Barack Obama and American henotheism

The response in some quarters to President Obama’s (frankly rather anodyne) remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast has been dispiriting, if sadly predictable. The right-wing outrage machine has (once again) deemed him an apologist for Islamist terrorism and an enemy of true Christianity and Western civilization. (How they square this with his actual record is beyond me.)

More sober commentators have made much of the “Niebuhrian” (as in Reinhold) spirit of the president’s comments. Obama recognizes that no religion has a monopoly on violence, and no society is beyond using faith to justify its crimes. As Niebuhr pointed out again and again, even our best efforts are tainted with self-interest. Humility and self-criticism are indispensable, even while they shouldn’t paralyze us in pursuing justice.

This has been a persistent theme of Obama’s public statements since the beginning of his presidency. He famously named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, and there has been no shortage of attempts to look at his policies through a Niebuhrian lens.

The reaction to Obama’s speech from some elements of the Right, however, puts me more in the mind of Reinhold’s brother Helmut Richard. In his justly famous analysis of “radical monotheism,” the younger Niebuhr brother distinguished monotheism in its highest form from what he called “henotheism.” As theologian Douglas Ottati has summarized Niebuhr’s analysis, henotheism “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends.” In a henotheistic scheme, God is used to prop up the values of the group, rather than calling people to a truly universal ethic.

When people can’t abide self-criticism or acknowledge that Christianity has been used to justify despicable evil (from the Crusades to pogroms against Jews to slavery and Jim Crow, and much besides), henotheism is at work. Christianity becomes the religion of our tribe, rather than a faith in the God who, as Obama’s favorite president put it, “has His own purposes.” The reaction to Obama’s rather mild comments says a lot more about the operative theology of much American Christianity than it does about him.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

Obama’s counter-terrorism speech: return to (a semblance of) normalcy?

The counter-terrorism policy outlined in the president’s speech today hardly describes my ideal approach, but most, if not all, of the changes he’s made or is proposing are steps in the right direction. These include

–continuing the reduction in the number of combat troops in Afghanistan,

–declassifying information on Americans killed in drone strikes,

–reviewing proposals for additional oversight of the targeted killing program,

–putting stronger protections in place against government overreach in investigating leaks,

–revising and ultimately repealing the authorization to use military force (AUMF), and

–closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and finding a way to deal with the detainees there that is more consistent with the rule of law.

In general, the president was describing a further shift away from the grand “global war on terror” paradigm that he inherited from the Bush administration, and toward treating terrorism as a more discrete, targeted problem. Citing America’s experience in the 80s and 90s, he suggested that terrorism can be dealt with in a more piecemeal fashion rather than as a broad existential struggle.

Needless to say, everything hinges on whether Obama makes good on these changes, and even if he does, there will still be plenty to criticize about the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. (In particular, I’m still a skeptic of the targeted killing program, even with additional oversight.) But I do find it heartening that all these changes are in the direction of a less aggressive, more constrained approach.

Four more years

I didn’t even watch the inaugural festivities live on TV, much less attend them in person. But I did catch the president’s speech in re-runs, and like many others I thought it provided a persuasive articulation of his brand of pragmatic progressivism. It’s not a creed I fully share, but in terms of current American political possibilities, it certainly beats the alternatives. Four more years!

Why I voted for President Obama (again)

I voted today–D.C. started early voting last Monday–and, not surprisingly, I pulled the lever (or rather pushed the touchscreen) for the Obama-Biden ticket.

This wasn’t at all a hard decision. On every issue I care about, the Romney-Ryan G.O.P. is significantly worse than the Democrats. And this includes those areas where Obama has most disappointed–peace, civil liberties, and (to a lesser extent) the environment. Since 2008, the Republican Party has only intensified its commitment to Devil-take-the-hindmost economics, foreign policy belligerence, and particularly atavistic elements of social conservatism.

Obama has, best as I can tell, done pretty well with the hand he’s been dealt, at least with regard to domestic policy. (The president has a much freer hand in foreign affairs, so I judge him more harshly here.) Despite Republican intransigence, he managed to pull the economy out of a death spiral, make historically large investments in clean energy and infrastructure, and establish, at least at the level of principle, a federal commitment to universal health care. I give at least some credence to Left-wing critics of Obama who say he’s been too soft on Wall Street or that he should’ve pushed harder for the public option, but looking at the big picture, he’s got a strong claim to being the most successful liberal president since LBJ.

