A couple of weeks back, when Barack Obama officially accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party before 80,000 screaming fans on a stage meant to look like a Greek temple of democracy, he spoke on the anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech — delivered 45 years ago on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, an American temple of democracy. Much has been made of that coincidence, generally along the lines of "a dream fulfilled." And yet, the subtle religiosity of Obama’s speech reveals a dream diluted, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of liberation for all repackaged in the terms of a less ambitious hope, that of the "Social Gospel." "The fundamental belief," as Obama said, citing the Book of Genesis, "that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper."
King was a prophet; Obama says he’s a pragmatist. King’s vision emerged from a social movement — a grass roots, bottom up approach to power, freedom, and even love. The Social Gospel view of reform — think soup kitchens and social work — was that of an early 20th century intellectual elite, its agenda built on traditionally liberal convictions about order, health, and "responsibility," a word Obama has repeatedly invoked to signal to white people that he thinks black people ought to try a little harder. King drew on the Social Gospel and radically expanded it. Obama has taken King’s vision and trimmed it back to Social Gospel size, offering a faith-inflected politics of incremental social reforms for a religiously conservative nation in a neoliberal age.
Obama began this campaign with the "audacity of hope," a concept descended from King via the liberationist preacher Jeremiah Wright — disinvited at the last minute from Obama’s 2007 announcement of his candidacy, nowhere to be seen in Denver. Last Thursday, Obama made history not by introducing liberationist ideas into American politics, as readers of Obama’s 2006 campaign book "Audacity of Hope" might have, well, hoped, but by reviving the Social Gospel’s cautious optimism.
That’s no small feat in a country where "liberalism" is considered next to "socialism," the devil’s own doctrine. But it’s quite a bit smaller than what Obama set out to do. Obama wanted to transform politics. Instead, he has resurrected liberal politics. He’s done so in large part by calling on Christianity as a compromise between business conservatism and secular liberalism. Conservatism, as Obama points out, preaches an "ownership society" — as in, "you’re on your own." Secular liberalism, on the other hand, is the doctrine of the modern welfare state — "we’ll take care of you." In return, you’ll vote early and vote often, as the Chicago political machine used to say.
The "post-partisan" political faith Obama has come to embrace offers more help than conservatism but fewer guarantees than secular liberalism. It doesn’t demand political loyalty, it asks for earnest acclamation. To conservatism’s business elite and secular liberalism’s political elite, it responds with yet another ruling class: a "responsible" elite.
There’s an element of the superhero sensibility in Obama’s Social Gospel politics, a perspective that sees the poor as damsels in distress or children in burning buildings, awaiting rescue by the best and the brightest: Jane Addams, the early 20th century reformer who ministered to the slums of Chicago; Josiah Strong, founder of the League of Social Services; Charles Sheldon, author of the 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?; and now Barack Obama, who long ago left community organizing for Harvard Law, there to join America’s anointed, meritocrats who rule because they’re better at it than you.
The Social Gospel grew out of a 19th century movement known as "muscular Christianity" that began in England as a response to industrialization and the rise of a managerial class. Britain’s young manhood, feared the reformers, had been made too soft and too decadent by modernity, turned into self-involved fops by indoor work and polite religion. The new muscular Christians weren’t pale-faced pastors, they were crusading politicians, entrepreneurs, explorers, those who understood privilege as a responsibility. There was nothing revolutionary about them. They didn’t want to challenge the status quo, they simply wanted to make it better.
In America, muscular Christianity produced some of our most effective leaders, and also our most imperialistic ones, from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. Pastor Rick Warren, the evangelical leader who hosted McCain and Obama (it was Obama’s second visit) for the campaign’s first "debate" at his Southern California megachurch, boasts that he wants to roll back the clock not to the 1950s but to "the 19th century. That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life." It was also a time of empire. A man of his word, Warren has built one of his own, recently branding Rwanda the first officially "Purpose-Driven nation," after his international bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life. The US government has fallen in line, pledging federal "faith-based" funding to augment Warren’s freelance foreign policy, which emphasizes Rwanda’s transformation (or, perhaps, conversion?) through small-scale capitalism and personal responsibility. Obama, meanwhile, has pledged to expand Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives program; Warren, whom Obama consults regularly, approves.
Stephen Mansfield, a conservative preacher who’s also been, indirectly, the beneficiary of federal faith-based funding, recently published a book titled The Faith of Obama. Mansfield’s also the author of a 2004 bestseller titled The Faith of George W. Bush, though Obama, he now says, is the new face of Christian politics in America. "No more ‘typical liberal responses.’ No more a retreat behind the separation of church and state," writes Mansfield of Obama’s increasingly Christian campaign. "Now his worldview was integrated and firm. He was a liberal Christian, embracing a faith-based liberal political vision and he planned to take both into his nation’s corridors of power."
Obama’s political application of Genesis in Denver (one of at least three scriptural allusions in his acceptance speech) is a case in point. "I am my brother’s keeper," he declares, a slight revision of the actual biblical story. God asks Cain where his brother Abel is; Cain, who has of course murdered Abel, indignantly demands, "Am I my brother’s keeper?"
The reasonable response is not "Yes"; it’s, "Answer the question, Cain." By proposing and implicitly rejecting an extravagant standard of stewardship, Cain dodges the question that, were he to answer it honestly, would lead to his confession. Is he his brother’s keeper? No, he’s simply his brother’s brother, and he ought to care enough about him to know — to understand — where he is.
That’s the lesson Martin Luther King drew from scripture in the last days of his life, when he moved not toward power but to the frontiers of justice, journeying to Memphis to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers, "garbage men," even as he expanded the definition of civil rights to encompass the whole world. Challenged by "angry young men" to whom he preached non-violence to link freedom at home to the predations of empire overseas, he confessed, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government."
That’s a deeper, more democratic understanding of responsibility than anything we heard in Denver. Obama has achieved something remarkable — he has restored liberalism to the political mainstream. But he has done so by abandoning liberation. Obama’s defenders insist he’s just doing what he has to do to win, and perhaps they’re right. Too bad that 45 years after King’s most famous sermon, winning requires leaving the dream behind.