Most observers, even the otherwise sober-minded journal The Economist, agree that the anticipation and then election of Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States carried—and continues to carry—the promise of something like a “redeeming effect.” What has not been well-understood, even less clearly explained, is what I take to be one of the key factors of Obama’s phenomenal success. He won over an unlikely coalition of voters based on an inspirational message of hope for the common good, while running a campaign that stood out for its impeccable discipline and, at times, ruthless efficiency—at a certain moment the New York Times even spoke of its “military precision”—its message-oriented focus and lack of drama, its technological sophistication as well as its overall outreach where it mattered (its so-called ground battle, “street by street, block by block,” as the mantra went).
It is fair to say that both the Clinton and the McCain camps and most conservative pundits fatally underestimated what they were up against, completely misread the signs, the writing on the wall, and, in the end, had no idea what had truly hit them. Hence, all their whining about media biases and alleged sexism, the blame games and pathetic infighting that disqualified their respective staffs and organizational skills, their sense of entitlement and resentment, in short, the sheer lack of imagination and both tactical and strategic insight in failing to recognize the form and substance of a genuine political phenomenon, represented by the Obama campaign no less than the candidate.
But, then, it is perhaps hard to blame Obama’s opponents for having missed what was going on before their—and the general public’s—very eyes. For what was it, exactly? What, now that all is said and done, can we identify as Obama’s winning formula? Surely he didn’t just get lucky. And the suggestion that this was a Democratic year regardless of who ran (a “refrigerator” might have done the trick just as well, so the saying went), or the fact that that Obama was fortunate, as the young junior Senator of Illinois, to inherit the Tom Dashle’s seasoned senate office staff—these all underestimate the measure and nature of his greatest success. Can we, in retrospect, put our finger on it (unbelieving Thomases that we have become after so many years of deception and cynicism)? Can we actually believe the change we saw take effect right in front of our eyes?
It may be too early to tell, but I want to venture some thoughts on the matter nonetheless, not least since they lead to the heart of a topic that has captivated my interest in recent years, namely the principal and seemingly novel (in any case, unanticipated) public role of religion—I prefer to call it the “theologico-political”—in what has been called the “post-secular” age. This latter designation (“post-secular”), together with the peculiar and crucial diffusion of the theologico-political, notably by new technological media and current processes of globalization that both express this new transformation of the public sphere and make it possible, captures more fully what has been going on—not least in the latest election—than do the somewhat outworn observations about modern society’s supposed rationalization and cultural differentiation, its privatization and secularization.
For reasons having, no doubt, to do with his remarkable biography and personal temperament—but, as I will argue, as a consequence of a clearly articulated and, indeed, systematic philosophical as well as theologico-political point of view—Obama represents and epitomizes—perhaps more than any other presidential candidate or political leader in the Western world—such a post-secular as well as post-multicultural and post-identitarian form of politics, whose operating concepts and fundamental categories we have not yet fully gauged.
A decisive factor in Obama’s effectiveness, to put all my cards on the table, I take to be his “political theology,” by which I understand a “theologically motivated and informed politics,” characterized, first of all, by its “deep pragmatism.” Before turning to the theological component of this thinking, let me address the latter expression, which may sound odd and slightly off, even somewhat paradoxical. After all, isn’t pragmatism—America’s own, homegrown contribution to philosophy, coined by Charles Sander Peirce and William James, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty—defined by its weariness concerning the deep and the metaphysical, to say nothing of the theological or theologico-political? Isn’t pragmatism extremely reluctant to grant religion any determining role in the public square, let alone to allow it any use for the formulation—and evaluation—of specific policies, however much and nobly these aimed at the perfection or perfectibility of the nation’s being? Moreover, isn’t this pragmatist reservation and, at times, outright anti-clericalism a decisive difference between this school of thought and that other homegrown tradition in political thinking, namely American Transcendentalism and its offspring, moral perfectionism, which we have come to associate with the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henry Thoreau? And given Obama’s admiration for its major statement, namely Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” shouldn’t we place him, first and foremost, in line with this far more elusive school of thought—and, indeed, “metaphysical club”—rather than calling him a “pragmatist” in any recognizable meaning of this term?
It is interesting to note that Penguin Books immediately brought out an edition of Obama’s Inaugural Address, together with Emerson’s essay and two of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Yet anyone rereading Emerson’s essay attentively will find it quite hard to match any of Obama’s discourses onto his, point by point. This is a work of translation and reception, raising the question as to how deep pragmatism relates to the tradition of moral perfectionism, which remains to be done.
