This article is reprinted from City Journal
Cast your mind back to January 2009, when Barack Obama became the president of the United States amid much rejoicing. The hosannas—covering the inauguration was “the honor of our lifetimes,” said MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews—by then seemed unsurprising. Over the course of a long campaign, hyperbolic rhetoric had become commonplace, so much so that online wags had started calling Obama “the One”—a reference to the spate of recent science-fiction movies, especially The Matrix, that used that term to designate a messiah.
It all seems so long ago now, as one contemplates President Obama’s plummeting approval ratings and a suddenly resurgent Republican Party. Yet it’s worth looking closely and seriously at the election-year enthusiasm of media elites and other Obamaphiles, much of which was indeed, as the wags recognized, quasi-religious. The surprising fact is that the American Left, for all its claims to being “reality-based” and secular, is often animated by the passions, motivations, and imagery that one normally associates with religion. The better we understand this religious impulse, the better we will understand liberal America’s likely trajectory in the years to come.
The first signs of the spiritual zeal that would eventually play a significant part in Obama’s election came not from Washington or Chicago but from Hollywood. Our moviemakers are adept at measuring the zeitgeist of the nation—of its liberal half, anyway—and are a powerful force in shaping it. And for more than a decade, they’ve been churning out what critics call “black-angel” movies. These films feature a white protagonist guided to enlightenment by a black character, usually of divine or supernatural origin or, at the very least, in touch with spiritual experiences that the main character lacks. With the black angel’s help, the white hero finds salvation.
The genre includes, to name just a few, The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), in which Will Smith—playing a caddie who is really, the film hints, God—restores Matt Damon’s golf game and love life; Bruce Almighty (2003), in which Morgan Freeman, as God, bestows his powers on a manic Jim Carrey; and the awful What Dreams May Come (1998), in which Cuba Gooding, Jr. is a wise soul guiding Robin Williams through the afterlife. These movies have been numerous enough, David Sterritt points out in the Christian Science Monitor, to confuse TV’s buffoonish Homer Simpson: in one episode, “Homer mistook a black man in a white suit for an angelic visitor, all because (according to his embarrassed wife) he’d been seeing too many movies lately.”
Far and away the best of the black-angel films is Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999), based on a novel by Stephen King, whose knack for setting his finger on the cultural pulse has made him a multimillionaire. The basso profundo Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey (note the initials), a gigantic black man wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls in Depression-era Louisiana and sentenced to death; Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard who discovers that Coffey is not only innocent but also a Christlike miracle worker. Coffey’s laying-on of hands restores a dead mouse to life, cures Edgecomb of a bladder infection, and heals the warden’s wife’s brain cancer. Shortly before he is executed—the jeering of the girls’ anguished parents and the weeping of the prison guards who know the truth recall the account of the Crucifixion in Luke—Coffey has this exchange with a tortured Edgecomb:
Edgecomb. Tell me what you want me to do. You want me to take you out of here? Just let you run away? See how far you could get?
Coffey. Why would you do such a foolish thing?
Edgecomb. On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I—did I kill one of His true miracles—what am I going to say? That it was my job? …
Coffey. You tell God the Father it was a kindness you done… . I want it to be over and done with. I do… . I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day.
The writer or director of a black-angel film recognizes the unspeakable injustices once perpetrated by his country on black people; he wants to be forgiven the sins of his fathers. If he is simply a comedian, he makes Bruce Almighty, casting a black man as God in a sort of lighthearted flattery. If his waters run deeper, he understands that no plum role can atone for the crimes that weigh on him. Instinctively, he realizes what thinkers from Aristotle to Marcel Mauss have known: that whenever a gift is given, the prestige of the giver increases and that of the recipient declines. So he tells a story in which a black man gives the greatest gift of all, suffering—like Jesus in Christian theology—for others’ sins, in fact demanding to suffer, and by demanding, forgiving. White America is pardoned its wrongs, while black America, by pardoning, is elevated to godhood.
Are these movies ultimately condescending to blacks? After all, the white protagonist, the person who will be saved or damned according to his decisions, is invariably more interesting than the serene black angel hovering nearby. Indeed, the condescension, if such it is, is a cinematic version of affirmative action—a denial to blacks of Everyman’s struggle for salvation; a magnanimous extension to them of paradise.
