During his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to be doing more than getting himself elected
president. He seemed to be launching a revival of liberal idealism,
shifting the United States’s political landscape in the process. This
impression hardly lasted beyond his inauguration as president on 20
January 2009. Never has a national mood
of progressive optimism evaporated so fast. The parlous state of the
economy doesn’t fully explain this: economic turbulence might actually
be conducive to forging a new liberal movement, as Franklin D Roosevelt
showed in the 1930s.
Maybe, nowadays, liberal idealism is
something that can be conjured up at election time, to a greater or
lesser extent, but is otherwise dormant. If so, this is an acute problem
for liberalism. For its adversary, in the form of the Tea Party movement,
has proved itself to be a dynamic populist force, which motivates its
followers between elections as well as during them. The only popular
American ideology, it has seemed in the last two years, is of the
small-tax, anti-government variety.
Alongside campaigning on economic issues, the purpose of the Tea Party has been to expose Obama’s rhetoric of hope
as inauthentic, even un-American: for here is the site of real popular
American idealism. Ours are the real, passionate voices queuing up to
demand freedom from state interference. Liberals have no response,
except to recoil in distaste. They were excited recipients of Obama’s
campaigning rhetoric, but lack the ability or inclination to echo this
rhetoric themselves, to participate in it. The huge advantage of the
right is that every ordinary conservative knows how to hum its tunes:
liberals have a more passive relationship to their leaders’ rhetoric.
is liberalism so much culturally weaker than conservatism? Part of the
answer, I suggest, lies in the relationship of liberalism with religion.
An alliance ended
Obama’s vision of hope had religious echoes. He boldly presented
himself as the heir of the civil-rights movement, which, thanks to
Martin Luther King and others, was an expression of liberal Christianity
as well as progressive politics. King himself was inspired by the
“social gospel” movement that influenced Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The American liberal-left in the 20th century had clear links to religion. This overlap goes back to the abolitionist movement: Frederick Douglass
was a forerunner of King. Lincoln was more reticent on religion, but
powerfully suggested that divine justice was the fuel of the democratic
Obama knowingly drew on this tradition, with his
impassioned talk of hope. This went much further than the “hope”
rhetoric of other politicians; it often referred to the biblical concept
of faith – implicitly, of course. He repeatedly characterised his
candidacy as “unlikely”, and “improbable”: as if his career was a
reason-defying miracle, as if he were not a normal politician but the
amazed witness to God’s action, like Abraham or Joseph. It is little
exaggeration to say that this prophetic theme gave him the edge over
Hillary Clinton, a more experienced politician with very similar
policies, and won him the Democratic candidacy, and then the presidency.
understood that that the liberal vision is most powerful when in touch
with its religious roots. Democrats had been routinely wary of pressing
these buttons, which can misfire in various ways. Indeed the strategy almost misfired for Obama, thanks to his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.
What enabled him to play the “prophetic” card with such success was the racial element: he could offer himself as a sign of the overcoming of racial division, and therefore a living icon of the liberal Christian vision.
prophetic rhetoric is admirably rooted in American history, and Obama
was a master performer of it. So why did his support melt away?
problem is that this prophetic tradition, for all its attractiveness,
lacks clear roots in contemporary culture. For the cultural overlap of
liberalism and religion has been weakening for decades. In a sense the
appeal of prophetic hope-rhetoric is nostalgic: it reminds Americans of a
previous era of idealism.
In this previous era there was a strong
culture of liberal Christianity for politicians such as Woodrow Wilson,
FDR, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson to draw on. The old “mainline”
Protestant churches, full of respect for the liberal state, were still
very strong. Liberal Protestantism was America’s semi-official creed.
