Disillusionment, Democracy, and the Fate of President Obama

Essays

My post, “Two American Dreams and One Economic Reality,” looked at the debate about American values initiated by President Obama’s now famous quote: “You didn’t build that.” I argued that the radical individualism embodied by the Republican outrage against this phrase is consistent with neither Christian faith nor economic reality. I am proud of that essay. I think it provided a clear sense of why my Christian faith leads me to support the Democratic Party. But, some of my friends and colleagues pushed back against it pretty hard. They were concerned that my rhetoric of grace and gratitude, my vision of God’s economy, did not quite fit their experience of President Obama or the Democratic Party over the past four years. The disillusionment of these faithful Christians and good Americans is understandable, but my fear is that the fact that Barack Obama is not the Messiah may threaten his very limited but very real accomplishments in both international and domestic affairs….

Recently I began to write for a blog entitled Faithful Democrats. Its purpose is to reunite the language of faith with the platform of the Democratic Party. For too long, there has been an assumption, in the media and popular culture, that Republicans are the party of Christian faith while Democrats are secular humanists who spend their Sunday mornings reading the New York Times rather than going to church. This is a false impression. Many support the Democratic Party and its policies because of their Christian faith, not in spite of it. Yet a prejudice against public expressions of faith persists in the Democratic Party and many people of faith who might be attracted to its policies support the Republicans because of their overt rhetoric of piety. By becoming a contributor to Faithful Democrats, I hope to help Christians think about the political implications of their faith convictions and to help the Democratic Party embrace people of faith in both its rhetoric and policy proposals.

My first assignment was to introduce myself and why, as a person of faith, I am a Democrat. My post, Two American Dreams and One Economic Reality, looked at the debate about American values initiated by President Obama’s now famous quote: “You didn’t build that.” I argued that the radical individualism embodied by the Republican outrage against this phrase is consistent with neither Christian faith nor economic reality. President Obama was simply expressing, in my estimation, a fundamental truth evident in both scripture and our shared experience: We are not single-handedly responsible for what happens to us.  We do not get what we deserve! At the heart of things is grace! We are saved by God’s great sacrifice in Jesus Christ, not our own goodness or righteousness. We are born into networks of interdependence that provide for us before and apart from any merit of our own. We are participants in one great economy of grace that binds us to God and one another. I am a Democrat and will support President Obama’s re-election because his understanding of the America Dream more closely resembles the truth of God’s economy (the rules of God’s interdependent household) than does the Republican fantasy of an individualistic meritocracy.

I am proud of that essay. I think it provided a clear sense of why my Christian faith leads me to support the Democratic Party. But, some of my friends and colleagues pushed back against it pretty hard. They were concerned that my rhetoric of grace and gratitude, my vision of God’s economy, did not quite fit their experience of President Obama or the Democratic Party over the past four years. They are disappointed in and frustrated with President Obama. They are disillusioned and discouraged. The last four years have not lived up to their hope for change. They had hoped for “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). But, instead, they saw Wall Street bailouts, partisan gridlock, military surges, drone strikes, extending the Bush era tax-cuts, and less than satisfying healthcare reform. To these good Christians, my biblical and theological vision rang hollow when placed in the service of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

The disillusionment of these faithful Christians and good Americans is understandable. President Obama did promise more than he could possibly deliver. His rhetoric of hope and change often toyed with and sometimes fell prey to messianic fantasy. There was no way that the last four years could have possibly lived up to some of the over-heated rhetoric of the Obama campaign. Like the Republic Party, the Democratic Party always promises salvation if it wins and damnation if it loses.  Rhetorical excess is commonplace in a democracy. Those running for office promise whatever it takes. They try to inspire people because, like fear, it is incredibly motivating. Democracy is about getting people out to the polling place, about motivating them to canvas and contribute to the campaign. Democratic elections are about convincing people that how they vote is important, that this election has real consequences, that the outcome makes a difference. And it does. But, it can never make the sort of difference the politicians promise and it can never deliver the sort of change it describes. So, disillusionment is natural.  It is, in fact, unavoidable.  Campaigns for re-election always have a different flavor than campaigns for election. They are about grim persistence rather than passionate conversion. They are about fending off disillusionment and offering more pedestrian possibilities.  So, the pundits say, there is an “enthusiasm gap” that puts the Democratic Party at a distinct disadvantage this election season.  It is little wonder that democratic politics lurches from one party and its messianic pretensions to another.

The question now is whether we are on the cusp of another lurch and a different direction. My fear is that the fact that Barack Obama is not the Messiah may threaten his very limited but very real accomplishments in both international and domestic affairs. Obama’s healthcare reform plan is an important step in the right direction—though it does not realize the gospel’s promise of “abundant life.” Obama’s consumer and banking regulations as well as his economic stimulus and automobile industry bailouts have constrained the prerogatives of the powerful and recognized our economic interdependence—though they did not realize a Kingdom in which the “first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Obama’s efforts in the international arena have slowly pulled America back from the military adventurism of the Bush administration and presented a more humble and collaborative face to the world—though his policies have not beaten our swords into plowshares or made the lion lay down with the lamb.

Barack Obama is not the Messiah. His election in 2008 did not inaugurate the Kingdom of God. If he wins the 2012 election it will be partly because he repented of his messianic pretensions and partly because the American people repented of their messianic expectations. Politics is a more humble affair than American election campaigns portray. But that does not mean they are unimportant. Elections make a real but not an ultimate difference. The language of faith should not be used to lend an aura of absolute significance to our political campaigns, which they do not and cannot embody. Rather, the language of faith best contributes to politics when it keeps our eyes on the light of a distant horizon as we wind our way through the shadowy and ambiguous events of contemporary life.  The language of Christian faith offers an ultimate hope that allows us can survive the disappointments and frustrations of mundane political realities.   I suggest that my friends and colleagues who are disillusioned by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party change their assumptions about faith and politics. They must embrace more humble political expectations. Otherwise, some finite but significant goods will be lost.

Long ago, Max Weber, the great sociologist of religion, wrote, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” Today, we must confront our loss of passion with perspective. We have seen the truth—Barack Obama is not our savior—but we must not let this lead to hopelessness or despair. Instead, we must find a larger and deeper hope that can sustain us through these difficult, conflicted, and ambiguous time. As Michelle Obama said in her Democratic Convention on Tuesday evening, “we are playing a long game here and change is hard.” In the end, during this political campaign, I encourage my friends and colleagues to place their faith in God rather than any finite power or personality. It is the only way to avoid the foolish exuberance and enervating disillusionment that plagues democratic politics.  Christian faith provokes a deeper hope and a steadier path. Neither Barack Obama nor the Democratic Party will save the world. But, I will vote for them because I believe their policies point, ambiguously and imperfectly, toward the real hope and the true change—God’s Kingdom and the New Creation.

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Tim Beach-Verhey is co-pastor, with his wife, Kathy, of Faison Presbyterian Church. He also teaches at Mount Olive College and is the author of Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life.

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