And this brings us to Barack Obama’s liberal support during the campaign, which was decidedly different from the regular media bias that conservatives often complain about. “I haven’t seen a politician get this kind of walk-on-water coverage since Colin Powell a dozen years ago flirted with making a run for the White House,” said Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on Meet the Press in February 2007, a day after Obama announced his candidacy. “I mean, it is amazing … a guy with all of two years’ experience in the United States Senate getting coverage that ranges from positive to glowing to even gushing.”
“Walk-on-water coverage” was exactly right, and though the media seldom framed their worship quite that explicitly, the exceptions were telling. Here’s San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford on June 6, 2008:
Many spiritually advanced people I know … identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
San Francisco, you shrug. Consider, then, what Samantha Fennell, formerly an associate publisher of Elle, wrote on the magazine’s website a month later:
Barack Obama must be elected President of the United States… . I have thrown myself into a new world—one in which fluffy chatter and frivolous praise are replaced by a get-to-the-point directness and disciple-like devotion. It’s intense and intoxicating… . When I attended my second “Obama Live” fund-raiser last week at New York City’s Grand Hyatt, … I was on my feet as Senator Obama entered the room. Fate had blessed me in this moment… . In a moment of divine intervention, he saw me,
… grabbed my hand, and gave that brilliant smile of his. I literally said out loud to the woman next to me who witnessed my good fate, “I’ll never wash this hand again.”
Fashion writers, you say. But here is Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor, on the show Hardball with Chris Matthews last June:
Thomas: Reagan was all about America. He talked about it. Obama is, “We are above that now, we are not just parochial, we’re not just chauvinistic, we’re not just provincial, we stand for something.” I mean, in a way, Obama is standing above the country, above the world. He’s sort of God.
Thomas. He’s going to bring all different sides together.
True, Thomas wasn’t so much evincing Morford’s and Fennell’s giddy devotion as describing, perhaps too admiringly, one of the ways Obama elicited it.
The deifications and hagiologies were particularly overt in the remarks of prominent black figures. Filmmaker Spike Lee, predicting an Obama victory, implicitly compared the candidate with Christ: “You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama.’ … Everything’s going to be affected by this seismic change in the universe.” Jesse Jackson, Jr. called Obama’s securing the Democratic nomination “so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance.” Louis Farrakhan went one better, according to the website WorldNetDaily: “Barack has captured the youth… . That’s a sign. When the Messiah speaks, the youth will hear, and the Messiah is absolutely speaking.”
The website ObamaMessiah.blogspot.com has diligently chronicled many more instances of such talk, which seems positively cringe-making in 2010. It seems unfair to blame Obama himself for most of it, though he surely set the tone with a brand of mystical campaign rhetoric unfamiliar to presidential politics—in this country, anyway. In February 2008, a concerned Joe Klein of Time noted: “There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism—‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’—of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign.” (The full quotation: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”) To this day, BarackObama.com displays at the top of its homepage the following words (attributed to Obama, though nobody seems to have been able to pinpoint the speech): “I’M ASKING YOU TO BELIEVE. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.”
Whether or not the Obama campaign realized it, that demand for faith was an updated echo of innumerable passages in the Gospels: “Everything is possible for him who believes”; “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”; and so on. If the first component of the Obama creed was faith, though, the second was surely hope—the audacious hope whose name famously adorns one of the president’s two autobiographies. We need only add charity to have what Catholics call the three Theological Virtues, which Paul mentions in First Corinthians. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, then, when a day before his inauguration, Obama breathtakingly upended the meaning of Martin Luther King Day, transforming a holiday devoted to the memory of a civil rights leader—and perhaps also to such ideas as equality, tolerance, and the evils of racism—into a day of public service. “It’s not a day just to pause and reflect—it’s a day to act,” Obama announced. “Today, ordinary citizens will gather together all across the country to participate in the more than 11,000 service projects they’ve created using USAservice.org. And I ask the American people to turn today’s efforts into an ongoing commitment to enriching the lives of others in their communities, their cities, and their country.”
An astute moviegoer could have predicted the candidate’s manner: confident but calm, eloquent but modest. Obama wasn’t a loud race-baiter like Al Sharpton; he was a deep-voiced, serious, almost sad, observer, a black angel come to forgive the iniquity of guilt-racked liberal America.
