Religion & American politics:

A public theologian

posted by John Schmalzbauer

Americans have elected the most theologically astute president since Jimmy Carter.  Like his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama is partial to the writings of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.  Obama’s Facebook page (the first ever for a president-elect) lists Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as a favorite novel.

Hidden from most of the electorate, Obama’s theological inclinations are well known to scholars of American religion. Heralding a “civil religious revival,” sociologist R. Stephen Warner cites Obama’s belief in the power of ideals to draw Americans “toward their better natures” and the “awesome God that he knows is worshiped in both blue and red states.” Philip Gorski articulates a similar argument on The Immanent Frame, pointing to the prominence of racial reconciliation in Obama’s religious speech.

Warner and Gorski are right to focus on the motif of reconciliation. From Obama’s address at the 2004 Democratic convention to Tuesday’s victory speech in Grant Park, he has sought to heal the divisions between right and left, religious and secular, Red and Blue. Like the “Rednecks for Obama” bumper stickers in the Missouri Ozarks, Obama’s claim to “worship an awesome God in the blue states,” transcends the polarizations of American culture.

In the classic typology of literary genres, Obama’s vision of reconciliation could be described as comic.  As Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism, “the theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it.” In Barack Obama’s case, the central character is often Barack Obama. In his landmark speech on race, Obama called himself “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” Rather than disowning the Reverend Wright and his white grandmother, he portrayed them as integral to his sense of self.  As he told the audience in Philadelphia, “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

Comic rhetoric also saturates The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s bestselling chronicle on remaking America.  Proposing “a new kind of politics,” he suggests “how we might move beyond our divisions,” praising those who have been able to “make peace with their neighbors, and themselves.”  At its heart, such rhetoric is implicitly theological.  According to Hayden White, the trope of comedy “suggests the possibility of liberation” from the effects of the Fall.  In Obama’s case, such comic sensibilities are rooted in the theological virtue of hope.

Filled with comic hope, Obama’s public theology is also self-consciously ironic, drawing on the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr.  Part of a “Niebuhr revival” in American politics, Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.”  In an interview with David Brooks, Obama summarized Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, accepting “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world,” and that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”

Most of the time, politicians apply Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought to foreign policy, where it is associated with the realist school of international relations. This is certainly true for Obama, who believes in the judicious use of American power.

Yet Niebuhr’s Christian realism may be even more useful on the domestic front.  In his quest to unify Americans, Obama should remember that even virtuous crusades can have unintended consequences. Though he entered presidential politics to heal the nation’s political divisions, it is possible that his election may exacerbate them.

While Barack Obama has high approval ratings, a minority of Americans continue to fear and loathe him. According to Wednesday’s USA Today/Gallup poll, 27 percent of the country is afraid of an Obama presidency.  Pre-election polls in Kentucky and Texas found that between 14 and 23 percent of the public believes he is a Muslim (and many of those people associate Islam with evil).

Before and after the election, the religious right has been unrelentingly hostile to an Obama candidacy.  In particular, recent statements by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson reveal an unbridgeable chasm between Obama and some conservatives. In October 2008, Dobson released what he called a “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.” A fictional letter from the future, it begins with the author lamenting the fact that he “can hardly sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ any more.” Downright apocalyptic, it warns that an Obama administration will result in the outlawing of campus ministries, a rise in pornography, the banning of evangelical books, and the outlawing of the Pledge of Allegiance. Along the same lines, Focus on the Family’s Tom Minnery compares Barack Obama to “pagan rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Cyrus.” Such polarizing rhetoric suggests Obama may have trouble transcending the politics of Red States and Blue States.

And yet it appears that Obama knows exactly what he is up against.  Consistent with his Niebuhrian sensibilities, he has not portrayed the quest for reconciliation as an easy journey. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama believes that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that a new kind of politics requires us “to account for the darker aspects of our past.”

On Tuesday night, Obama looked back to a dark time in American history, quoting Abraham Lincoln’s words “to a nation far more divided than ours”:  We are not enemies but friends.

