I don’t normally blog about overtly political matters. I like to talk about theory and philosophy, of course, but for the last few years I’ve been reluctant to name names and point fingers. But this past week has brought a number of issues to my mind in a very pointed way, and chief among these is the President’s inaugural address. The President made several bold statements on Monday, fully embracing a radically progressive program for the future. His supporters have even called him the “Liberal Reagan.” Conservatives have become even more outraged and terrified. On both sides, the message was received.
The most memorable line from the President’s speech, and the one that people are already calling “historic” is this one:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
Here we have political theater and civil religion in full form.
Notice the allusion to the Declaration of Independence and to the coming of the messiah. Only, this star is the star of Americanism, and the king that it leads to is not Jesus but MLK. But the guiding star doesn’t stop there. No, it continues onward to Gay Rights and beyond. Stonewall, according to our President, stands in inevitable continuity with the various civil rights which came before. They are all of the same spirit, and ultimately, this spirit is the founding spirit of our nation, a spirit which actually lays claim to all humanity. The next chapter will necessarily involve the U.N.
In one respect, this is nothing new. The GOP regularly worships America. George W. Bush routinely came under criticism from celebrities, musicians, and media-pundits for associating American politics with divine interests. And America has been on the receiving end of Biblical imagery since the very beginning, and this sort of language has shown up in Kennedy, Wilson, Lincoln, and others.
What makes this noteworthy is that it is the ultimate rebuttal to all of the Right Wing conspiracy theories. Obama is not bringing us Kenyan, Muslim, Anti-Colonialist, Communistic ideas which are ultimately meant to cause America’s demise. To the contrary, Obama is ALL AMERICA. This is homegrown, centuries-in-the-making, American Progressivism. With certain modifications and shifts in emphasis, but all seen as basically continuous, Obama’s America is the culmination of Dr. King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Thomas Jefferson. And don’t mistake it, Gay Rights and Abortion are the essential hallmarks of this transcendent social march. What critics have mistaken for anti-American sentiment is actually penance. Having heard the jeremiads of their own prophets, Americans are now bent on making amends.
This really cannot be stressed enough. There has been no sneak attack here. There has been no takeover from the outside. There’s no mystery. Obama is us, and we are Obama. Everything we are now dealing with has been a long time coming, and it has all been working in broad daylight. It cannot be critiqued without critiquing our own history and our own shifts in values and political philosophy.
In many ways I am the worst-positioned person to oppose any of this. I am White (check), Protestant (check), Southern (check), and Male (check). I am the embodiment of the oppressive past, even though I don’t think I was ever actually around for any of it. Still, ethos matters, and I’m not fool enough to think that any extra-serving of logos will overcome it. For me to say what I am saying is to volunteer to be very unpopular. I am content to be the prophetic voice confined to the wilderness. I’ll howl my best, but ultimately I need your help. I can basically only pass the ball. You have to take charge and score the points.
Why is it that “women’s full equality” is dependent upon violence? And why do feminists so strongly believe that this must be a permanent and endearing feature of their movement? What basic commitments make this the dominant and most persuasive argument, and why does America want to largely hold this view and still dress up in Christian clothes? I’m talking to you Episcopalians and United Church of Christ ministers. The President used three Bibles over the course of the proceedings. What’s the deal here, and can “women” make their case in a way that doesn’t require the dismissal of Biblical anthropology, family ordering, and social ethics?
Also, why is abortion simply a “woman’s issue”? It takes two to tango, and the child is the man’s seed. Where are the fathers in this conversation, and why don’t they care? And just as importantly, how come various “pro-life” voices don’t ever point this out? Abortion is a man’s issue, a crisis of paternal abdication and patriarchal exploitation. To mix some metaphors from the world of pop music, if you want to get it in, then you’d better put a ring on it.
Also, Black men and women, especially Black ministers, how can an appropriate civil rights theory be based on traditional Christian ethics and principles? And yes, I know that the dominant Republican mythology that the 1950’s were the pinnacle of Biblical sociology is totally bunk. What most Americans call “conservative” is just one side of a technocratic crony capitalism that stands in opposition to families of every color. And plenty of so-called conservatives in the past were motivated by racial hatred, fear, and confusion. So I don’t pretend that there was a clear and obvious way for Black leaders to position themselves as traditional and conservative Christian political thinkers. But it has to be possible to articulate a Black Christian outlook on society and the state that isn’t merely asking to be co-opted by the forces of identity politics and the pansexual revolution. As bizarre as it may sound, I think the Black Panthers were actually gesturing in the right direction. I don’t think we need to simply baptize something from the past, but the past, recent and distant, should certainly brought into conversation with the Bible and the Christian tradition.
Christians in America are going to have to ask some hard questions, and we are going to have to be critical of ourselves, of our white, black, male, and female idols. I’m just pointing at the obvious right now. The solutions won’t be easy, and they won’t be quick. But unless we’re willing to withdraw and watch the whole thing burn, which would mean lots of suffering for everyone in the short term, we’d better try.