Thus runs the gospel of Matthew. These words came to mind as I read the breathless coverage of the astonishing rise of Barack Obama, who is currently (mid-November) choosing his disciples — er, administration — as he embarks on his mission to change the world. The religious resonances of his extraordinarily brilliant campaign are everywhere, and I would like to look at it through a theological, rather than a political, prism.
A hugely impressive figure, the U.S. president-elect is no empty suit. Not only did he publicly oppose the invasion of Iraq at a time when such a stand was unpopular, he went down to Martin Luther King’s old church and challenged the black community on its attitudes to foreigners and gays. When subject to ferocious attacks over remarks made by his home pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama bravely and eloquently addressed America’s race issue on live television. The former church-based community organiser in Chicago clearly has a backbone, as well as a moral and spiritual hinterland.
While all this was happening, America’s religious tectonic plates were subtly shifting. With more than 25% of its population identifying themselves as evangelical Christians, the fact that a silent political realignment of some conservative Christians was under way was interesting. The most influential figure in all of this was the American evangelical leader Jim Wallis. In his theological books — one of which has a foreword by (British Prime Minister) Gordon Brown — Wallis challenged the received assumption that “born-again” Christians should support a right-wing Republican agenda. A long-time friend of Obama’s, Wallis persuaded a significant number of evangelicals that they should be involved in a religious coalition campaigning against injustice, poverty and the rape of the planet. After eight years of dispiriting neocon rule, this was an idea whose hour had come.
And Barack Obama was the man whose time had come. It is still hard to take in that America’s Great Black Hope has defied history and won the White House. The U.S. already presents a more human and less arrogant face to the world, and there is a new spring in the step; a new sense of possibilities.
Yet for this Scottish Presbyterian, there is also a hesitation. My mother (no great religious believer) had a Calvinistic mantra: “There’s aye a something.” Every silver lining has a cloud. My Presbyterian worry — yes, there are a few of us left in Scotland — is that the majority of American voters may think that they have elected not just a President but a messiah.
Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Are we to look for healings and miracles? This is dangerous moral and metaphysical territory. I like the words of one of my favourite novelists, John Irving, in the Sunday Herald: “When Obama won, I cried. I would still be crying if he had lost.”
My hesitation comes from remembering a similar British euphoria when Tony Blair and his New Labour Party summarily evicted the Tories in 1997. Barack Obama has been described as a black J. F. Kennedy. But what if he turns out to be a black Tony Blair? Blair, a confusing cross between Saint Francis of Assisi and a used-car salesman, disastrously inhaled his own press releases while begging us to suspend our disbelief and put our trust in his own “good faith.”
There’s a personal issue at the heart of this theological drama, and it was put well by the black American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker, who has advised the President-elect to take care of his own soul, “because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanising as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.”
In taking care of his soul, Barack Obama, the silver-tongued Christian man, must resolutely turn his back on the insidious temptation to follow the messianic route. As well as being politically disastrous, messianism inevitably draws darkness to it; we do not want this gifted leader to die for the sins of the U.S. In an America awash with legally held guns, some conservatives — their paranoia reinforced by ticket number 666 winning the Illinois lottery — demonise Obama as the Antichrist.
We need Obama as a radical reformer, not as a redeemer. Even though he will soon run up against the limitations of political office, he has a rare opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the poor, the underprivileged.
Meanwhile, back at the religious ranch for strange people, another piece of theological theatre is running. A moose-hunting pit bull with lipstick ruminates in public about challenging Obama in four years’ time: “I’m like, OK, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I’m like, don’t let me miss the open door.”
(Surely English can’t be Governor Palin’s first language?) Barack Obama is not a messiah but, in the wise words of John Irving, “a necessary hero at a necessary time.” Even Superman — especially Superman — needs our prayers as he puts on his cape of office.
Ron Ferguson is a former pastor and leader of The Iona Community now living on Orkney Island (Scotland) as a writer and broadcaster. The column first appeared in The Glasgow Herald and is used by permission.