in character or knowledge, or too intellectually lazy, to themselves discern truth. To them, America is like a reality TV show, where contestants scheme to survive, not on principle or intelligence but by duplicity and cunning. In scorning imagination, embracing ignorance, denying Enlightenment values and disregarding science they reject the very principles on which this country was founded. Winning is the only thing that matters.

Gather them in the Supreme Court where they can view the two friezes, a pantheon of lawgivers, sculpted in imported Spanish marble, that include Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Confucius, Napoleon, Justice Marshall, Blackstone, Charlemagne and Muhammad. This is true American Exceptionalism: the vision to embrace the highest values, regardless of privilege or origin.

The reality of America is that Ali, Jobs, Obama, Romney and any other person with a vision who aspires to greatness, to leadership and service, can have those dreams realized here in a way that would not be possible in any other land.

Such realizations should make us proud. Those visions should elevate us. We should embrace the potential of dreams, nurture them and let them openly compete on the playing fields of ideas, not dragged through the swales and mud pits of divisiveness and prejudice.

Jobs and Ali prevailed in their visions. Butchers, bakers, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, priests, candlestick makers — such is the America of the Founding Fathers.

In a darker America, where the politics of exclusion prevails, Romney and Obama have become one. Outsiders. The Other.

I’m disappointed in Obama, for whom I voted. I have no idea what Mitt Romney stands for. We must, however, denounce prejudice and intolerance. There are many legitimate ways to oppose their political visions, but not by embracing and promulgating myths constructed around religious beliefs and racial origins.

A well-worn copy of “Dreams From my Father” sits in my bookcase, close to a treasured, autographed pair of Ali’s boxing gloves. Tonight, I’m writing this column on a MacBook Pro, a gift from a loved one from whom I became estranged. I’ve spent many dark nights on this Steve Jobs-inspired, back-lighted keyboard, often its glow the only illumination as I struggled to find words to guide me through darkness. I am constantly mindful of these icons: they and others are present in my life through the gifts and struggles of others. We must be attentive. Bear witness. Listen to their messages.

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.