Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama Completes the Messiah's Journey

Barack Obama solidifies his place in American Civil religion by retracing Lincoln's footsteps

With just two days before his Inauguration as the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama has arrived in Washington.

Considering the messiah narrative surrounding Obama -- a narrative wrought with racial overtones -- it may only be fitting that Obama arrived in Washington via a six-city train trip that followed the same route Abraham Lincoln used to travel to Washington in 1861.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with American politics knows, Lincoln is revered in the United States for ending the civil war and for ending slavery.

However, as Molly Worthen notes, Lincoln's significance to American political culture goes deeper than this simple reverence. In fact, Lincoln is a central figure in what Worthen describes as the American civil religion -- a term coined by Jean-Jacques Rosseau to describe political narratives that embued with the sacred character normally reserved for religion.

According to Worthen, a civil religion inherently is not a theistic religion, but draws many of its roots from a theistic religion.

In the case of the United States, according to Worthen, the American civil religion finds its origin in the notion of American exceptionalism that seems to find its ultimate origin in a 1630 sermon given by original Massachussets Governor Reverend John Winthrop.

Winthrop, a Puritan, was leading his colonists to America in order to build a "shining city on a hill" -- God's model society that they can then export back to Britain. However, as they became disillusioned with the Purtian movement in Britain, who compromised their beliefs in exchange for political power, Winthrop and his American Puritans decided to focus on spreading their religious ideology throughout the United States, including westward.

The Puritans, the most educated and literate of the American colonists, had a decided advantage in disseminating their ideology.

Spreading westward, however, compromised the Purtians' religious beliefs not in the name of political power, but in the name of survival. Faced with more and more rugged and dangerous terrain and the other perils of westward expansion the Puritans eventually came to focus their efforts on simply surviving.

In time this focus on survivalism mixed with various religious revivals -- which Americans of the day oddly enough believed originated in Canada -- to create uniquely American brands of Christianity: namely, Baptism and Methodism, the leading evangelical religions in the United States today.

Interestingly enough, as the United States approached the time of the Revolution at the formation of the United States, evangelicals worked closely with secular humanists to ensure the separation of church and state. For secular humanists, the reason why they desired this is fairly obvious. For evangelicals, however, the matter was not quite so transparent. Evangelical religions demanded a voluntary conversion. The idea of state coercion into their religions was anathema to the evangelical leaders of the time.

The American Civil War and slavery led to a splintering of the American civil religion. After the war, many of the freed slaves viewed the war as an act of liberation. Reconciliationists from the northern states regarded the civil war as a redemptive act, in which the sins of the American state -- slavery -- were erased via a baptism in blood and fire.

In the south, however -- which many southern religious leaders had described as "God's model society" before the war -- the narrative that emerged was very different. They saw the civil war as a "noble defeat", and organizations such as the Ku Klus Klan were born in the belief that they needed to protect white women from sexual advances from freed slaves, and redeem the blood spilled in the war.

Lincoln's assassination in 1865 ensured his place of martyrdom in the American civil religion. His Gettysburg address and Inaugural address have been canonized in the minds of the American populace, right along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

With Obama's election, however, this generation may be witnessing an integration of the emancipatory and reconciliationist narratives of the American civil religion. The ascension of the first black president in American history could be argued by many to finally redeem not only the crime of slavery, but also the overt racial oppression of African Americans for more than a hundred years after the Civil War, and more pervasive forms of racial oppression for many decades after that, reflective of inequalities that continue to exist today.

Whether or not Obama will actually deliver on the promises percieved by the emancipatory narrative -- a perception based on the demands that many African Americans place elected African American leaders, acknowledged by Obama himself in Dreams From my Father -- only time can tell.

But considering the effort the Democrats have put into building a pervasive political mythology around Obama -- including Ted Kennedy's health-defying speech at the Democratic National Convention -- there's no question that Obama's journey to Washington was an extremely calculated move.

As calculated as the journey was, however, it may actually fit. Obama may well be able to fill Lincoln's mythical shoes -- but only time, and his performance in office, will tell.

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