How can we explain this sudden, brief eruption of messianic fervor into our politics? Perhaps by looking at the religious climate of the country and the world, which have been witnessing a religious revival over the past 30 years. Whether you call this phenomenon the “revenge of God,” as the French scholar Gilles Kepel does, or “resacralization,” as the sociologists do, or echo the title of the recent book by Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back, the evidence is hard to ignore. In the United States, as everyone knows, the Religious Right has made huge advances since the 1970s. During the same period, what Kepel calls “re-Islamization” movements have appeared in the Middle East and beyond, aiming “to propagate Islam everywhere until humanity was converted into ‘ummanity.’ ” All over the world, Christianity is growing—in particular, Pentecostalism, a denomination just a century old that, along with “related charismatic movements,” now claims a stunning 500 million adherents, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports. To make a long story short, Peter Berger and Anton Zijderfeld’s In Praise of Doubt sees just one geographical exception to a “furiously religious world”—Western and Central Europe. And even there, Kepel tells us, a “significant re-Christianization movement” has appeared in France in the form of Pentecostal Catholicism.
In America, this revival is reflected in popular culture, too, and not just in black-angel movies. Recall the trend that the bloggers were referring to when they dubbed Obama “the One”: over the past few decades, a slew of science-fiction movies, from E.T. to the second Star Wars trilogy to Superman Returns, have drawn parts of their plots from the New Testament (How Science Fiction Found Religion, Winter 2009). Or look at the recent tattoo craze, in which the most popular designs are not the working-class hearts and arrows of yesteryear but mystical, so-called tribal, patterns. During the seventies and eighties, writes Margo DeMello in Bodies of Inscription, “tattooing began, for the first time, to be connected with emerging issues like self-actualization, social and personal transformation, ecological awareness, and spiritual growth.”
On what Matthew Arnold famously called the “sea of faith,” then, it may be that a rising tide raises all ships. If reawakened religious feeling can prompt people to inject messiahs into their movies and dyes into their skin, why shouldn’t it prompt them to vote for a black angel? Perhaps we should simply identify Obamaism as one more manifestation of a wider resurgence of spiritual enthusiasm—a manifestation that differs from the others merely in having a political component—and stop worrying about it.
Yet the political component is of immense importance. If twentieth-century history teaches us anything, it’s that political religions spell trouble. Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and Nazism aren’t just called “political religions” by scholars today. In all three cases, observers at the time recognized and worried about the movements’ religious natures. Those natures were no accident; Mussolini, for instance, called his ideology “not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people.”
One reason that observers saw the great totalitarianisms as religious was that each had its idol: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Lenin in Russia, followed by Stalin. Take Grigory Zinoviev’s description of Lenin: “He is really the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the Grace of God. He is the authentic figure of a leader such as is born once in 500 years.” Stalin’s cult of personality was far more developed and sometimes explicitly idolatrous, as in the poem that addressed the despot as “O Thou mighty one, chief of the peoples, Who callest man to life, Who awakest the earth to fruitfulness.” And in Italy, writes the historian Michael Burleigh, “intellectual sycophants and propagandists characterised [Mussolini] as a prodigy of genius in terms that would not have embarrassed Stalin: messiah, saviour, man of destiny, latterday Caesar, Napoleon, and so forth.”
To point out these words’ uncomfortable similarity to the journalists’ praises of Obama is not to equate the throngs who bowed down to totalitarian dictators with even the most worshipful Obamaphiles. But the manner of worship is related, as perhaps it must be in any human society that chooses to adore a human being. The widespread renaming of villages, schools, and factories after Stalin, for example, finds its modern-day democratic parallel in a rash of schools that have already rechristened themselves after Obama, to say nothing of the hundreds of young sentimentalists who informally adopted the candidate’s middle name during the presidential race. Even the Obama campaign’s ubiquitous logo—the letter O framing a rising sun—would not have surprised the scholar Eric Voegelin. In The Political Religions (1938), Voegelin traced rulers who employed the image of the sun—a symbol of “the radiation of power along a hierarchy of rulers and offices that ranges from God at the top down to the subject at the bottom”—from the pharaoh Akhenaton to Louis XIV and eventually to Hitler.
