Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

In my previous post, I outlined the civil religion that Robert Bellah and Sacvan Bercovitch both identify, though with opposed intentions. Surely, Barack Obama is working with and within this civil religion. He repeatedly narrates a jeremiad, the “prescribed ritual form” that “directs an imperiled people of god toward the fulfillment of their destiny.” He invokes every trope of individualism and individual mobility, and he identifies himself specifically as an immigrant who embodies that American dream of self-making. If he thereby avoids being consigned to blackness, and so to social fixity, deviance, and political marginality, he also affirms the sacralizing of liberalism as the very meaning of a freedom that is god’s gift. At the same time, he affirms the collective responsibility that Bellah considered the gift of biblical religion to Anglo-American liberalism.

Obama joins citizens together in a community committed to fostering the flourishing individuality of every member, even as he stretches that idea of membership. At the same time, he confirms the normative (moral) structure beneath liberal individuality when he denounces the “irresponsibility” not only of the rich in the banking crisis, but also of black men who fail to act as fathers. He affirms the moral axioms that, by distinguishing liberty from license, embed individual rights in norms of responsibility. He not only affirms the promise of mobility, but the essential goodness of inherited American values. He enables a certain critique of the neo-liberalism that in America calls itself conservatism, precisely in the way he reaffirms the consensual faith that indeed joins whites and blacks despite their inverted views of racism and its persistence. As the soaring rhetoric in his victory and inaugural speeches depicts the onward march of American “democracy,” the civil rights movement becomes one step in the telos of “our” progress toward a “more perfect union.”

It is just as evident that, as he draws on the biblical tropes of civil religion, he distances himself from its prophetic variant. He may invoke King as a Moses, and make marching toward a mountaintop a national narrative, but he does not announce god’s judgment of a guilty people, nor does he demand that people make fateful choices about prevailing practices long deemed legitimate. He does not speak in the voice of scorching irony, grievance and righteous indignation that characterizes prophetic critics of the American regime. To win election he did not offer a tragic retelling of American nationhood, nor did he demand a decision about constitutive but unjust practices, but he affirmed the redemptive promise of American exceptionalism. His nationalist narrative generated unprecedented electoral support, but will democratic possibility in fact depend on narratives that address the ghosts haunting the American house?

Obama demonstrates the possibility that the language of civil religion can be put to progressive use to authorize more inclusive state policies. This language assures legitimacy and wards off marginality, as Bellah argued to students in 1968. It especially wards off the danger that Obama might be reduced to a “black” candidate, that is, the merely particular representative of a narrowly particular and indeed stigmatized minority. Rather, he can stand for the whole because he voices that individualistic aspiration of the many, and himself embodies in his own person the dream that a more perfect union can reconcile every element of a fragmented and divided nation. Here again we see the religiosity in a civil religion that invests the fate of the political body in the personal body of its president, the representative of “we the people.” From this point of view, we need to see Obama as not only “using” the language of civil religion, but as himself performing its deepest aspirations in a way that will solicit identification with him as a symbol of national possibility. This plebiscitarian (not only consensual) politics means renouncing partisanship, that is, both the conflicts and the ideologies of the past, in the name of more perfect union. Obama’s “pragmatism,” his resistance to “ideology,” is thus the necessary supplement to his poetry of national redemption. His wager is that the language of civil religion is at once the means of gaining election and the means of governing, as long as he continues to modulate the abstractions of national progress with the prosaic pragmatism of legislative process, as long as he himself can at once embody and mediate the relation of multiple parts to national whole.

It is totally unjustified, therefore, to claim that Obama has fulfilled the project of Martin Luther King. True, Obama could not have been elected without the civil rights movement and the enormous and complex changes it initiated, including the widespread claim that we are now a “post-racial” nation. But he is a consensus politician; rather than abolish imperialism, he is taking on war in Afghanistan; rather than abolish capitalism, he is saving the banks in ways that provoke considerable populist skepticism; rather than abolish poverty, he talks only about helping the middle class, and does not talk about the poor at all. He does not stand with King against American power, but wants to make American power more effective by making it morally credible in world public opinion. Rather than embrace non-violence, or even dream of swords turned into plowshares, he is commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in history. He surely is critical of laissez-faire excess, of hubris that forgoes diplomacy, and of conceptions of nationhood that are openly hostile to difference. But he does not stand with god and the disenfranchised to demand justice, call down god’s judgment on a guilty people, or demand profound and fundamental changes in prevailing practices. Correspondingly, his poetry of national redemption is constantly tempered by the prose of his pragmatism, just as his evocation of defining choices is always modulated by tones of moderation, compromise, and forbearance.

