Republicans have triggered their “Southern Strategy” in the Tennessee Senate race, as evidenced by a bare-shouldered white woman–an actress playing a blond Playboy bunny, who winks and whispers for African-American Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. to “call me.”

That shameful TV ad came after “Tennessean for Truth” aired a radio ad on a Gallatin station that used the word “black” five times in two sentences.

That shameful radio ad came on the heels of a Republican Party fund-raising letter that significantly darkened a photograph of the fair-skinned Ford.

So, yes, Republicans have kicked in their “Southern Strategy,” which began under Richard Nixon to shift racist Democrats into the Republican Party and to play up racism to gin up votes.

The producer of the TV ad comes from South Carolina and worked for the Republican Party under Lee Atwater, a master of race baiting. So, yes, he knew what buttons to push.

The Tennessee Republicans are doing what the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, confessed in July 2005 was wrong.

Speaking at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mehlman said in a prepared text, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican Chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

An editorial gave Mehlman credit for his 2005 admission, thinking he really meant what he said.

Yet when interviewed by MSNBC’s Tim Russert, Mehlman defended the Playboy ad, claiming it wasn’t racist. He claimed he had no power to pull down an ad approved by the Republican National Committee.

Mehlman found race repugnant as a wedge issue when speaking to African-Americans, but found racism necessary for his party to win a race.

Mehlman was not alone in his defense of the ad. When MSNBC’s Chris Mathews asked White House press secretary Tony Snow about the ad, a smirking Snow refused to call the ad racist.

Republican senate candidate Bob Corker criticized the ad and said he wanted it taken down. Nevertheless, the ad continued to run across the state for five days, allowing Corker to play the “good cop” role while benefiting from an evil ad.

During those five days, Tennessee’s two Republican senators, Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander, both of whom are Presbyterians, colluded with their party’s race baiting with their silence.

So, yes, Republican leaders showed that racism is morally acceptable if it is pursued to retain political power.

But then racism has always been mostly about power—political and economic power, hasn’t it?

Thankfully, a few Republicans saw the ad for what it was and told the truth about it.

On Larry King Live, Michelle Laxalt, the Republican strategist, said, “The ad was in bad taste.”

Former Republican senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen called the ad “overtly racist” on CNN’s The Situation Room.

“It is race-baiting at its absolute worst,” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, who belongs to First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla.

Given the indisputable racist nature of the ad, what should Christians do?

If Tennessee Christians reject racial mudslinging, they will reform the Republican Party. If the Republican Party is reformed, then American politics could be changed for a new generation. If American politics is changed, then racism will become a forbidden strategy. If racism becomes a forbidden wedge issue, then our society will take a huge step closer to a dream of time when candidates are judged by the content of the character and the articulation of their agenda.

Tennessee Christians have been entrusted with a rare gift, the gift to change the future in the ways afforded to few generations.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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