This allowed Wilson to rein in the free market, and Roosevelt to
implement the New Deal. Accusations that such policies were socialist
did not stick, for their architects were clearly pillars of the nation’s
Protestant establishment (establishment, that is, in the unofficial
Liberal Protestant intellectuals had great cultural respect, into the 1960s. Thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr
made it seem obvious that America was simultaneously liberal and
Christian. The civil-rights movement seemed a new chapter in this story
of the expansion of the liberal Christian vision. It still seemed that
America was held together by a mild form of “civil religion” (a phrase
coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967). And this civil religion emphasised the common good, and a liberal form of faith.
in fact things were changing. The culture wars were underway. The
fundamentalist strain of American religion revived. And anti-liberalism became central to the Republican Party, first with Nixon’s demonising of liberal elitists, then with Reaganomics.
perhaps most importantly, the old liberal Protestant consensus was
crumbling. From the mid-1960s, the mainline churches began losing
members fast: some opted for Evangelicalism, but most drifted away from
religion. The most vocal Christians were now those who looked on liberal
reforms with suspicion. Moreover, progressive causes had a new
“secular” aura, especially with the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Roe vs Wade case in 1973.
old assumption, that America was simultaneously liberal and Christian,
was in tatters. The noisiest Christians denounced liberalism, and even
implied that the separation of church and state was a misunderstanding.
This dynamic has continued ever since: the old alliance of Christianity
and liberalism has never been revived.
A recovery project
is the background to Obama’s roller-coaster reception. He implicitly
promised to restore the broken relationship between America’s religion
and its liberal idealism. This appealed to liberals on a deep level. But
in reality the old synthesis cannot be restored just like that. There
was therefore something pretentious about Obama’s campaigning rhetoric.
He implied the existence of a latent common faith that just had to be
dusted down – but it had in fact been ripped apart by the culture wars.
His famous rejection of the division
of the country into “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democrat) states
was, in effect, a promise to heal the culture wars. And the
reconciliation of liberalism and religion is at the heart of this.
rhetoric was therefore founded in a profound diagnosis of the nation’s
inner division. America must end its painful culture wars and reunite
around its old-fashioned liberal faith. But such a major cultural shift
cannot be effected by a presidential election. Obama was announcing the
need for a movement that transcends normal politics. It is hardly
surprising that no such cultural shift suddenly became apparent.
And perhaps it is unsurprising that the main practical effect of his election has been anger
on the right. The Tea Party movement has ostensibly focused on Obama’s
economic policies, but much of its rhetorical violence comes from the
religious right. What arouses such hatred is Obama’s affinity with the
old liberal Christianity, his claim that America is founded in a liberal
Christian vision. The suggestion that Obama is really
a Muslim is a mark of how deeply the religious right fears liberal
Christianity: it would rather pretend that it is contending with a
different religion, or with atheism. It fears to admit the fact that
there is another account of American religion.
But does the old
alliance of liberalism and Christianity show any signs of rising from
the ashes? No obvious signs: the liberal churches, such as
Episcopalianism, remain far weaker than the Evangelical ones. But on the
other hand there are signs that Evangelicalism is rethinking. Some of
its leaders feel that it was damaged by too close an association with
the George W Bush administration.
Many younger Evangelicals, such
as the megachurch star Rob Bell, are developing a new, inclusive,
socially engaged approach, in which poverty and global warming are taken
seriously. The rather vague reform movement called “emerging church”,
mostly made up of ex-Evangelical liberals, is also on the rise. The old
paradigm, of dominance by the religious right, has a few cracks in it
that might develop into serious fissures.
Also, the turmoil of the
Bush years has led some liberal commentators to see the old culture
wars as just too dangerous. The journalist George Packer,
for example, argues that liberalism was led astray by arrogant
secularism and identity politics; America must rediscover a deeper
understanding of its liberal tradition, and the rediscovery of its
liberal Christian tradition is a key part of this.
hardly likely to repair America’s divided soul single-handed, but his
campaigning rhetoric, and the angry reaction of the right, has helped to
clarify the question. Can America reject the illiberal religion that
has dominated for a generation, and rediscover, on new terms, the old
alliance of faith and liberal idealism?
Theo Hobson is a theologian and writer. His books include Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004) and Milton’s Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008). This article first appeared on openDemocracy.net and has been republished under a Creative Commons licence.