James Dobson notwithstanding, there are signs that religious conservatives are beginning to get the message. Though more evangelicals voted for Barack Obama than for John Kerry, an overwhelming majority supported John McCain.  Knowing this about his flock, Assemblies of God General Superintendent George Wood issued a post-election statement.  Noting that “we are to show respect for those who hold office,” he said that “the recent campaign at all levels and all parties was often filled with bitter rancor, distortions, smears and lies.” According to Wood, we must “set a better tone for the national discussion.” Though such words are all too rare, they suggest that Barack Obama may yet achieve his dream of a new kind of politics.

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5 Responses to “A public theologian”

  1. avatar Nikolai Blaskow says:

    As an Antipodean living in multicultural Australia, I have to register a strong disquiet about the anger and misinformation that seems to prevail on the right of politics in America.

    I have to say that I support whichever side aligns itself with justice, so I am not partisan, but some of the opinions I’m hearing from sincere moral majority people (many of them fundamentalists) and from those who seems to have an irrational almost pathological fear of Obama as the next Hitler with his private army, or the makings of an anti-Christ (based I imagine on the misinformed notion that he is a Muslim), are cause for serious concern. These are not loopy red-necks, but in other domains, sensible, charitable, talented intelligent people – just on this one thing they have a mania for: seeing Obama brought down.

    When questioned or asked to consider the possibility that there might be moderate muslims to whom Obama might be able to appeal and with whom he might be able negotiate for a more peaceful world, these people just about froth at the mouth, shouting such slogans as … ‘ that the Islamic religion is intrinsically violent’, ‘all Muslims hate the United States’ and ‘Obama is a Muslim’.

    To me living so far away, it is difficult to form a firm opinion, but I am extremely concerned that so many on the right are so bigoted against Obama. Can anyone on the ground over there help to explain the strength of this feeling and from where it originates (other than the most obvious source – ignorance of the facts)?

    I find it difficult to believe that people so well educated can be so determined not to be confused by the ‘facts’ – which if those facts oppose their stance, are automatically deemed to be playing into the hands of the ‘enemies of America’, the hand of the devil, or just symptomatic of plain unpatriotic behaviour.

    What can be done? Will Obama be able to break through such a thick prejudice shield, and if not, what will be the consequence?

  2. avatar Bob Woodberry says:

    When viewing things through the media, rather than familiarity with a group, it is important not to over-generalize. Watching the world though the news (particularly television news) is like watching the world through a straw that always moves to the most violent, exciting, and extreme things. News media make money by making people scared. If people are scared, they watch more TV and buy more papers and see more adds.

    The large amount of money needed for modern political campaigns also requires political parties to get the faithful scared that if the other side wins, all hell will break loose. There is a built in incentive to find and publicize the extreme.

    You can get some very extreme opinions on both sides (and have over the past few years). There is also a huge amount of diversity as group as large at conservative Protestants (about 30-35% of the US population) and you can find examples of almost everything, but it is dangerous to map those acecdotes onto the whole group (they were not sampled randomly, they were sampled to create a reaction).

    If you do surveys of the American people or do qualitative interviews with them, most people (including Conservatives Christians) are not that extreme. While there may be statistically significant differences between conservative Protestants and others on voting behavior or attitudes, we do everyone a disservice if we impose of the most extreme fringe of either group as the representative for that group. It is like hearing a talk by Osama bin Laden and then thinking that represents Islam (or believing Islam).

