Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Obama Offers Civil Religion on Steroids

In this election cycle, religion is showing up in novel and surprising ways. We have seen religion playing a prominent role since Evangelicals broke their isolation in the late 1970s. Since then, we have seen the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Preacher Pat for President and, on the Democratic side, Reverends Jackson and Sharpton. In the campaign for 2008, we have a Baptist minister advertising his “Christian leadership” as he surges ahead in Iowa, and even Hillary Clinton (amazing grace!) has found religion.

Barack Obama is employing religion in an especially interesting way. Rather than invoking the Savior or pointing to Him, the junior Senator from Illinois is claiming to be the Savior…or at least supporters who are intimately close to him are doing so.

It seems that Obama may be transforming from a man of faith into an object of faith. In his column today, “Obama the Messianic” (The New York Post is more aptly titled “Oprah the Apostle”), Rich Lowry observes Oprah’s anointing of Sen. Obama as what she called “the one” who was to come. You can view the video here or at

In a her long introduction to the candidate before a packed South Carolina stadium, Oprah Winfrey said, "We need politicians who know how to tell the truth. But more important, we need politicians who know how to be the truth." (The emphasis was hers.) Barack Obama, a professing Christian (though his Evangelical orthodoxy is at least open to question, such that even David Brooks can see it), is surely familiar with Jesus' messianic claim to divinity, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

Michelle Obama seems to be following this Messianic theme (I have not been able to locate the source): "We need a leader who is going to touch our souls, who's going to make us feel differently about one another." Of course, Jesus does that. It's called spiritual regeneration -- being born again. To Michelle, Obama is the Life. To Oprah, he is the Truth.

What does the prophet Barack say? In a South Carolina church a few weeks ago, he said that, through the new politics that he will bring, we will "create a kingdom right here on earth." Did the congregation gasp as they should have? I doubt it.

The American Revolution was, as Martin Diamond put it, one of "sober expectations." It recognized the sinful depravity of man and designed a constitution that could bring out the best in us and manage the worst in us. It was the French Revolution that promised "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité," a Republic of Virtue. Obama's rhetoric, and that which he is condoning, places him in the radical French tradition which led of course to the Terror and to Napoleon's tyranny. Excessive expectations for what is possible to achieve through politics always do. Hillary Clinton is more practically political, less inspiring, and even more selfish, and in those respects -- believe it or not -- she is a safer candidate.

A previous reflection on the longings of the soul and immoderate politics, "Community and the Longing Soul," is relevant here.


Oprah then suggests that Obama is perhaps not a god or a person within the Godhead, but rather a more highly evolved form of our species. "We are here to evolve to a higher plane. And the reason I love Barack Obama is because [sic.] he is an evolved leader who can bring evolved leadership to this country."

In the immediately preceding statement, Oprah claimed that Obama would not only love our country, but also love our enemies. "All human hearts are the same. Every mother losing her son in every country feels the same." This simply repeats the peacenik arguments from the 1980s that, because "the Russians love their children too," there is actually no threat of war coming from the Soviet Union. They skipped over the fact that even that argument depended upon maintaining credible nuclear and conventional threats. Oprah's own argument does not, of course, account for the women who have supported their children in their suicide bombings. Nor does it account for the little influence that tender hearted women have in our enemy nations. But not to dwell too long on an entertainer's silly remark.

She then adds that, "We need a president who cares about our friends and also cares about our enemies." Does Senator Obama stand behind this statement? Does he propose that, when he is President, he will be above politics, above the America-world distinction, the friends-enemies distinction? Would he see himself as representing not just American interests, but in some way the worldwide common good? Does he understand that there are irreconcilable conflicts between national interests or between various local aspirations? He is so unseasoned, and he presents himself as being so idealistic, that I would take nothing for granted.

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