The man does not merely have supporters. He has disciples.
Sen. Barack Obama’s rhetorical themes clearly tap into the religious subconscious and spiritual sensibilities of Americans. Obama has cleverly become the first contemporary American politician to successfully collapse the distinction between religion and politics—all without ever using explicitly religious language. The fervor of the excited crowds that fill stadiums to hear Barack Obama mirrors the kind of religious zeal and energy you might find at a modern mega-church or old-school revival. This uniquely religious response comes even from people who generally considered religion anathema.
Historically, successful runs for the presidency have either been overtly clear about the religious foundations (e.g. George W. Bush), or they have appealed to the language of American Civil Religion (Carter, Reagan, Clinton). The former strategy politicizes the candidates’ religious beliefs and can be polarizing and off-putting in a religiously diverse nation. The latter approach embraces the liberal idea of religious tolerance, yet is still firmly grounded in Christianity. It takes a secular view of democracy that is motivated by a set of clear religious commitments.
Senator Obama has taken another approach. He mirrors the pluralistic temperament and contemporary appeal of best-selling author Rev. Joel Osteen, who preaches a “watered down” theological approach to spirituality sometimes referred to as Christianity-lite. He also echoes Oprah Winfrey, who promotes a popular and pluralistic “new-age” spiritual conception where Christian notions of charity are emphasized in a very public way. Because Obama’s method highlights the spiritual dimensions of human beings, it is ultimately a religious conception of democracy that is motivated by political interests.
Three notions drive Obama’s political use of implicitly religious rhetoric: “belief,” “change,” and “hope.” In a culture saturated with Christian tropes, the notions of belief, transformation and hope, are well-worn. They tend to be emphasized, in varying degrees, by both religious and political leaders. Senator Obama, instead of politicizing his religious worldview in the way of contemporary Republicans or leftist religious activists (e.g. liberation theology), has “religionized” his politics. He trades politically in religious terminology and taps into compelling themes of belief, hope and change that speak to core human needs. Thus, he is a new and distinct breed of political speaker.
The interesting thing about Senator Obama is that his rhetoric of democracy does not rely on a traditional religious worldview. His motivations are political but his conception of democracy is religious. Like Walt Whitman, he asserts that democracy is constituted by spiritual energies of creativity, change, hope and belief. Senator Obama aims to inspire these spiritual sensibilities in his listeners by focusing on inward “religious” sentiments in service not of a particular issue, but to generate an enthusiastic following that can shift the very nature and substance of American democracy writ large. This is why he is and will continue to be open to the charge of being light on substance.
It is without question that any venture in political leadership must engage the ideas of belief, hope and change or it will not be captivating or persuasive. Most Americans agree that the strategy of conservatism as practiced by the Bush administration has been a failure and they want a change from it. Yet the mere rhetorical call for a general change is not enough—as one cannot build a sound political platform from a general critique of current conditions. Change requires clearly naming the historical foundations of our current conditions, and justice requires much more; it requires directly confronting historical wrongs, identifying their sources and debating about how to correct them.
The challenge for Senator Obama is whether he can be honest about the limitations of the presidential office and still maintain such a broad and energized following. The fact that any president has to compromise with Congress and bargain with corporate interests is a political reality that Senator Obama must oratorically balance with the implicitly religious appeal that he so strongly makes.
It remains to be seen if Senator Obama can engender the spiritual fortitude required to guide an obsessively forward-looking constituency through a history they so want to deny. If he cannot, his implicit appeal to religious types of change, belief and hope might dampen the possibility that America will ever move beyond its past.