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?


Anonymous said...

The message from secularists to the church is always the same: We’re prepared to tolerate your theological stupidities, provided you agree with us on important points. Such as? Always and ever, that the war in Iraq is wrong, that Bush is an intollerable menace, that sort of thing. In Hartford, addressing a convocation of the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most liberal church in the United States, Barack Obama said that God – and perhaps himself – is “still listening” to the Catholic Church, provided it can get on the other side of abortion to matters more important to Go -- and, it goes without saying, to Obama and the Democrat Party as well. Peace is important. The minimum wage is important. But abortion? Not so important; that was the impression he left. The cookies were delicious.

Don Pesci said...


Don't get it. Are you saying that the United Church of Christ is a secular organization?

Anonymous said...


No. Just that their gospel -- tough to distinguish it from the usual Democratic patter -- is acceptable to those people in the media who ind the Catholic position on abortion, how to put it -- too confining.

Don Pesci said...

Roger. Got that.

He Said said...

Anon, are you inferring stuff from Obama's speech or did he actually criticize the Catholic Church by name in his speech to the UCC? Because if it's the latter, that's big and it should be noted throughout Catholic media.

Don Pesci said...

Obama’s speech may be found here.

Barack mentions Catholics directly in this passage: “He (God) is still speaking to opur Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistant ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it is in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They’re telling me that their conversation about what it means to be a Catholic continues. God is still speaking.”

The whole passage is open to interpretation. Catholics believe that that their church, if not God, has spoken quite clearly on abortion and respect for life. The Catholic position is that live begins at conception and ends when God calls us home. The state should protect and advance that life from its beginning to its natural end. If Barack disagrees with this position, he shall have to speak more clearly about it – but he is still speaking.

Anonymous said...

When Obama says God is still speaking to Catholics on the matter of abortion, he means that it is possible that Catholics will abandon their position on this issue: God is still speaking. However, on other matters -- he mentions the minimum wage -- the dialogue has been compleated: God has spoken authoritatively on this, and he means what Sen. Kennedy means. That is how I read his speech: God means what I say he means. I think he might have a problem pointing to that phrase in scripture that supports the minimum wage. Ours must be life in service to the poor. Scripture speaks clearly on this. But it does not say that the instrument of deliverance should be the state. It should be the church. The Catholic church has walked this walk.

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