Clinging to God, Guns, Obama, and Freud

On April 6, in a speech delivered in San Francisco but apparently aimed at Pennsylvania, Barack Obama made the following somewhat ill-advised social/political observation:

Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives… You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Now, there was a lot of fairly obvious political triangulating going in that remark. He was sniping at his main Republican and Democratic rivals at the same time, noting that the economic plight of the dying middle class in industrial areas like suburban Pennsylvania has neither received sufficient attention from the knee-jerk cut taxes approach of mainstream Republicans (and speaking candidly, McCain is in the mainstream on this front; when it comes to religion, on the other hand, he’s a maverick his party may yet have a hard time supporting), nor from the elite Clinton power team that collectively has made over one hundred million dollars on speeches (and presumably, on implicit or explicit promises tied to them). But Obama’s observation was offered as subtle political sniping, and it has generated a barrage of explicit sniping from the left and the right by way of response.

The main debate hinges on two words, “bitter” and “cling,” which have been chewed over in relation to religion as they have not been in relation to guns, xenophobia, or anti-globalization. This episode points to a puzzling and recurring problem for the Obama candidacy for reasons that demand close scrutiny: the questions of his own religious identity, his association with politically problematic religious attitudes, and the issue of whether they are racist or elitist at their core.

While I recognize that this may seem a bit of a stretch at first, the debate is beginning to remind me of debates at the turn of the twentieth century; debates that wondered very publicly and very polemically about the relationship between the new and untested “science” of psychology and traditional Judeo-Christian religion. Both William James and Sigmund Freud were much impressed by the similarity they noticed between certain neurotic and obsessive behaviors and certain of the stranger and more ritualistic practices of the scriptural monotheisms they knew best.

What is easy to miss one hundred years later (and still more so, given the way therapy has become big business in the United States), is the way psychology was conceived as profoundly service-oriented at its inception. It focused on neurotic and obsessional disorders because these were things that rendered people socially nonfunctional and desperately unhappy. Their problems had reached a level of anti-sociality such that something needed to change. Psychology offered itself up as just such a change agent (sound familiar? It should. This is a major theme on the political left).

To be sure, sometimes the rhetoric of social critics like Freud became excessive. The Future of an Illusion, written in 1927, does make it sound like religion is a childish illusion people must learn to outgrow. This side of Freud’s work seems like a very stoic plea for adults to leave their childhood behind: the false hopes, the false dreams, and the neurotic disorders that their inability to deliver conspire to create. His was a therapy aimed at autonomy, personal responsibility, and non-dogmatic thinking (sound familiar? It should. This is the major theme on the political right).

But Freud, true to his own method and self-analysis, was obsessed with religion, not just Egyptian and Greek religion, but the religion of his fathers as well. His last book returned to the question of Judaism, and by performing an analysis of a scriptural text, he unveiled the “originary crime” that created a Jewish people, in his judgment: Moses was an Egyptian monotheist who led a revolt out of Egypt, but his followers killed him in a revolt in the wilderness. What Freud was prepared to do, and felt we all should do, was candidly to assess religion’s role in fostering and sustaining violence. Religion is not only nice; it can also be nasty. And when it is armed, with guns and with ethnocentrism, then it is without a doubt very dangerous. What, after all, is this alleged “War on Terror” about? It concerns precisely that desire to uncouple religion from the twinned menace of resentment and violence. Therapy was aimed at that same problem, that same place.

Senator Obama’s campaign lives or dies on the perception that he really does offer fresh new ideas and that he does not pander to established attitudes. What the electorate must decide is whether it is willing to accept the inevitable mistakes and missteps that such restless innovation inevitably creates. We have been long on patience for the past eight years; perhaps we are tired now. Not every experiment succeeds; not every technological innovation proves to be a good thing. But everything is on the table, and nothing gets treated with kid gloves; not religion, not violence, not guns, and not war.

Nowhere in the Senator’s remarks does he say that all religious people are “clinging” to their faith. Several weeks ago, he defended Reverend Wright the man while distancing himself from his remarks by making this very distinction. Nowhere does the Senator suggest that all gun owners are necessarily more violent than the rest of us, nor that they are interested in arming themselves in an anti-immigrant war of exclusion. What he did say was that things like guns and religion are best assessed as morally neutral until we see what people choose to do with them: “By your fruits shall ye know them.” And what he was warning was that both issues, religion and guns, are easily exploited by political parties as they speak to the very real uncertainties most in the American electorate feel these days.

It is ironic that the reaction to his remarks, rather than the remarks themselves, confirm the central truth of this originally psychological insight.

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