Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Gospel according to Obama

Update: Original Sin at Notre Dame

Christianists insist that the United States is a Christian nation. Obama is not a Christianist. He told us in his inaugural address that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." While he believes that moral values absorbed through religion have a place in the public sphere, he imposes strict ground rules on those who would invoke religious teachings:
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason (The Audacity of Hope).
Obama's religious allusions accordingly are usually of the most universal kind: I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. And yet, a second look at his inaugural address made me feel that his thinking is more specifically informed by Christian scripture than I had previously believed. Early in the speech, he swerved into slightly less familiar Biblical language -- the Apostle Paul's "when I became a man, I put away childish things." The full context of that Pauline dictum, I believe, opens a window on the extent to which Obama's understanding of America's secular scriptures, the Declaration and the Constitution, are underpinned by his reading of Christian scripture.

Here is Obama's allusion to 1 Corinthians 13:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
The call to put away childish things had a simple denotation, familiar to anyone who has followed Obama's speeches: to get past the Rovian attack politics that according to Obama have paralyzed our policymaking -- "a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," as he put it in his March speech on race. The way he followed that thread, identifying other "childish"political tenets and practices he asked us to move past, is worth a separate post.

But here, I'm more interested in a family likeness between Obama's historiography and Paul's theology. For Paul, becoming a man means achieving, to borrow a favorite phrase of Obama's, a more perfect union:
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

For Paul, to become a man means to become perfect in love. It means to fulfill a human potential that can never be completely fulfilled in this life: to love God perfectly. This life is a quest for a more perfect union that will be attained in the next.

Obama, like Lincoln, and the Transcendentalists before him, and countless Americans afterward, asserts a similar movement in American history. The Declaration and the Constitution express political principles as perfect in their way (so Obama's invocations of them imply) as Paul's love. Indeed, Obama has asserted that they are in effect political translations of that love. Here's how he put it in his great speech on race in Philadelphia on March 18:
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

The title of that speech was "A More Perfect Union." The premise was that the principles expressed in the Constitution have not been fulfilled but are in process of being fulfilled -- that what distinguishes America is the country's constant progress toward fulfilling them:
This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.
In the inaugural address, Obama portrayed our progress toward realizing our ideals as being in midstream, and projected their eventual fulfillment beyond our shores to encompass the world:
And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Once again, his core message was hope. Faith. Love. Those three. Ultimately, Obama keeps it simple.

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