More and more, I find myself thinking about U.S. politics in terms of the dichotomy set up in Monty Python’s “Election night” skit: the Senisble Party versus the Silly Party (and the barely-functional Very Silly Party). I’d say this speech (and what we saw from the opposition last week) pretty much bears that out.
Woke up to this on NPR this morning: Writer and activist Armistead Maupin, discussing President Obama’s big statement on marriage equality with “Weekend Edition Saturday” host Scott Simon.
Well, we talk about bullying a lot in this country as if it’s something that’s generated in schoolyards, but in fact it’s generated in churches, and by politicians—by parents, even, who don’t even consider the fact that their own children might be gay. So when something like this comes from the top, from the very top, it’s gonna filter down. It can’t help but filter down.
We can certainly hope it will. Maupin also touches on his relationship with a conservative, Republican-voting brother in North Carolina.◼
My Sunday morning reading includes a trenchant essay by Jacob Weisberg at Slate, which gathers together President Obama’s disappointing performances on immigration, freedom of religion, and gay marriage under the rubric of moral cowardice:
Obama has had numerous occasions to assert leadership on values issues this summer: Arizona’s crude anti-immigrant law, the battle over Prop 8 and gay marriage, and the backlash against what Fox News persists in calling the “Ground Zero mosque.” These battles raise fundamental questions of national identity, liberty, and individual rights. When Lindsey Graham argues for rewriting the Constitution to eliminate the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, or Newt Gingrich proposes a Saudi standard for the free exercise of religion, they’re taking positions at odds with America’s basic ideals. But Obama’s instinctive caution has steered him away from casting these questions as moral or civil rights issues. On none of them has he shown anything resembling courage. [links sic]
To Weisberg’s list, I’d also add the need for comprehensive, carbon-limiting energy legislation. Treating undocumented immigrants like human beings, Muslim and gay Americans like citizens, climate change as a genuine impending human-created disaster—these are all inherently moral positions. Liberals have long been sick of watching that morality overruled by the weird, selfish, other-hating morality of contemporary American conservatism. I voted for Barack Obama (and I think lots of us did) because he seemed likely to articulate liberal beliefs in explicitly moral language, and do it with conviction.
Remember his campaign speech on race? With his feet to the media fire over his apparently scandalous association with Jeremiah Wright, Obama acknowledged the subtleties and complications of our national racial history, without losing sight of basic principles of right and wrong:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.
That’s the Barack Obama I wanted to be President. I could’ve sworn I voted for that one. But it doesn’t seem to be the guy who ended up in office.
Candidate Obama at a rally in Pittsburgh, 21 April 2008. Photo by BarackObama.com.
I’m working through the great New York Times Magazineinterview with President Obama, between grading and lit-searching. And something struck me in this section on education. (A question by the interviewer, David Leonhardt, is in italics as in the original.):
My grandmother never got a college degree. … She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. She could write —
Today, you mean?
Today. She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t say “many,” but a number of my former students at the University of Chicago Law School. So part of the function of a high-school degree or a community-college degree is credentialing, right? It allows employers in a quick way to sort through who’s got the skills and who doesn’t. But part of the problem that we’ve got right now is that what it means to have graduated from high school, what it means to have graduated from a two-year college or a four-year college is not always as clear as it was several years ago.
There’s something awfully comforting about a President who (1) has a personal connection to a world where higher education is a genuine luxury and (2) has first-hand knowledge of the product of modern American education. Quite apart from any objections I had to his policy positions, I can’t imagine the previous President saying anything like this — his family has been assured of college degrees for generations, and he never had the opportunity (or, presumably, the inclination) to critically evaluate law students’ writing. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism of the former President; but now that we have Obama, it seems astonishing that this sort of contact with real Americans’ experience isn’t considered more important as a qualification for the Presidency.
In one of those quirks of political geography, the Idaho panhandle is apart from the rest of the state in the Pacific time zone. So Barack Obama will become President of the United States at about 0830 local time, and I am listening to the Inauguration on NPR as part of only slightly extended morning laziness with a cup of coffee and Ovaltine. Through one of those quirks of weather, my part of Idaho is under what’s called a thermal inversion – a layer of warm air somewhere above us is preventing the air at ground level from moving. At this time of year, that means there’s no wind to blow away the freezing fog, which every night coats trees’ leafless twigs in a filigree of frost. In Washington, though, a new wind is blowing, and today, at least, there’s a smell of spring in the air.
In this week’s Mennonite Weekly Review, Steve Kriss confesses to something traditionally un-Mennonite: having a political position. Specifically, in favor of Barack Obama. This is awkward both because Steve is a pastor, and has to be in pastoral relationship with people across the political spectrum, and because of the compromises necessary when you have to vote for one of two candidates. And what do you do when the guy you backed because of religious principle wins?
I am wondering how the Anabaptist message might be relevant in this changing world. Who are we becoming, and who might we become, in an America that elects Obama as president? Will we have more “Esther moments” of speaking truth to power? Or is it a time to renew the tradition of separation from the world?
And from a Mennonite perspective, there’s a lot to like about Obama (especially, I would say, in contrast to John McCain; but that’s another argument). He favors applying government resources to social programs, but is friendly to working with “faith-based” groups to do so; opposed the war in Iraq from the start, and favors diplomacy over military force; and seems to have a genuinely reflective personal faith. And, of course, Obama represents a transcendence of American culture and racial barriers that Mennonites have long aspired to, if not achieved.
But Obama isn’t Mennonite. He opposed the invasion of Iraq because it was a stupid move, not because he’s opposed to war in all its forms. He practically channeled George W. Bush during the campaign, talking about what he wants to do to Osama Bin Ladin. An Obama administration will be more peaceful than the Bush administration, but that’s like saying Obama is taller than a hobbit. Mennonites, and members of the other historic peace churches, will still have a role in witnessing to peace.
Over on BeliefNet, Steve Walden has the transcript of a fantastic 2004 interview Barack Obama gave to Chicago Sun Times columnist Cathleen Falsani, in which the future president discusses his faith in detail. As in other discussions of religion, the overwhelming impression is that Obama’s beliefs are heavily filtered through introspection and reflection on the consequence of particular doctrines. He believes that different religious perspectives can find common ground in shared values that transcend doctrine:
So, I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.
He responds to questions thoroughly, and with flashes of humor, cracking wise about “harps and clouds” when asked about heaven, for instance. And, over and over again, Obama turns away from certainty in favor of a more tenuous, dynamic, active faith:
I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.
I think that … there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
This is miles away from the faith of our current President, which is blinkered in the literal sense of wearing blinders – unable and unwilling to reflect on the meaning of positions taken, the kind of faith has no real response to reason or doubt. Barack Obama’s faith is a living faith, and it means that he’ll be a more truly Christian President than George W. Bush could ever be.
I have never felt so proud of my country. Americans did the right thing, even if after trying everything else first. Barack Obama’s win tonight represents a victory for deliberation over impulse and for nuance over polarization. He withstood some of the ugliest things Americans are willing to say about other Americans, and reminded us that we are all in this together. There is a lot of work to be done – and much of it just undoing the work of the previous President. But if anyone can do it, it’s Barack Obama.