    The problem gets accentuated when people in the media/academia know very little about a particular group (i.e., have little personal experience with or sensitivity to them – which if you have looked at any survey about the people who are in the media or academia is clearly true) or when people already have disdain for them. There is plenty of extremism, hypocrisy, intolerance, stereotyping, and misinformation on the extremes of both/all sides.
    When it is a group we belong to, we don’t hear the extremism as jarringly (and may believe some of it), we make excuses for it, we don’t advertise it to others, we forgive ourselves easily, and we differentiate ourselves from it (I didn’t do it, people like me don’t think/do that). When it is in another group, we notice it, put little work into trying to understand if the meanings they give match what we hear, spread it to others, do not forgive easily, and over-generalize comments or actions by a particular person to a much larger group. That is how conflicts like Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel, etc. perpetuate and why Koreans and Chinese resent the Japanese for what they did during World War II, but most Japanese don’t feel responsible and feel like they were victims of World War II as well (they got bombed). We do not gather or process information about the other in the same way we do about ourselves. It takes intellectual and moral maturity to even work on that.
    Sometimes I hope that academics would be better at recognizing the process of othering and stereotyping, see when they are being as bigoted as the people they criticize, but my experience over the last few months suggests just like most other people. No one has a monopoly on hypocrisy or intolerance. They is plenty of it in academia. If you need more proof of that, just think about the kind of squabbles we get into over hiring – particularly if a candidate has a different point of view/ideology.

  3. I’d like to echo Woodberry’s posting. Evangelicals are a complicated group (as I’ve said on this blog). Notice that I included two perspectives in my post above: 1) Focus on the Family’s hostility to an Obama presidency and
    2) Assemblies of God leader George Wood’s message of civility.

    Having said that, I am very nervous about the way that a segment of the evangelical community will respond to a President Obama. I don’t think we have good survey data on this matter right now. We may have to wait for a good General Social Survey/National Election Study item on Obama’s alleged Muslim identity or Obama’s perceived otherness.

    I will say this: Evangelicals in the Missouri Ozarks (where I live) have expressed both civility and hostility towards Obama. Without good quantitative research it is hard to tell which is greater.

  4. Over at First Things, Keith Pavlischek takes me to task for my praise of Barack Obama’s theological vision. Three responses:

    1) Yes, I do like Barack Obama. But I am also capable of criticizing him, as I did after the infamous “bitter” comments in San Francisco. Here on The Immanent Frame, I faulted Obama for reducing the religious convictions of rural Pennsylvanians to economic deprivation.

    2) To be sure, Barack Obama makes himself a central character in his own rhetoric, but so do many preachers and politicians. Frederick Buechner once wrote that “a minister has only two stories to tell. One is the story of Jesus. The other is his own story. Most ministers don’t dare tell their own stories—the ups and downs, the darks and lights.”

    Barack Obama has dared to tell both kinds of stories. While unashamedly describing his decision to follow Jesus, he has presented his autobiography as a parable of racial reconciliation. Raised by a single white mother, he has built bridges between African Americans and whites like no other politician in recent times. For millions of Americans and much of the world, he is a symbol of a post-racial future (even though that future is decades away).

    3) Like Pavlischek, I’m no fan of Paul Tillich. Reinhold Niebuhr is another story. Though I don’t buy everything Niebuhr wrote, I think his sober view of human nature can only be an asset to an Obama administration.

    Because of his Niebuhrian instincts, Obama did a better job of answering Rick Warren’s question about evil than John McCain. As you recall, John McCain and some of his supporters identified evil primarily with “radical Islamic extremism.” By contrast, Obama raised the possibility that Americans may also be sinners. To my thinking, that sounds a lot closer to Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”

  5. avatar John Eley says:

    We should take heart from President -elect Obama’s knowledge of Niebuhr and Tillich, especially the former, while hoping that his theological astuteness goes far beyond the theological astuteness of James Earl Carter with whom he is compared. The latter brought a naive sentimental theology to the White House which ill equipped him to address complex problems in both economic and foreign policy. Before we regard theological astuteness as an asset we ought to remember that Carter left office as a failure in the eyes of most experts and in the minds of the American public. If the Carter Presidency is any indication give me a pragmatic secularist anytime over an incompetent Christian.

    This is not a prediction about the success of the 44th President. Rather it is reminder that good intentions have paved a lot of roads upon which the nation does not need to travel.

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