Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama no longer a Messiah?

In today's New York Times, Dowd writes favorably about Obama's speech yesterday on race. In her view, that Obama's pastor and spiritual adviser of twenty years has spewed racist statements from the pulpit just shows that Obama isn't perfect, which is a good thing. As she writes:

"A little disenchantment with Obama could turn out to be a good thing. Too much idealism can blind a leader to reality as surely as too much ideology can. Up until now, Obama and his worshipers have set it up so that he must be so admirable and ideal and perfect and everything we’ve ever wanted that any kind of blemish — even a parking ticket — was regarded as a major failing. With the Clintons, we expect them to be cheesy on ethics, so no one is ever surprised when they are. But Saint Obama played the politics of character to an absurd extent. For 14 months, his argument for leading the world has been himself — his exquisitely globalized self. He should be congratulated on the disappearance of the pedestal. Leaders don’t need to be messiahs."

It's funny that she uses the word "messiah", because that's exactly what Obama has cast himself as in his run for presidency. (And weren't Michelle Obama's comments in Vogue about Barack's smelly breath and failure to pick up his socks also designed to not have him hoisted on a pedestal? And her remarks were criticized, largely, I think, because people want a messianic, perfect figure, someone to wrap their hopes in, in this empty spiritual age.)

This morning on NPR Jesse Jackson Jr., Obama's National Co-Chair, said that after his speech, Obama is "almost approaching deity." To me, that was a scary statement. I, for one, don't want my president to be a deity.

But all along, Obama's candidacy has been cast in religious terms.

When Oprah stumped for Obama in New Hampshire to an audience of thousands of mainly African-Americans, she introduced Obama with a reference to the book, “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman,” a story of an African-American woman. In a moving rendition, she said how the slave Jane Pittman asks of each new baby, "are you the one?," the one who will free her from her bonds of slavery. Oprah answered, "Obama is the one." This had both messianic and racial undertones: she was directly framing Obama as a savior.

And in April 2007, Jodi Kantor reported in the New York Times, "The day after the party for Mr. Wright [in March 2007], Mr. Obama stood in an A.M.E. church pulpit in Selma, Ala., and cast his candidacy in nothing short of biblical terms, implicitly comparing himself to Joshua, known for his relative inexperience, steadfast faith and completion of Moses’ mission of delivering his people to the Promised Land. 'Be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever you go,' Mr. Obama said in paraphrasing God’s message to Joshua."

So, contrary to what Dowd writes, all along Obama has cast himself, using biblical imagery and rhetoric, as a kind of messiah.

Perhaps this explains the tremendous appeal among twenty- and thirty-somethings, the post-Boomers, for Obama. Princeton University professor Robert Wuthnow writes in After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty and Thirty Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion about "how in the absence of institutional support many post-boomers have taken a more individualistic, improvised approach to spirituality." It's likely, therefore, that Obama's rhetoric holds an attraction to young people looking for spiritual meaning that they are not getting from their religious institutions.

And this explains why Obama's polling numbers have gone down since videos of Wright hit the TV news and Internet. These videos of Pastor Wright are so damaging because they speak to the YouTube generation in the their visual digital language. The other YouTube videos have been tremendously powerful for Obama: the Black Eyed Peas Yes We Can video, the Obama Girl video. But these clips of Pastor Wright might cloud the image of Obama as a post-racial messianic figure in the eyes of twenty- and thirty-something post-boomers who want to truly move beyond racial division.

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