The Politics We Deserve

As I watched Jesse Jackson weeping in Grant Park, I decided to forget the Reverend’s own campaign nastiness and thought instead of Psalm 30:5—“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” And then I thought about “Chocolate City,” the 1975 Parliament ode to my hometown—“They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition too.” Bafflingly, improbably, Starchild got it right.

And, as with almost everyone who reads this, joy came in the evening too: those darkest hours just before the dawn were filled with tears of joy. Each of us now has our story, a recount of our own investment, participation, and memories, locked in as tightly as a framed newspaper front page. But after that surpassing, glorious night, I woke to find that four students at my university had spray-painted racist graffiti in our “free expression tunnel.” It is, sadly, no surprise that such sentiments continue to circulate (nor that hundreds immediately rallied to protest it).

So taking these sentiments together—the collective joy felt by millions, and terror at the prospect of “Chocolate City” felt by the few—how now might we look at religious politics in America? First of all, there are several threads from the election cycle itself to note before considering paths forward.

America seemed to make unexpectedly little of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, perhaps ranking his fiscal priorities and positions on key “hot button” issues higher than his religiosity. While neither Romney nor the polished Mike Huckabee (who can deliver red meat to the base as smoothly as he plays his bass) attracted the languages of alarm, such sentiments defined this campaign as they have political religions more broadly in recent decades.

Here in North Carolina, Liddy Dole painted Kay Hagan—an elder in the Presbyterian Church and Sunday school teacher—as a defiler, an atheist. And nationally, the panic button was mashed hourly, by different constituencies and in the name of different notions of American civic legitimacy. Sarah Palin became a consorter of witch doctors, a Cold War valkyrie swooping in from the north, an advocate of holy-rolling end-times fervor, and the embodiment of derision aimed at everything not “common,” “regular,” or part of “real America.” Amidst denunciations of her divisiveness, her shrillness, and her ignorance, other alarms were sounded, this time about black radicalism (Reverend Wright’s damning America), the socialism nested in Obama’s approach to progressive taxation, “pallin’ around” with terrorists, or the covert Islam his detractors saw peeking through his past and endangering our collective future (notably that horror-strewn 2012 cooked up in James Dobson’s fervid imagination). Americans seemed less compelled by the languages of optimism, though these too were there: in the promise of a maverick orientation to government, of keeping country first, and of change we need.

On the broadest level of this hyperreal national campaign, this plurality of notions reminded us continually that we cannot simply “sum up” political religions in America. We know that recent decades, particularly the period since 2000, have been dominated by discourses of fear, accusation and recrimination, violent imagery, and triumphalism. These discourses, and those deployed so flamboyantly during the election, have a specific lineage which I and others have interpreted. But are there sources of joy we might look for after this period of fear? If the various renderings of political religion just limned represent in some ways the untethering of reason and the eclipse of historical knowledge, then what might we expect in the future, either in dread or excitement?

The Smart Guy Won

Just as we all have our own stories of the elections, we are all busying ourselves with predictions. Richard Rorty once wrote that what’s interesting about the sun’s distance from the earth is not that it can be measured at 93 million miles but the fact that we want to measure the distance at all. Whatever legislation is forthcoming, whatever the makeup of Obama’s cabinet or his choice of Supreme Court justices, this quadrennial event offers an opportunity for reflection on signs and signifiers, those we flash to the world and to ourselves. What’s interesting about our overjoyed and prolific measuring in these days since Obama’s victory is perhaps what it reveals about us, not only in the magnitude of our hopes or the intensity of our projections onto the president-elect, but also in our longing and our crushing sense of powerlessness.

As a Republican colleague of mine said, “I never thought it would happen: the smart guy won.” As much as we want to think about the triumph and fulfillment of America’s democratic promise represented by electing an African American, there are some intellectual goods to consider too—not least that our first post-Abu Ghraib president is a Constitutional law professor. And yet America is far from being “post-racial,” and farther from thinking and talking our way out of the climate of unreason that has grown exponentially in recent decades. Obama’s smartness and blackness worked against him, much as we might wish to deny this truth, much as we wish these very qualities will shape the future.

