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.