Obama's Christian Humanism

In his campaign's response to Jesse Jackson's live-microphone incident, Barack Obama made it clear he views social and cultural cajoling to be a natural extension of progressive politics. Libertarian-leaning voters recoil when they hear Obama preaching about turning off our TV sets, learning foreign languages, or spending more time with our children. Some supporters probably prefer to imagine he's just posturing for political effect, but I believe his embrace of pastoral duties is an important aspect of his "new politics" gambit, and an indicator of his deepest priorities. His religiosity, too, provides a key to understanding some of his actions and stances that critics are now labeling as flip-flopping, pandering, or valueless.

Obama confounds skeptics from across the political spectrum because his claims of wanting to rewrite the rules of political culture can seem at odds with his nimble proficiency navigating the ways of old. It was only a few short months ago that blowhards like Sean Hannity derided Obama as a naïve, idealistic, empty suit who would be crushed by Washington. How times change. Now they've learned to despise what they consider Obama's Machiavellian slick, dangerous "maneuvering." It's commonplace to hear critics these days scowl that they "see through" Obama's duplicity. They beg their fellow Americans to find out what he's really up to before it's too late.

But it's impossible to find out what Obama is really up to unless we let go of some of our habitual assumptions about politics, and start considering his approaches and stated priorities at face value - on their own terms. Whether or not you agree with him in the end, the overall arc of his candidacy comprises a coherent, reasonable whole that should not be dismissed without genuine investigation.

But back to this cajoling business. Notice how the Obama campaign's first response to Jackson effortlessly conflated Obama's seemingly conservative (pastor-in-chief) inclinations with longstanding progressive goals.

As someone who grew up without a father in the home, Senator Obama has spoken and written for many years about the issue of parental responsibility, including the importance of fathers participating in their children's lives. He also discusses our responsibility as a society to provide jobs, justice, and opportunity for all. He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson's apology.

When Obama courts Evangelicals (say, by supporting a furthering of Bush's faith-based initiatives), we might describe this as an expression of a conservative side - but this would be overly simplistic. Constantly, throughout his public life, Obama has enjoyed blurring the traditional right-left dichotomy. His simple and lucid (and, it would seem, instinctive) connecting of social cajoling and progressive stances expresses a conviction that government has a role in improving lives as well as guiding us toward ethical behavior. From his perspective, a program that helps inner-city youths get a good education goes hand in hand with leadership that genuinely attempts to prod us toward social responsibility. Like Ronald Reagan, Obama is eager to connect with us emotionally and personally in order to create a channel for values-laden communication. So (for example) ideas that merge self interest with public participation arise quite naturally in Obama's mind (such as his college-tuition-for-community-service initiative).

Peter Clothier and Daniel Cardozo [present a compelling case here at HuffPost for why Obama's sometimes "conservative" stances are perfectly in keeping with his biggest priority (new politics). Obama's emphasis on process and dialogue above hardened positions need not be seen as diminishing the importance of specific issues. His lofty approach is ultimately utilitarian if it turns out to provide the best pathway for furthering a progressive agenda. As Cardozo says: "Obama believes it is less important to defeat Republicans on every issue than to repair government so that good ideas can begin to flourish again." This is why some Republicans, despite themselves, have had trouble hiding their appreciation of Obama. All parties are served by a public sphere where diverse ideas can receive a more full hearing.

It's important to recognize the sincerity of Obama's religiosity (as well as its limitations) - not only to counter suggestions that it's simply a political persona, but also to be clear-eyed about the nature of our (likely) next president. There's nothing revelatory or inconsistent about these inclinations. It's not hard to find evidence, going back at least as far as his first book, showing that his humanistic Christianity shapes his worldview and will probably inform every aspect of his presidency.

Andrew Sullivan's December 2007 profile of Obama for The Atlantic argues that it's impossible to successfully "lead the United States without having a foot in both the religious and secular camps." In many ways these camps are further apart than ever, but, Sullivan writes, Obama is in a unique position to bridge them "by virtue of generation and accident." Obama's black roots, says Sullivan, positions him for the rare political feat of deploying "the rhetoric of Evangelicalism while eschewing its occasional anti-intellectualism and hubristic certainty" because "the black church" is the only significant institution "where conservative theology and the Democratic Party still communicate."

But if Obama's brand of faith lacks the absolutism of a, say, George W. Bush, is it yet another example of his supposed lack of conviction? Will he be exposed as another slippery relativist out of touch with mainstream America?

The way Obama describes his Christianity to Sullivan is revealing:

Obama's faith--at once real and measured, hot and cool--lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. "I didn't have an epiphany," he explained to me. "What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists--you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility--those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice ... I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith."

While Obama says he submitted himself to "God's will," he pointedly adds that his faith "came about as a choice and not an epiphany," and that his naturally skeptical mind did not suddenly vanish when he placed his trust in Jesus Christ. Because Obama's religiosity appears to be a consciously chosen pathway with a pragmatic social purpose, rather than an unconditional acceptance of a metaphysical framework, it could well play into the latest Limbaugh-generated meme that he's a man without a core. But I very much doubt his experience of faith is far divorced from that of mainstream America's (even if it's unusually well articulated).

It reminds me of a late-night conversation I had some years back with a devout friend of mine who had entered the seminary late in life. I identified myself as an agnostic at the time, so I viewed it somewhat as an admission on my friend's part when he told me he considered Christianity to be a useful "focal point" for connecting human beings in community with one another -- a language that many of us choose to employ for describing and confirming (and reconfirming) our positive hopes for ourselves and each other. Since that chat I've witnessed this kind of pragmatic application of religion in many individuals of widely varying relationships to God and prayer. This leads me to believe that, regardless of how persistent the knockings of mystery on the door of one's soul, the day-to-day role religion plays in many of our lives is recognized as a social glue -- a shared object of meditation. I've also come to believe that this is only a bad thing when practitioners adopt a "hubristic certainty" about their faith (as seems to be the case with George W. Bush).

Obama's decision to accept Jesus as (at least) a potent metaphor in his life, and faith as "an active, palpable agent in the world," was clearly a transformative event. It mobilized him to spend his life carrying out "God's will" - an agenda that is essentially the same as the secular humanist goals he had inherited from his mother, but, I assume, packaged in such a way that better positioned him to merge his core identity with a concentrated, energized devotion to the manifestation of those values.

Obama's decision tells us much about his character, even without knowing the extent of his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is clear evidence that he does have a core, and that that core is deeply committed to building bridges to his fellow human beings via common, mobilizing languages. He seems to sincerely believe he has a unique role to play in presiding over a public sphere that can overcome the political/cultural gridlock of the past few decades. This aggravates partisans because the building of such a space seems to be a bigger priority to him than any specific issue. Secular liberals can't quite fathom why he'd want to one-up Bush's "White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" by proposing his own "Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships." So they begrudgingly accept it as political expediency - despite Obama's insistence that progressives should get used to the idea that there will sometimes be issues on which we will genuinely disagree.

The notion of a "party line" is becoming largely irrelevant under Obama's leadership in part because he's not afraid to embrace ideas that he believes are consistent with his native worldview that treats religious semantics as powerful and positive social forces.

Obama's tendency to use issues as opportunities for practicing empathy, conversation, and, yes, compromise (rather than as locations for self-righteous battling) provides fuel to critics who think he can be brought down with labels such as flip-flopper. No doubt such attacks will gain some traction with a pundit class that prides itself on knowing the rules of politics. But I suspect the majority of Americans will find Obama quenches a thirst for leadership unabashed about calling us all together "in prayer."