If something seems too good to be true, it usually is . . . or so the saying goes. And, as a general rule, I believe this is a good adage to remember. It speaks to the need for caution, and a healthy dose of skepticism. This doesn’t mean that everything that seems too good always is, just that optimism should be checked by realism.
Over the last few weeks, the McCain camp seems to have seized on to this common sense axiom with unbounded fervor, making it the corner stone of their strategy against Obama. In a stunning example of taking one’s own weakness (the fact that McCain cannot generate even half of the excitement and hope that Obama can) and turning it into an attack against one’s opponent (Obama’s speeches are too spectacular, and his popularity is out of control), the essence of each of McCain’s most recent ads is the warning “Obama seems too good to be true, and he will be.” He has even made the despicable move of drawing on biblical and theological imagery to take this charge to cosmic levels. You know who else will seem too good to be true? The Anti-Christ.
But then, on the heels of this attack, we were confronted with the tragic reminder that those we admire often do let us down. Even John Edwards, who inspires many of us with his concern for the poor and his work for justice, is susceptible to the all too common sin of infidelity. So is McCain right? When we find someone who arouses within us the ability to hope despite our dire circumstances, should we run in the opposite direction? Well, no, I don’t think so.
In what, then, are we to put our hope? To offer another insight from the surprisingly profound Batman series, in Batman Begins Bruce explains to Alfred why he has chosen to assume an alternate identity. “People need dramatic examples,” he states, “to shake them out of apathy . . . As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”
Symbols have the ability to transcend the ones who bear them. In constructing his System, the theologian Paul Tillich relied heavily upon the idea that symbols point to and participate in that for which they stand. In Tillich’s case this means that religious symbols have power because they are finite expressions of the infinite (i.e. God). Karl Barth asserted that anything could be used to mediate truth, going so far as to claim that, if God chooses, a dead dog can reveal as much truth as Scripture. Indeed this concept is built into the very identity of the Church, the premiere example of that which is corruptible pointing to the incorruptible.
This is the point Obama was making in the statement that the McCain campaign has since taken horribly out of context. The widely reported version of this unrecorded quote goes, “It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign — that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol.” Obama is an American symbol. He is an expression of the ideals our nation was founded on, justice, equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. No, he is not perfect. Yes, there will be times we are disappointed in him. As a man he is corruptible. But that fact need not drive us away from the hope in America he inspires in us.
This is where Christian theology can be especially instructive because it uplifts the tension of living in the not yet and the already. We are already justified and not yet free from sin. The kingdom has not yet come, but already we can see its inbreaking. Despite our sinful natures we are capable of acts of justice and love. We should not excuse sin, but neither should we give sin the power to obliterate the good works of God. Even John Calvin asserted that though humanity is completely despoiled by sin the original nobility with which we were created has not been destroyed.
The same principle guides America. The founders were not blind to the fact that humans are not purely altruistic beings. That is why we have a system of checks and balances, to prevent absolute power from corrupting absolutely. And yet, they rejected a Hobbesian notion that we are so ignoble we cannot work for something greater than ourselves. A professor of mine once said that America is built on a nostalgia for the future. We know we have not always lived up to the principles to which we aspire, but that does not deter us from hoping we can achieve a more perfect union. This attitude is aptly caught in the Langston Hughes poem Let America be America Again, “O, yes, I say it plain/America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath/ America will be!”
Call it sin, or simply the human condition, we are imperfect beings. As Christians we know this theologically; as Americans we know it historically. That does not mean we should not dare to hope. It does not mean that when something appears to be too good to be true we should reject it out of hand. Rather, we should not confuse the messenger with the message. We must place our hope not in the corruptible people who inspire it, but in the incorruptible ideals which they symbolize.