The worship of a charismatic leader was just one reason that twentieth-century intellectuals regarded the great totalitarianisms as inherently religious. Another was their immense scope, which included not just matters traditionally considered public—war, taxes, even the offices of the welfare state—but also the private lives and practices of individuals. “The totalitarian movements which have arisen since World War I are fundamentally religious movements,” wrote the political scientist Waldemar Gurian in 1952, in part because they “cannot conceive of realms of life outside and beyond their control.” Sixteen years earlier, the legal scholar Marcel Prélot had commented that “the totalitarian state, naturally extending its field of action far beyond the recognized domain of the conventional state, claims to constitute both a political entity and an ethical and spiritual community, … the state itself being a church.”
Obamaism is far narrower, and far more benign, than that. But another strand of modern liberal politics encroaches so far on the private sphere that it begins to resemble the political religions. On the excellent webcast Uncommon Knowledge, Czech president Václav Klaus recently compared “two ideologies” that were “structurally very similar. They are against individual freedom. They are in favor of centralistic masterminding of our fates. They are both very similar in telling us what to do, how to live, how to behave, what to eat, how to travel, what we can do and what we cannot do.” The first of Klaus’s “two ideologies” was Communism—a system with which he was deeply familiar, having participated in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The second was environmentalism.
Klaus could have expanded his list. Environmentalism does indeed tell its adherents “what to eat” (pesticide-free organic food, preferably grown nearby to cut down on trucking) and “how to travel” (by public transportation or, better yet, bicycle). But it also lays down rules on nearly every aspect of life in a consumer economy: how to wash your clothes (seldom); how to wash yourself (take a shower, not a bath, and use a low-flow showerhead); how to light your house (with fluorescent bulbs); how to choose your TV (look for the Energy Star logo!); how to go to the bathroom (with high-efficiency toilets and recycled paper); how to invest, clean, sleep, and dress (in environmentally friendly companies, with nontoxic chemicals, on sheets made of “sustainable fibers,” and in clothes made of the same); and even how to procreate (Greenpeace has issued a guide to “environmentally friendly sex”).
Think about the life that a truly conscientious environmentalist must lead! Compared with it, the devout Muslim’s five daily prayers and the pious Jew’s carefully regulated diet are a cakewalk. What the British historian Alfred Cobban wrote about totalitarianism—that it “takes the spiritual discipline of a religious order and imposes it on forty or sixty or a hundred million people”—applies perfectly to environmentalism, except for the part about imposition. And there, one might give Jonah Goldberg’s answer in Liberal Fascism: “You may trust that environmentalists have no desire to translate these voluntary suggestions into law, but I have no such confidence given the track record of similar campaigns in the past.” Recycling mandates come to mind, as does the federal law that will impose silly-looking spiral lightbulbs on us all by 2014.
There’s also a close resemblance between the environmental and biblical views of history, as the late novelist Michael Crichton pointed out in a widely reprinted speech. “Environmentalism is in fact a perfect twenty-first-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” Crichton said. “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.” That judgment day currently assumes the form of various global-warming disasters that will happen unless we immediately perform still more rituals. Never mind that the science so urgently instructing us to reduce carbon emissions—thus hobbling economic growth and prosperity around the world—is so young, and so poorly understood, that it can’t explain why global warming seems to have stalled over the last decade. Far more persuasive is the argument from faith: we’d better repent, because the End is nigh.
Barack Obama doubtless tapped into environmentalists’ spiritual longings when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. “Generations from now,” he proclaimed, “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Italics mine; grandiloquent prophecy his.
Religion has long been a powerful force in American politics, of course, for good and ill. The difference with the more traditional varieties of religion was the open acknowledgment that they were religious. The First Amendment promised that they could never become established churches; generations’ worth of jurisprudence closely regulated the way they could interact with government. And when a campaigning politician acknowledged forthrightly that he derived a policy from, say, his understanding of the Bible, his potential constituents understood that, however reasonable the policy might be, what underlay it was faith, not reason. The emerging liberal religions are very different: as emotionally captivating for some, at least for a time, as Christianity or Judaism, but untrammeled by any constitutional amendment; as grounded in faith, but pretending to dwell in the realms of reason and science.
Obama’s speedy fall from godhood since his election has been encouraging, perhaps a sign of America’s traditional reluctance to embrace a Great Leader. But it’s far too early in his administration to assume that the fall will be permanent. Radical environmentalism, moreover, will surely be around long after Obama has left the White House. And the threat of other charismatic leaders will remain as well—a troubling lesson that we can learn from no less a religious authority than the Bible. A nation that bends the knee once, as the book of Judges bleakly demonstrates, is all too likely to bend it again.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky is managing editor of City Journal.