The subject of race may be sidelined for a time after the shocking disclosure late Thursday that Barack Obama’s passport file was breached, not once but three times – – in January, February and March. And, apparently, the news didn’t make it up the State Department chain of command, no investigation was undertaken, and Obama himself was not notified until just prior to public disclosure of the breach. 

Early reports suggesting it was just idle curiosity on the part of low-level functionaries that induced them to open Obama’s records are hard to believe. Much remains to be understood about these incidents, especially the “who”, a more convincing “why” and the possible “where” this information might have traveled.

The passport flap adds another tumultuous layer to an already fractious campaign season. The security lapse at State may or may not have been politically motivated, but it cannot fail to increase the uneasiness already felt by many about the government’s ability to access private data without reason, oversight or accountability. In the specific case of Obama the intrusion serves as an unsettling backdrop to the racial extravagances that have been injected into the campaign by those who want to derail Obama’s candidacy.

As an indication of just how fractured our society remains, Obama’s speech was listened to by millions and applauded by most, yet the claim that we can at last have a national discussion about race is in fact a double-edged sword. While his words were moving and on point, the Pastor-Wright issue provided an excuse for opponents to openly criticize Obama. Freed of constraints, racial animus found legitimate expression in reaction to Wright’s virulence. And, although many of his most vocal critics did not support Obama in the first place, there is no question the Wright issue slowed Obama’s momentum.

But while many critics express righteous indignation about Wright’s inflammatory remarks, right-wing rants are never subjected to the same outrage. Rarely are those on the right called upon to account or apologize for outrageous comments. In fact many of them are not only accepted but actually courted by Republican candidates, McCain being the most recent ‘beneficiary’ of endorsements from several extremist religious leaders – – Pastor John Hagee who calls the Catholic Church “the great whore” and described Katrina as God’s punishment for New Orleans’ sinful ways and Reverend Rod Parsley who claims one of America’s founding principles was to destroy Islam. McCain says he is “very honored” to have Hagee’s support and refers to Parsley as a spiritual advisor.

Frank Schaeffer, who has stepped back from his previously held far-right religious positions says “The hypocrisy of the right denouncing Obama, because of his minister’s words, is staggering…They are the same people that (in the early 1980s) roared and cheered when (as keynote speaker) I called down damnation on America as “fallen away from God” at national meetings “including the annual meeting of the ultraconservative Southern Baptist convention…” And “when Senator Obama’s preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father – – Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer – – denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with Ford, Reagan and Bush.” “Not one Republican leader was ever asked to denounce my dad or distanced himself from Dad’s statements.”

Since most of the electorate reads little and understands less about the way of the political world, a repetitive visual stream of the sort so currently one-sided could help enormously in educating the public about just how virulent some of those right-wing messages have been – – showing clips from far-right pulpits and the events Frank Schaeffer describes would help illustrate the insidious divide within the country that allows the condemnation of one speech form but tolerates extremist vitriol elsewhere.

Few people will be able to ignore or misinterpret the implications underlying the breach of Obama’s passport information. On the issue of race, syndicated columnist Clarence Page has said – – Obama appealed to “our better angels” in his speech; the question is “will the better angels respond”?