To counter this objection it suffices to recall an apparent link between Obama’s vision and a long tradition of Christian progressivism, which spans the extremes of the twentieth century social gospel, liberation, and in particular black theology, on the one hand, and the now infamous, if little-understood, ranting of Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., on the other. After all, all of these could be loosely associated with what Cornel West has called “prophetic pragmatism.” As a consequence, the reference to “pragmatism” would seem justified. And to call his pragmatism “deep” would not be far-fetched either, not least since this adjective would square well with references to the “prophetic” or “messianic.” Indeed, what else could its depth mean, if not some association with the religious or theological?
Yet, I do not think that these are the traditions that have marked Obama’s vision at its deepest level. Obama’s political theology is “pragmatic” in that it is neither prophetic nor messianic. This is why he is mostly perceived as operating from within a cool-headed, analytical and result-oriented approach to current issues, apparently speaking of his team as “a group of ‘mechanics,’” which suggests, as a commentator in The New Yorker notes, “an emphasis not on ideology but on details and problem-solving.” Yet, it is “deep” in that it taps into resources, long forgotten, only to propel them into something new and topical.
More can and will be said about this “deep pragmatism” of Obama’s political theology in a future post—beyond any further reference to the sheer efficacy and appeal of his campaign and platform or agenda—but first I must mention that there are, of course, numerous other factors that have played an important role in the successful realignment of religion and the public domain, theology and politics, as well as, perhaps more indirectly, of church and state.
First, there has been the dramatic change in the landscape of American faith-based politics, with the waning of the leadership of the old Christian Right (through aging and much publicized scandals), but also and primarily as a consequence of the more recent preoccupation among Evangelical constituencies with what are, so far, the more progressive or liberal moral and political causes (fighting HIV/AIDS, world poverty, and climate change). Further, we have seen the emergence a large group of young, first-time voters—the YouTube, text messaging, and Facebook generation—whose uncharacteristic and, often, non-denominational religiosity is appealed to by an “unorthodox spirituality,” which they—as we will see, erroneously—projected onto Obama and his cause. As one observer noted, “Religiously, the majority of America’s young are postmodern, which means they do faith like jazz: informal, eclectic, and often without theme. They have largely rejected organized religion in favor of a religious pastiche that works for them.” Yet, even though this characterization clarifies things somewhat, it is also quite vague and all too facile and represents a half-truth at best. As far as Obama and his campaign message were concerned, its supposed “unorthodox spirituality” (if we accept this expression for a moment) was hardly defined by its adoption of merely a loose hodgepodge of elements and forms of faith. Jazzed, as it may often have been, its undeniable informality and eclecticism were all geared toward a central “theme” and undergirded by a “common cause” or “greater good,” whose contours were, although formal and abstract (how could they not be?), sharply drawn. And to the extent that the candidate and his campaign kept their distance from “organized religion,” if we mean by this the strict adherence to the doctrine or ecclesial authority of any one given denomination, its theological—and, indeed, theologico-political—outlook, in so far as it truly “worked for them,” was hardly that of a “religious pastiche.”
On the contrary, what has emerged over the last two years as the central features—and, admittedly, cool core—of Obama’s inspirational theological politics is something different and far more specific. I would venture to argue that its political philosophy and policy-oriented strategy and tactics stand out by their proper systematicity and extreme practical rigor. Both reveal the virtues of an inner organization of thought—and, perhaps, as we shall see, even of the “unconscious”—and a no less admirable endurance of effort.
Obama’s vision has proved itself to be at once “unapologetically Christian and unapologetically liberal.” In a decisive departure from the liberal secularism or secular liberalism that dominated his party and much of the left intelligentsia, he compellingly argued and successfully exemplified to a vast majority of the American audience that ultimately voted for him that there was a single way to test the integrity and efficacy of his agenda and its execution, namely that “faith ought to inform his politics and that of the nation as a whole.”
I do not think that the force of this formula is properly understood if we merely see it as a response to a general climate of cynicism. Political theologies are not simply reactive, and their meaning and potential strength are not a reaction to—let alone function of—the impasse and impotence of secularist thinking. I believe (or would like to think) that there is some intrinsic value and internal coherence, as well as a remarkable insistence and resilience, to Obama’s theologico-political outlook and the practical politics and policy prescriptions it implies, that is to say, presupposes and makes possible, invites and inspires.
[See David Kyuman Kim's introduction to "These things are old," a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]
[Editor's note: This post draws from a draft chapter, entitled “Small Miracles”: The Deep Pragmatism of Obama’s Political Theology, for the SSRC's forthcoming publication, Exploring the Post-Secular, co-edited by Philip Gorski, David Kyuman Kim, and John Torpey.]