Sunday, June 24, 2007

Understanding Obama

If you are an accolade of one of our more modern secular faiths -- say, the ministerial alliance of or the Non-Sectarian, Non-Religious Atheists Association of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens -- whether you like Barack Obama or not, and there is a there there to like, will depend less on Obama and more on your own deeply held secular and/or anti-religious beliefs.

If you think the whole religious business is hokum, you will not appreciate Obama’s brand of hokum. In the anti-religious theatre of thought and action, it is not possible to loathe the war but love the soldier. Hitchens, for one, cheerfully threw off that imposture when, shortly after the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, he vigorously and publicly attacked the corpse. A convert to America from Merry Old England, Hitchens is in some ways more American than apple pie; so, for that matter, was DeToqueville. As a confirmed atheist, Hitchens has never been comfortable with religious prattle. Since hypocrisy remains the only mortal sin of journalism, Hitchens always has been careful to dance around it – unlike, say, Emerson, who reveled in it; hence Hitchens’ attack on the still fresh corpse of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a menace to all the sons of the Enlightenment. In this, at least in respect to his aggressive atheism, Hitchens is out of tune with the rest of America, which continues to astonish Euroland (aka Europe) by its high regard for the faith of Paul, Aquinas, Luther and – yea, even lesser saints like Obama.

When Obama whooped it up over the weekend with a convocation of Christians at the old Civic Center in Hartford, he was engaged in a service that is distinctively American. Only in recent times, egged on by practical atheists on the Supreme Court, have some Americans insisted they prefer their religion and politics unmixed. From the beginning, the heady brew streamed like lava through American veins. Washington was publicly and privately devout, Jefferson the exception, until he was publically upbraided for his freethinking ways and so brought to heel. Lincoln may or may not have believed in God – he certainly behaved and spoke as if he did – but Lincoln always had the good grace not to erect an alter to himself, the great failing of many modern atheists who suffer from a lack of humility that warps around the bones of better Christians when they kneel at the cross.

In Hartford, before an appreciative audience of the United Church of Christ, Obama preached what has been called the American “social gospel” of the Christian church. By doing so, he stepped into the over-sized shoes of Martin Luther King, John Brown – born in tempestuous Torrington – and, long before either of these two leapt upon the religious stage, Luke the Evangelist.

Those who do not wish to mix religion and politics had better steer clear of Luke, because the social gospel streams like a font of living water from his beatitudinal anathemas. Luke goes the extra mile; he walks the walk. Not only do Luke’s beatitudes praise the poor -- “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” -- they unreservedly condemn the rich -- "But woe to you rich, for you have had your consolation." Sen. Ted Kennedy or Rep. Rosa DeLauro could not have put it any more sharply. At first glance, Luke imprecations sound like the uncorrected draft of a speech before the Democrat Socialist Club: Pass around the progressive income tax, and praise the Lord. Obama’s edifying sermon in Hartford also sounded like this.

But second thoughts intrude. Most religious people know that the First Estate in infinitely more powerful than the other three estates because it erects a world outside the political universe that moves people through love and faith – which is why tyrants have always tried, and failed, to suppress religion.

Hitchens is quite wrong on this point. The King, if he has a conscience, must always quail before the prophet. And if he does not quail, he has not a conscience. And if he has not a conscience, the prophet must die, which does not – as tyrants such as Stalin will never realize – rid the heart of religion, for the human heart has reasons of its own. Love and faith are also forms of knowledge.

Americans get this stuff. Europe has long forgotten it. Obama’s sermon will not translate well into French, German and Italian.

But we understand Obama. Don’t we?
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