Barack Obama is not shy about sharing his personal life with the rest of us. Indeed, if you decide to run for the presidency, you should anticipate that every nook and cranny of your life will be examined in excruciating detail. But, his speech to the African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, in which he spoke of how “I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will…” was still quite extraordinary.
Perhaps, Obama is simply getting the best revenge against his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The pastor, you will recall, was a champion of black liberation theology which, like its kissing cousin, Latin American liberation theology, tended to collapse its eschaton, resulting in a hyper-identification of one’s politics with the Kingdom. Obama’s discussion of eternal life as its own reward is the best answer to such conflations of political zeal with divine Providence.
The real touchstone of Obama’s speech, however, was when he asserted that “The challenges we face today – war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools – are not simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness in the imperfections of man.” So far, so Niebuhr.
Obama went on to assert that the values he invoked needed to move out of the church and into the public policies of the nation. Not sure if Niebuhr would follow him in his optimistic appraisal of the outcome that would await such a result. But, it was certainly refreshing to hear a Democrat, and a liberal Democrat at that, explaining the moral underpinnings of his policies.
It remains a bit of a shame, however, that Obama has not used religious thought to organize his political program. His policy proposals are akin to certain types of entrees at expensive restaurants with a young, unseasoned chef. They are a series of unrelated events on a plate. He needs to bring them into a coherent whole by organizing them around a notion such as advancing human dignity or promoting the common good. Religion, which alone among human endeavors, makes claims upon the entirety of our lives, is uniquely qualified to provide this kind of ideological underpinning of otherwise discrete ideas.
Michael Sean Winters