But it remains to be seen what religious conservatives, particularly the master rhetoricians who have nurtured fear so powerfully in our time, will make of such matters. Will those who speak this discourse continue their excoriations of President Obama, much as we can expect his political critics to exert a force that recalls what Clinton faced in his first term? Most likely. Will Palin live on, remade in the Reagan mold? Will Bobby Jindal move to the fore? Perhaps, even if political candidates ultimately tell us only a bit about the world in which they emerge. Will the long smear campaign of the Atwater-Rove continuum, where “faith” and “values” have been wielded as cudgels, continue? Very likely. And will we have to open or stop up our ears at yet another cycle wherein bumper stickers—“Country First,” “Washington Insider,” “Politics as Usual,” “I’m Going to Miss Capitalism”—act as surrogates for reasoned argumentation? Absolutely.

Whatever happens, the tale can’t be told simply by figuring out how many evangelicals voted for Obama, how many Catholics did so, or how many Jews ignored Joe the Plumber’s warnings about the “death of Israel” and voted Democrat.

I’m not above reminding readers of one of Governor Palin’s many predictions: that God would steer the election to its just and righteous conclusions. I don’t issue this reminder in a confessional sense, but with a sense of relief and optimism. Make no mistake: the Right—Christian and otherwise—is in no danger of dying, and might conceivably be energized anew by the Obama presidency. Fox News is not going away, nor is the specific kind of unreason that has surrounded the often surreal claims made this season. The Hannitys and Limbaughs and Colsons of the world will tell us that Rahm Emmanuel is going to mau-mau the press corps and sell us on some dastardly combination of black militancy, Islam, radical academics (I’m reminded of Todd Gitlin’s line about “storming the English department”), and Keynesianism on steroids. The rhetoric of embattlement is too potent, too effective to disappear. Yet though I expect warnings of doom and denunciations of character to issue forth as loudly as ever, my hope is that now other conversations about religion and social change may resound a bit more loudly too.

After the Joy, the Graffiti…

And so after an upsurge of collective élan, we find ourselves in a chastened moment once more. While we crave clarity and certitude, we still live in a world of Niebuhrian, Camusian ambiguity. But is it such a bad thing to be suspended amidst our limits? Might this not be just the thing we need? Maybe this—and not visionary transformation—is the promise. Certainly, after the joy came the graffiti, which seemed to echo in that tunnel as if from a past we fear might still shape our future. At the very least, those foul words remind us of how much work is left to do. But maybe we can, without transformative hopes, feel good about living in a time when it is possible—honestly, frankly, clearly—to measure this distance too, focusing not just on those goals that seem to keep receding into the future but also on a past that reminds us of how far we have actually come. This is no metanoia, but perhaps this small thing will be enough, and might become more.

I expect no fundamental policy changes, though I welcome distributive shifts; and I await no magic kingdom, as Obama’s detractors have long complained he promised us. But what strikes me as undeniable is that the tone just changed, the self-understanding just changed, our face to the world just changed, in however limited a fashion, and to whatever limited effects. I was stunned by the degree to which, in one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory, Obama was able to resist being drawn into the conceptual grammars that have defined public life—and speculation about “religion and politics”—over recent decades.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, of course, to see the end of the story, as President-Elect Obama put it on election eve. Will a new story begin? Like most people reading this, including those of us who have written about American religion and democracy in dark times, I am anything but certain that Obama will remain a counter-sign to such powerful, lamentable trends in American politics.

But while I don’t want to make too much of any contrast between Joe the Plumber’s America and the gorgeously mixed America teeming by Lake Michigan as Tuesday became Wednesday, and while I remain nervous about backlash, I still confess to being stirred when recognizing the America I grew up in, the neighborhood writ large.

I wrote at the end of Religion of Fear that “perhaps it is past time to start wondering whether we get the politics we deserve.” The fearful politics I wrote about is not going away. But what a fine, welcome thing it is to ponder the alternate resonance of that phrase, and to wonder, to marvel at the possibility that we can be worthy of this opportunity to think better of each other and ourselves. Keeping all cautions in mind, I will be eager to see if one of campaign 2008’s keywords—hope—is supplanted by a different word: justice.