Dear reader, please let me offer two apologies from the start. First, this is a long post. I don’t know if it’s worth your read, but I at least want to tip you to the length. Second, it’s a post that discusses (on some level) politics, a subject I largely dislike and try to avoid at PureChurch. There are other places that do politics, and do it better. So, you’ve been forewarned :-).
Andrew Sullivan in the December issue of The Atlantic offers his take on Sen. Barrack Obama’s presidency bid and its meaning for America. He styles Sen. Obama as the “potentially transformational” candidate, who unlike any of the other candidates “could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.”
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
I was struck by the article’s rather interesting re-casting of identity politics, faith, and elections.
Sen. Obama, Black Face and Foreign Policy
Sullivan argues that none of the major contentious issues that characterized the last few elections are really that central to this election. He contends that the only real differences between the candidates on foreign policy are nuanced differences over how to achieve essentially the same long-term outcomes in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. On the domestic side, there is hardly any substantive disagreement that the primary issue is health care, again with nuances in ideology. For Sullivan, even the polarizing issues of abortion and gay marriage are all but settled into a consensus, even if achieved by fatigue on the one hand or state action in the case of gay marriage on the other. What the country needs “given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy” is someone who can bridge the huge gulf between various Boomer camps—“those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t… those who fought and dissented and those who never fought at all.” In Sullivan’s opinion, Boomer politics—entrenched, professionalized, and embittered—have been the driving force of politics over the last 40 years and represent the most persistently divisive political reality that must be overcome if America will thrive in the years ahead.
While the country is undergoing this identity crisis, Sullivan proposes that only one who escapes all the typical identity entanglements is the only viable option for a new day in American politics and policy. Enter Sen. Obama.
Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? … It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.
But just when I thought Sullivan had turned some corner onto new ground I was stopped cold at his first reason for pointing to Sen. Obama.
“What does he offer? First and foremost: his face” What?! “First and foremost” his face. According to Sullivan, “The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power” in order to neutralize radical Muslim antipathy toward America. Sullivan daydreams about young Pakistani Muslims watching a President Barack Hussein Obama on TV and being disarmed by “one simple image,” his face. I can only wonder if Sullivan is ignorant of radical Islam’s opinion of apostate Muslims. That hypothetical young Pakistani will find Sen. Obama’s departure from Islam and the Muslim school he attended as a boy far more problematic than his face.
In an era where people of almost every variety are trying to escape the shallow end of the racial profiling pool, Sullivan actually sun bathes in it by commending Sen. Obama precisely because of… “his face.” I’m certain Sullivan is highlighting this as a positive, an irreplaceable and unreproducible asset. But the willingness to trumpet “race” or making happy about a president in black face only when it conveniences us is as wickedly pernicious as violently and overtly oppressing others on the same basis. It’s insidious, and Sen. Obama ought to be insulted. This isn’t Amos and Andy.
Sen. Obama, Faith and the Church
But Sullivan doesn’t stop with the race card. He moves on to tout what he sees as Sen. Obama’s advantage in the area of faith. He writes quite perceptively about the internalized fear of most Democrats: “They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some quotient of discretion, fear, or plan deception is required if they are to advance their objectives.” He continues, “There are few areas where this Democratic fear is more intense than religion.”
Enter Sen. Obama:
Here again, Obama, by virtue of generation and accident, bridges this deepening divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. ‘I didn’t have an epiphany,’ he explained to me. ‘What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice…I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith.'
Sullivan swoons over Sen. Obama’s description of his faith.
To deploy the rhetoric of Evangelicalism while eschewing its occasional anti-intellectualism and hubristic certainty is as rare as it is exhilarating. It is both an intellectual achievement, because Obama has clearly attempted to wrestle a modern Christianity from the encumbrances and anachronisms of its past, and an American achievement, because it was forged in the only American institution where conservative theology and the Democratic Party still communicate: the black church.
Hmmm…. Let me understand this. A man who is not “born again”—which in Sullivan’s understanding is “critical”—who describes himself as taking a set of secular humanist values and ideals and finding a home for them in the church, who is in Sullivan’s words not like the rest of Evangelicalism (“occasional anti-intellectual and hubristic certainty”), who wrestles modern Christianity from encumbrances and anachronisms (I assume he means being “born again” and “hubristic certainty” typically manifested as something like believing the Bible is true and relevant for certain social issues)… is supposed to be “rare” and “exhilarating.”
How about old and proven false? I don’t know Sen. Obama personally; I’ve not read his books; and I certainly am not making any judgments about where he is spiritually. But, there’s nothing new about this brand of “faith” that Sullivan is describing. It’s theological liberalism. It’s unbelief. And the only thing that is as disturbing as this view of faith… is the fact that Sen. Obama found a comfortable home for it inside the church.
It’s an indication of how unhealthy Evangelicalism can be. No doubt we are at times anti-intellectual. And it’s not the absence but the presence of folks inside the Evangelical church who hold to weak intellectual and doctrinal positions that is evidence for our anti-intellectualism. That Sen. Obama or a million unnamed pastors, elders, and deacons can take the high ground of being “intellectuals” and so make unbelief respectable indicates that we’re not thinking. For we should be able to engage such cloudy thinking with the light of God’s word, if we indeed love God with all our mind.
The most interesting paragraph in Sullivan’s article was this:
There are times when Obama’s experience feels more like an immigrant story than a black memoir. His autobiography navigates anew and strange world of an American racial legacy that never quite defined him at his core. He therefore speaks to a complicated and mixed identity—not a simple and alienated one. This may hurt him among some African Americans, who may fail to identify with this fellow with an odd name. Black conservatives, like Shelby Steele, fear he is too deferential to the black establishment. Black leftists worry that he is not beholden at all. But there is no reason why African Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything—this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. Obama expresses such a conflicted but resilient identity before he even utters a word. And this complexity, with its internal tensions, contradictions, and moods, may increasingly be the main thing all Americans have in common.
An America where all people are given the freedom to live complex identities, not reduced to simplistic notions of “race,” that sounds like the America we need. Would that Obama could help on this score. But I'm afraid he won't do it by appealing to the new-styled politics of race and faith that Sullivan is proposing.