It has been an interesting spectator sport watching candidates communicate their faith “approaches” in the political arena. Hillary Clinton seems committed to operating upon faith as a kind of demographic variable to be diplomatically embraced with the help of advisers. John Edwards is fairly typical of the liberal politician: Faith is personal, almost wholly personal, an attribute of both a stout and moral leader and a caring Christian man. No atheism or animosity to religion here, whewww, and none of the nasty side effects of authoritarian, conservative pseudo-Christian warmongering. Edwards is religion in its unthreatening glory– personal, friendly, earnest, and (innocuously?) virtuous. We can all dedicate ourselves to the nobler unifying issues, like healing the economic rift between the “two Americas”.
I won’t discuss the Republican candidates because I find them so sanctimonious, monolithic, and calculating as to be boring and strangely agnostic in their presentations.
Barack Obama, I find to be the most interesting, because his engagement of the action side of faith (organizing communities and confronting the injustice of racism) has presented challenges to the gauzy images that many Americans have come to expect from their religiosity. Patrick DeTemple has already discussed from a ground’s-eye view much about the political side of Obama in a recent post, so I won’t spend too much time there, but Obama serves as an interesting case study of a larger dynamic playing itself out on the political stage, a different kind of “triangulation” in which faith plays a kind of litmus role:
- The negotiation of the dialectical materialist and Marxism-influenced past of the 1960’s, and its own tensions between “opiate of the masses” secularism and liberation theology.
- The desire for a “mainstream” present in which conflicts and hard choices can be fluffed into non-existence or packaged into comfortable simulacra (think of oddly new-age flavored televangelism).
- And the opportunity (and challenges) of a progressive future in which faith might act as a verb, helping us to engage, rather than run from the unknown, and having us come to terms with injustice in the service of a renewed spiritual vision which both embraces diversity and empirical truth and points beyond it.
I recommend the recent front page article in the New York Times on Obama to get a first hand look at this stormy love triangle. Obama was mentored by a scion of the 60’s, Jeremiah Wright, a pastor at Trinity Congregational in Chicago. Wright has spoken and continues to speak stridently against “white racism” and “middleclassness” the “selfish individualism” that corrupts people’s abilities to give back to their community. Tough stuff for Middle America to handle if exposed to intensely (which it will be by his Republican opponents, no doubt, if he wins the Democratic nomination). So far, Obama has chosen to strategically distance himself from this pastor and pal up with Jim Wallis (a pretty accomplished triangulator himself), of “God’s Politics” fame and the 2006 election “defeat for the religious right and the secular left” notoriety.
The knock on Obama in some quarters is that he is long on stirring rhetoric and short on details. In his own words, he feels his job is not only to balance idealism and realism, and see the other sides’ points, but “to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised” (p. 42, Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Crown Publishing, 2006). In this Obama has a choice: be “moderate”, deny his radical past and split the ideological divide or be progressive, embrace elements of his radical past and offer a compelling alternative that might challenge the capacities and inspire the best virtues of American citizens.
So far, Obama appears to be playing both sides of this tension, catering to a nostalgic desire for an untroubled centrism and earnestly presenting an image of a new and fresh Kennedy-like advocate of a brave, new, and hopeful world. When Obama suggests “we all take a deep breath” (op. cit., p. 22) in realizing that the present political madness is not as bad as other instances of historical injustice, he seems to be urging us to gloss over present injustice for the the sake of a future so-called “unity”, one based more on amelioration than engagement of the tough issues of the day. Perennially disappointed progressives are trying to decide if he is for real (and if this amelioration is simply the requirement of campaigning). And yet his hidden history points to a very different man, a man whose faith has been based on his engagement with social justice. Will Obama surprise us as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wealthy man branded as a class traitor for casting his lot with the people? At least Obama is engaging the tension, if not always overtly, and that engagement reflects America’s larger struggle. If presidents reflect the mood of the country, Obama, might be the quintessential candidate. Our ugly marks have been revealed, our capitulations (to fear, torture and other abuses of rights, etc.) as citizens and “leaders of the free world” have reflected poorly upon us.
Our leadership has become an evident tragedy. Our self-image has taken a beating. Yet we still have a choice to do what is necessary to regain our esteem honestly and reawaken the potential of the flawed but noble democracy called America. Or we can proceed dishonestly. My own feeling is that this choice cannot ultimately be triangulated, any more than faith can be. It might be possible to reassure people clinging to nostalgia with “calming” rhetoric, but policies are matters of choice, not rhetoric. The question for us and for Obama is will we cling to mere image, and deny yet again, that ugliness that we have hidden, the ugliness that can be redeemed, but
not without both struggle and vision…and a certain kind of faith.
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