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. [...]
“These things are old”
In my previous post, I outlined the civil religion that Robert Bellah and Sacvan Bercovitch both identify, though with opposed intentions. Surely, Barack Obama is working with and within this civil religion. He repeatedly narrates a jeremiad, the “prescribed ritual form” that “directs an imperiled people of god toward the fulfillment of their destiny.” He invokes every trope of individualism and individual mobility, and he identifies himself specifically as an immigrant who embodies that American dream of self-making. If he thereby avoids being consigned to blackness, and so to social fixity, deviance, and political marginality, he also affirms the sacralizing of liberalism as the very meaning of a freedom that is god’s gift. At the same time, he affirms the collective responsibility that Bellah considered the gift of biblical religion to Anglo-American liberalism.
For some scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.”
A nation is not an indifferent condition for the happiness and social relatedness of its citizens, but serves as a kind of habitus for them, shaping and being shaped by discourse and practice. The following reflections propose that two key elements of the American project form rudimentary aspects of the national imaginary, the collective resource for the conception and practice of nationhood. These are exceptionalism and civil religion. The two are deeply interwoven. I propose to define them and to parse their relationship in the American case. To begin with a familiar claim: at the heart of the American project is the bracing promise of starting anew and the conviction that doing so is possible, that citizens are able to clean the slate of old debts, bad ideas, and the burden of inherited injustices. It would be nice if matters were that simple, but of course they are not.
Here’s an “old thing” which relates, I think, to President Obama and the debate about civil religion—the primacy of practice. Usually in presidential inaugurations, civil religion is framed largely as a watered-down Judeo-Christian consensus, covering over the rough edges of existing differences in theology and custom. George W. Bush’s Inaugural Addresses stand out for their sectarian evangelical Christian tone, which rightly sparked a chorus of dissident voices. But this past January we saw a president in his Inaugural Address openly and honestly wrestling with the nation’s diversity—a “patchwork,” as he described it, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers? Their inclusion in the same breath with religious communities, especially on civil religion’s holiest of days, unsettled some, inspired others. Clearly, Obama would like to defuse this tension. More than just carefully chosen words, his was a performative act aimed at uniting believers and non-believers in a common citizenship.
In what has become something of an American tradition, President Barack Obama asked us to rediscover a “spirit of service” in his Inaugural Address. “At this moment,” Obama intoned, “it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.” We must even be prepared to “brave…icy currents” and “endure what storms may come.” Where might such a noble spirit come from? Obama does not say, and for good reason. Any serious reflection on what might sustain such courage and solidarity would compel Obama to rethink the role of religion in American politics. President Obama has a complicated relationship to orthodox Christianity. On the one hand, his political career has been inspired by the civil rights movement. But, on the other hand, Obama has been a harsh critic of the very religious passions and dogmas that inspired the civil rights campaign, not to mention abolitionism and campaigns for democracy abroad. [...]
Obama performed some imperative, long overdue work in bidding us “to choose our better history.” In doing so, he recognized the complexity of our history, for if there is a better history, there is also a worse. There is the George Washington who owned slaves and the George Washington who opposed torture. The worse history, Obama didn’t dwell on—an inaugural address was not the place for that. Rather, he invited a new beginning, though without amnesia or false innocence. He invited us as a nation to perform a necessary twist on the seventeenth-century notion that we were divinely elected, “God’s new Israel,” entitled to establish dominion. In Obama’s version, Americans get to choose—to choose perennially—from among multiple and intertangled strands. We were, from the beginning (in fact, from before the beginning) a people of more than one history—freedom and slavery, cooperation and savagery, republic and empire—not easily disentangled. That is why the choosing has to be intricate, deliberate, subtle, ongoing. [...]
Although comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are surely overstated—our current president has not yet shown either the rhetorical or intellectual brilliance of Lincoln—they both stand in a long and distinguished tradition of public theology. President Obama seems acutely aware of this tradition in his own Inaugural Address. Like Lincoln he uses theological discourse to gesture toward our common hopes and aspirations, and he invokes the divine not as the one who charts our “manifest destiny,” but as the one “who calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Obama’s public theology combines a sense of cautious realism with measured hope, as he calls the nation to greater maturity (“the time has come to set aside childish things”) and to a renewal of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Biblical cadences and theological arguments are used not to advance American exceptionalism but to sketch an America in which “the old hatreds shall someday pass…and our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
“These things are old. These things are true.” With these words, Barack Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to “those values upon which our success depends”: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. At first glance, these seem like strange words for a Democratic president to be uttering. By invoking the old and the true, Obama appeared to be channeling the late Russell Kirk, the godfather of conservative intellectuals and the “champion of the permanent things.” In a 1987 lecture, Kirk said a conservative is a person “who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.” In the judgment of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, the young president “intends to use conservative values for progressive ends.” Yet Obama’s vision for America does not resemble Kirk’s list of “Ten Conservative Principles,” which includes such ideals as prescription, restraint, and property rights. [...]