Americans have elected the most theologically astute president since Jimmy Carter. Like his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama is partial to the writings of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama’s Facebook page (the first ever for a president-elect) lists Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as a favorite novel.
Hidden from most of the electorate, Obama’s theological inclinations are well known to scholars of American religion. Heralding a “civil religious revival,” sociologist R. Stephen Warner cites Obama’s belief in the power of ideals to draw Americans “toward their better natures” and the “awesome God that he knows is worshiped in both blue and red states.” Philip Gorski articulates a similar argument on The Immanent Frame, pointing to the prominence of racial reconciliation in Obama’s religious speech.
Warner and Gorski are right to focus on the motif of reconciliation. From Obama’s address at the 2004 Democratic convention to Tuesday’s victory speech in Grant Park, he has sought to heal the divisions between right and left, religious and secular, Red and Blue. Like the “Rednecks for Obama” bumper stickers in the Missouri Ozarks, Obama’s claim to “worship an awesome God in the blue states,” transcends the polarizations of American culture.
In the classic typology of literary genres, Obama’s vision of reconciliation could be described as comic. As Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism, “the theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it.” In Barack Obama’s case, the central character is often Barack Obama. In his landmark speech on race, Obama called himself “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” Rather than disowning the Reverend Wright and his white grandmother, he portrayed them as integral to his sense of self. As he told the audience in Philadelphia, “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
Comic rhetoric also saturates The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s bestselling chronicle on remaking America. Proposing “a new kind of politics,” he suggests “how we might move beyond our divisions,” praising those who have been able to “make peace with their neighbors, and themselves.” At its heart, such rhetoric is implicitly theological. According to Hayden White, the trope of comedy “suggests the possibility of liberation” from the effects of the Fall. In Obama’s case, such comic sensibilities are rooted in the theological virtue of hope.
Filled with comic hope, Obama’s public theology is also self-consciously ironic, drawing on the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Part of a “Niebuhr revival” in American politics, Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” In an interview with David Brooks, Obama summarized Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, accepting “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world,” and that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”
Most of the time, politicians apply Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought to foreign policy, where it is associated with the realist school of international relations. This is certainly true for Obama, who believes in the judicious use of American power.
Yet Niebuhr’s Christian realism may be even more useful on the domestic front. In his quest to unify Americans, Obama should remember that even virtuous crusades can have unintended consequences. Though he entered presidential politics to heal the nation’s political divisions, it is possible that his election may exacerbate them.
While Barack Obama has high approval ratings, a minority of Americans continue to fear and loathe him. According to Wednesday’s USA Today/Gallup poll, 27 percent of the country is afraid of an Obama presidency. Pre-election polls in Kentucky and Texas found that between 14 and 23 percent of the public believes he is a Muslim (and many of those people associate Islam with evil).
Before and after the election, the religious right has been unrelentingly hostile to an Obama candidacy. In particular, recent statements by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson reveal an unbridgeable chasm between Obama and some conservatives. In October 2008, Dobson released what he called a “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.” A fictional letter from the future, it begins with the author lamenting the fact that he “can hardly sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ any more.” Downright apocalyptic, it warns that an Obama administration will result in the outlawing of campus ministries, a rise in pornography, the banning of evangelical books, and the outlawing of the Pledge of Allegiance. Along the same lines, Focus on the Family’s Tom Minnery compares Barack Obama to “pagan rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Cyrus.” Such polarizing rhetoric suggests Obama may have trouble transcending the politics of Red States and Blue States.
And yet it appears that Obama knows exactly what he is up against. Consistent with his Niebuhrian sensibilities, he has not portrayed the quest for reconciliation as an easy journey. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama believes that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that a new kind of politics requires us “to account for the darker aspects of our past.”
On Tuesday night, Obama looked back to a dark time in American history, quoting Abraham Lincoln’s words “to a nation far more divided than ours”: We are not enemies but friends.
James Dobson notwithstanding, there are signs that religious conservatives are beginning to get the message. Though more evangelicals voted for Barack Obama than for John Kerry, an overwhelming majority supported John McCain. Knowing this about his flock, Assemblies of God General Superintendent George Wood issued a post-election statement. Noting that “we are to show respect for those who hold office,” he said that “the recent campaign at all levels and all parties was often filled with bitter rancor, distortions, smears and lies.” According to Wood, we must “set a better tone for the national discussion.” Though such words are all too rare, they suggest that Barack Obama may yet achieve his dream of a new kind of politics.