Four years ago, I was an idealistic college student who believed in change. Frustrated with the years of Bush-style imperialism and capitalism, I was ready for some big government and the return of civil liberties, singing the doxology Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow as balloons reigned down and Obama waxed eloquent on a stage overlooking thousands of people. Needless to say, I have learned my lesson over the last four years. Although a less harmful sovereign, Obama turned out to be—surprise, surprise—a neo-liberal. The problem, however, was not with Obama, it was with me. I thought I was making a choice to change the system, but I was just ensuring that change would remain a distant utopia.
In American politics, choice is emphasized to maintain the myth that politics has the power to change things. Louis Althusser developed the idea of interpellation, in which a small subject is constituted by a big Subject. For instance, a police officer may be in search of a criminal. When he sees the criminal amidst a crowd, he yells “Hey you!” Typically, the guilty party then turns and in so doing becomes a criminal, no longer just a person in the crowd. This person is then subject to the legal and judicial discourse. Another example, more understandable to seminary students, is when God calls to Abram or Simon Peter. When God calls them and they respond, God changes their name and they now are part of God’s plan of salvation. In American Politics, we are constantly told to choose between the two candidates. We are told that our choice matters; that’s why we are supposed to watch the debates so we can make the best choice because it matters so much to the future of the nation. The political establishment creates us as political subjects by proposing this notion that our vote has the power to transform the political environment. Ironically, our very act of choosing becomes a form of not choosing. By choosing we affirm this range of choices and the parameters of the political spectrum. The problem is that the political spectrum is decidedly to the right: Obama and Romney, despite some key differences, are both neo-liberals, who affirm imperialism, capitalism, and all the other features of Empire. In this sense, our voting legitimates that we prefer that capitalist order. Thus, our voting alienates from the power to change things.
While Obama and Romney pitch populism, the political theologies that arise out of the elections serves to cripple voters. Simon Critchley argues that Obama (and by implication Romney) both functionally believe in a weak deistic God, who “never contradicts or overrides the rule of reason or law.” God ordained the natural laws and left us to improve the world. In this theology, humans are meant to work within constraints of natural law—of which private property always seems to be key—in order to incrementally improve the social order. This theology is also pitched as democratic: as long as we operate within the natural laws of society and nature, we can all work together to fix its many problems. In this sense, like voting, this representation of deistic god gives people the feeling of agency—we can fix this together!—through the tools of the natural order. In contrast, to Obama’s rhetoric of “be the change,” what happens is that Obama becomes the apart sovereign God of classical Theism, in which God providentially guides his people toward success and prosperity. The rage from the left and young people after years of drones, destruction of civil liberties, and general subservience to multinational corporations is predicated on the idea that Obama was meant to single-handedly fix the problems in the U.S. Like complaining disciples, we made Obama into a messiah and he turned out to be a technocrat. Ultimately, this problem is related to the American understanding of God. Ross Douthat recently published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, in which he unpacks the various heretical beliefs that make up our religious landscape. One of these is called the prosperity gospel. It runs like this: believe in God in your little heart and God will bless you with material wealth. In this paradigm, God is not immanent or a feature of the political landscape, but a distant but loving father-figure who gives you your deserved inheritance when you trust in him. We transformed Obama into this kind of God: expecting him to fix our problems and bring wealth if we just trusted him with our vote. The deistic and prosperity theologies work together to transform Obama into a benevolent, but distant, sovereign. Therefore, our very act of buying into Obama’s rhetoric that we can do it insures that we can’t.
As Christians, we must respond to this alienation inherent in participating American Politics in two ways. First, we absolutely must vote, but in a simple utilitarian way. As Max Horkheimer has argued, religion betrays itself when it becomes entangled with the state because it confuses state salvation with divine salvation. In other words, we begin to buy into the neo-liberal myths that through legal and moral legislation we can fix society. We need to continue to deny both the Republican and Democratic notions of salvation facilitated by the state and affirm our theological understanding of salvation. In voting then, we need to be strict materialists: we to choose the candidate whose policy will lead to the least violence. Both will certainly continue our imperial conquest of the Middle East and violently maintain global capitalist order; we just should pick the one that is lesser of two evils. But more importantly, Christians need to reject the alienation through local political action. Christians believe that God is both transcendent and immanent. Our political theology needs to match this. Jesus did not come to establish a distant, set-apart kingdom ruled by capricious overlord. Rather, Jesus worked locally, with some homies to establish a kingdom by fixing injustices in his neighborhood and through this transformed all things. Not only that, but he called us to do the same. Paul followed suit and started neighborhood churches to minister to people’s geographic neighbors. In the U.S., we neglect that while government is legitimized at the national level, actual governance happens locally—where change is meant to happen. Thus, our greatest opportunity to transform government happens when we resist harmful effects on our communities, fight injustice in our neighborhoods, and create communities of inclusion and acceptance. National elections are serious, but nowhere near as important as putting sidewalks in your neighborhood, helping impoverished immigrants learn English so they can get a job, or volunteering to deliver food to families of the incarcerate. That is change I can believe in.