More importantly, though, the vision that the Democrats still represent, and that I embrace, is that government has a indispensable role to play in establishing the conditions for individuals to flourish. The Dems want to preserve and strengthen the welfare state; the G.O.P. wants to dismantle–privatize, federalize, “voucherize”–it. Democrats think collective action is necessary to fight climate change; most Republicans won’t even admit climate change is happening. Democrats think that some degree of regulation and redistribution is necessary to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and reduce inequality; Republicans decry this modest vision of a mixed economy–a vision more conservative than the one embraced by most center-Right parties in Western Europe–as “socialism.” Heck, there even now seems to be a debate about whether there’s a proper federal role for disaster relief!

Some progressives have argued that Obama is too compromised –too cozy with big business, too promiscuous in his use of deadly military force–to support. And these criticisms have merit. But what I haven’t seen is a plausible account of how an Obama defeat (which ineluctably means a Romney victory) would strengthen the hand of progressives in building the kind of society they want. (The Bush years, for example, were not exactly a high-water mark for progressivism.)

When it comes right down to it, I’m probably less left-wing than many of Obama’s progressive critics. But I want to move things in the same general direction they do. And the last four years have seen movement in that direction, even if not as consistently or as quickly as we might all like. I think that a Romney victory would probably spell doom for that progress, however incremental and timid you may think it’s been. An Obama victory, on the other hand, is a chance to consolidate and build on it. That’s enough to get my vote.

Romney, the “God vote,” and American henotheism

The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn must have a low opinion of religious people. That’s the only way I can explain her assertion that, because he dropped a platitudinous reference to “the Creator” during last night’s debate, Mitt Romney has captured the “God vote.” Weirdly, Quinn admits that President Obama often talks about his own Christian faith but says that he hasn’t done it in a debate. (There’s only been one!) Quinn says, without offering anything by way of evidence, that Obama needs to “wear God” like a lapel pin if he wants to woo the 85 percent of voters who say they believe in God.

Surely she knows that there must be substantial overlap between this “85 percent” and the roughly half of voters who went for Obama in 2008 and that say they’re going to again? And that many of these people might not need Obama to constantly drop references to the Almighty in order for him to show that he shares their values?

What I think was going on in Romney’s “we are endowed by our Creator with our rights” line was that he was echoing a bizarre (and demonstrably false) meme on the Right that the president intentionally omits the reference to “the Creator” whenever he quotes or paraphrases the opening lines of the Declaration. There’s a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.

Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.

By contrast, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.

When we use God as a political prop or a tribal marker, we’re committing what the Bible calls idolatry–putting a creature, whether it be the self or the group, above the Creator.

Political purism and playing the long game

Garry Wills wrote a good response to the video from Harvard Law professor Roberto Unger calling for the “defeat” of Barack Obama. Unger, who is invariably billed as Obama’s “former professor” (according to Wills he taught Obama in two classes at HLS), maintains that Obama has “failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.” Unger’s video has some good ideas in it–or at least ideas worth considering. But the conclusion that Obama “must be defeated” comes as a complete non-sequitur. It’s unclear why supporting the (admittedly flawed) Obama is incompatible with working to make the Democratic Party and the political system in general more progressive. And it’s even less clear how four or eight years of a Romney administration would advance the cause of progressivism. Why, for example, would it be a boon to “the progressive cause” to allow the social safety net to be further shredded?

Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)

Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:

The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.

To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.

To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)

The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.

The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.

I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”

The fog of (just) war: more on just war and the “kill list”

To follow up a bit on the last post, here’s a good piece published in Boston Review by Georgetown law professor David Luban, looking at the “drone war” more broadly in the context of just war theory.

Luban homes in on some of the thornier issues surrounding the targeted killing program: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, the question of proportionality, and whether “the decision-making process is based on a genuinely skeptical, probing structure, with a heavy burden of proof on those proposing a killing and an institutionalized ‘devil’s advocate’ to argue against each and every deadly ‘nomination.'” Despite recent reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, “the process still remains essentially shrouded in fog.”

Assuming that it’s permissible to use force in self-defense, Luban says, “targeted killings” aren’t necessarily immoral per se. “If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call ‘indiscriminate’ and a war crime.”

Among this welter of arguments about targeted killing, the genuine issues of principle are whether self-defense requires it and proportionality permits it. The question of where the zone of combat ends and civilian rules begin is important, but it is a question of line-drawing, not of moral principle. If self-defense is a just cause of war, and if killing is necessary for self-defense (a big if), then targeted killing is permissible–provided that it targets only enemy fighters, keeps civilian casualties low, and actually does more good than harm in defending ourselves.

But this last one is a “far from a settled question,” Luban says, because the drone war may be creating more terrorists than it kills due to, for example, the radicalizing of Yemenis angered by the drone attacks. Add to this worries about the “opacity and unaccountability” of the program, and it’s far from clear that it is, on balance, a good idea.

Do the evolution

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.

But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”

Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:

when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Posner goes on to contend that

Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:

Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.

So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.

Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.

Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.