But what is the point or meaning of saying this? It seems to me there are two moves at this point. One move is to affirm his distance from prophetic forms of speech as the condition of approaching the world in a truly “political” way. Along these lines we could celebrate his genius as a “prince” in the fullest Machiavellian sense. Not only because of his extraordinary capacity to build legitimacy for himself and support for a relatively progressive social policy in a political community that remains profoundly Christian, deeply divided by class and race, and thoroughly invested in nationalism, but also because of the brilliant political performance that enabled him, as a black man, to win the presidency in a racially divided and unequal nation. His evocation of civil religion, but not prophetic critique, is essential to his electoral success and to achieving his progressive agenda.

Along somewhat different lines we also could celebrate his gifts as a prince who, unlike the later King, is supremely “political” in the this-worldly sense of performing the art of the possible. In this regard, we might repeat Lincoln’s arguments against the abolitionists: an elected official in a democracy is obliged to recognize not only the authority of morality, by which slavery was an absolute wrong, but also the authority of the Constitution, which legalized slavery in the southern states and a fugitive slave law, and then also the authority of majority rule, which allowed slavery as well as racialized exclusion. Moreover, Lincoln denied that claims to abstract equal rights could be pursued in a way that simply ignored the reality of inherited historical circumstance, which made ending slavery so much more difficult than simply declaring it wrong by way of a standard of human rights. An elected official, let alone a president, must build consensus for a position, even one that seems (to him) self-evidently right on grounds of principle.

It is no wonder Obama identifies with Lincoln, therefore, but it will be no wonder, too, if the heirs of Frederick Douglass continue to draw on traditions of prophecy to press Obama and his administration in more radical directions. Indeed, one must hope that the mere fact of Obama in office is not used to claim that the prophetic tradition is no longer necessary because its aspirations have been realized. A second move, then, is to credit the necessity of a critical prophetic voice, which emerges only by gaining distance from the state and those it enfranchises, from its normative institutions and their axiomatic assumptions. Any political community needs its prophets and their counter-narratives to contest the idolatry of identity, the inertia of tradition, the willfulness when people claim to forget or not to know. Indeed, as political theorist Jacques Ranciere argues, the truly political moment is when “the part that has no part” compels a regime toward the acknowledgments that require its reconstitution. It is in just this sense that prophecy is not the antithesis of politics but its very condition of possibility.

My wish to protect prophetic critique from incorporation does not preclude appreciating Obama’s extraordinary performance, and the very real gains he may enable by working within rather than contesting the central legitimating myths of the culture, both individualism and the religiosity of “America” as a symbol. But at the same time, it seems mistaken and unwise to split off the prophetic voice from the conventional (electoral and legislative) practice of politics, and even from the performances of princes. On the one hand, Obama’s familiarity with the black prophetic tradition is inflected when he deflates chauvinist nationalism on behalf of the multilateral, when he notes that only America has dropped an atomic bomb, or when he registers human fallibility and limitation. On the other hand, it may require a prophetic perspective to grasp and address the “imperial melancholy” of a nation that, rather than come to terms with the limits and transience of its imperial power, remains wed to the project of freedom through sovereignty, and absolute security through military power. Rather than split off the perspective of prophecy from the virtuosity that faces the exigencies of power, then, it is better to take up the difficult task of holding them in tension. As Max Weber argues in “Politics as a Vocation,”

…it is immensely moving when a mature man [sic]—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility, but somewhere he reaches a point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”…In so far as this is true, an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in union constitute a genuine man, a man who can have a “calling for politics.”

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]