The Theology of Barack Obama

by Benjamin Domenech on 1:58 pm May 1, 2008

The reactions to Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club were almost universal. Even commentators like Andrew Sullivan, who spent weeks arguing that Rev. Wright’s statements were either taken out of context or irrelevant to the discussion at hand, were forced to concede their indefensibility.

And showing the kind of courageous leadership he has already become known for, Barack Obama knows how to respond when an opinion is poll-tested at overwhelming levels: he adopts it unconditionally, as if he has held it all along. As Rev. Wright, insightful political observer that he is, said yesterday: “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls.”

Remember those fine words Sen. Obama shared in Philadelphia? How he could not denounce his spiritual mentor, the inspiration for The Audacity of Hope, without denouncing the entirety of the black church? Just a few weeks later, those words mean nothing. Or, the Obama campaign seems to be urging, perhaps in our cynicism we just misunderstood them. Sen. Obama does not flip flop. He has held the same position all along. It’s just Rev. Wright who’s changed into something “unrecognizable” to the Senator, after twenty years of friendship.

One wonders when, exactly, this alteration of character took place. Was it on one of those Sundays when Sen. Obama sat and listened as Rev. Wright launched into a tirade against the United States of America, when he tithed as they passed the plate and shook hands with important citizens after the service? Was it when Rev. Wright, as he later told the New York Times, acknowledged that the Senator would have to distance himself from their church in order to win the presidency? Or was it only when Rev. Wright appeared in front of the gathered cameras and stuck to his rhetorical guns, refusing to disavow his past positions? Those hot lights certainly bring clarity for the new Adonis who turns winter into spring, and the idea that churches are chosen according to the political benefit to a rising politician, not that incidental matter of beliefs, is looking awfully bad in hindsight.

Wright did not hide from the questions: he answered them frankly and honestly. He conceded the anti-Americanism of his statements, and more. When asked about the Senator’s Philadelphia speech, he responded: “[Barack Obama] didn’t distance himself. He had to distance himself, because he’s a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American…We both know that if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected.”

The theology of Barack Obama is an intriguing one. Forgive my clumsy brevity of description, but: if we understand the theology of George W. Bush as one of a very New Testament-heavy understanding of God’s power of redemption – for the individual, for government, and for nations; and the theology of Bill Clinton was one of hands-off deism – where God forgives virtually any personal sin as long as your aims are noble; and the theology of Ronald Reagan as an Old Testament understanding of God’s hand moving invisibly behind the great clashes of good and evil empires…we must find Obama’s personal view to share the most in common with the theology of Jimmy Carter, circa 1976.

It is a kinship that Rev. Wright certainly believes exists between himself, the former president and others – at least on the subject of Israel.

“Louis [Farrakhan] said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion. He was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter’s being vilified for and Bishop Tutu’s being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago. He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century; that’s what I think about him…Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery, and he didn’t make me this color.”

Barack Obama is the evangelist of the betterment of man. His religion is one of an almost overriding humanism, to the exclusion of the divine: hope is his signet, change his golden cross. He brings salvation to the masses via the empowerment of government, government under his leadership. His followers are not the Southern pro-American Carter voters, and they may carry iPhones instead of the hoes of the agrarian south, but the message is striking for its similarities. Where Carter constantly used Protestant religious terminology to describe the healing that needed to take place in the wake of Watergate, Obama’s solution for the Iraq war and the other sins (as he sees them) of the George W. Bush administration is to say: trust in me – untested, inexperienced, poll-driven me – as you trust in yourself.

Yet there are small differences as well, and those are key to understanding the Senator. The language Obama uses may still be that of prayer, but it is prayer not directed toward a creator, but to his audience itself. Faith turns inward, and becomes an infinite loop. So Carter’s “We can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems” becomes “Yes we can.” And so the old sung tones of “Wait upon the Lord” morphs into “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” From Obama’s perspective, as opposed to Carter’s, it is only the bitter, the nervous, the threatened, or the uneducated who cling to religion.

We know how this ended the first time: the infamous malaise speech of 1979. As the eloquent Steve Hayward put it in his biography of President Carter, the man ran for office promising “a government as good as the people” ultimately ended his term in office by saying that the people were no good. If they took such bets in Vegas, one could get a fine margin on picking the month of his term where President Obama would announce the same realization.

It is a shocking sight for some. How could something this radical have stayed hidden for so long? And so all sorts of theories abound in the blogosphere that the Rev. Wright story has to be a creation of a political strategist, a planted story to allow for a Sister Souljah moment, a false-flag operation gone wrong, not the self-inflicted wound of a Chicago politician who needed friends like these to rise from the state senate to the presidential stakes in just a few years. It doesn’t really matter now, to be honest – if it was such a story, it has already spun out of the Obama campaign’s control, and their billion dollar brand is now in the lurch.

But we should not be shocked by this. We should not recoil from Rev. Wright for explaining his views. We should applaud him for his honesty and consistency. When the media came calling, he did not retract decades of radical speeches and remarks merely to satisfy the fashion of the times: he merely explained why he believed what he believed. He is not ashamed. He is a showman, not a scholar – and so his references for the belief that the United States government caused the HIV virus as a blight on the African American community are odd books and a view that “Based on the Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.”

Indeed. Under a leader with the poll-driven doctrine of Barack Obama, who knows what it will be capable of doing – if, that is, America decides to find out.

originally posted at Right Side Politics

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