Disillusionment, Democracy, and the Fate of President Obama

(A version of this blog was posted last week on the Political Theology blog,  There is Power in the Blog, which covers a lot of the same territory as Faithful Democrats and if you like what you read here, I recommend you check that blog out as well. It is more aimed at academic types than political types–but the two groups should certainly be in conversation with one another.)

My first assignment as a blogger for Faithful Democrats, a few weeks ago, was to introduce myself and why, as a person of faith, I am a Democrat. My blog, “Two American Dreams and One Economic Reality,” looked at the debate about American values initiated by President Obama’s now famous quote: “You didn’t build that.” I argued that the radical individualism embodied by the Republican outrage against this phrase is consistent with neither Christian faith nor economic reality. President Obama was simply expressing, in my estimation, a fundamental truth evident in both scripture and our shared experience: We are not single-handedly responsible for what happens to us.  We do not get what we deserve! At the heart of things is grace! We are saved by God’s great sacrifice in Jesus Christ, not our own goodness or righteousness. We are born into networks of interdependence that provide for us before and apart from any merit of our own. We are participants in one great economy of grace that binds us to God and one another. I am a Democrat and will support President Obama’s re-election because his understanding of the America Dream more closely resembles the truth of God’s economy (the rules of God’s interdependent household) than does the Republican fantasy of an individualistic meritocracy.

I am proud of that essay. I think it provided a clear sense of why my Christian faith leads me to support the Democratic Party. But, some of my friends and colleagues pushed back against it pretty hard. They were concerned that my rhetoric of grace and gratitude, my vision of God’s economy, did not quite fit their experience of President Obama or the Democratic Party over the past four years. They are disappointed in and frustrated with President Obama. They are disillusioned and discouraged. The last four years hav not lived up to their hope for change. They had hoped for “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). But, instead, they saw Wall Street bailouts, partisan gridlock, military surges, drone strikes, extending the Bush era tax-cuts, and less than satisfying healthcare reform. To these good Christians, my biblical and theological vision rang hollow when placed in the service of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

The disillusionment of these faithful Christians and good Americans is understandable. President Obama did promise more than he could possibly deliver. His rhetoric of hope and change often toyed with and sometimes fell prey to messianic fantasy. There was no way that the last four years could have possibly lived up to some of the over-heated rhetoric of the Obama campaign. Like the Republic Party, the Democratic Party always promises salvation if it wins and damnation if it loses.  Rhetorical excess is natural to democracy. Those running for office promise whatever it takes. They try to inspire people because, like fear, it is incredibly motivating. Democracy is about getting people out to the polling place. It is about motivating them to canvas and contribute to the campaign. It is about convincing them that how they vote is important, that this election has real consequences, that the outcome makes a difference. And it does. But, it can never make the sort of difference the politicians promise and it can never deliver the sort of change it describes. So, disillusionment is natural.  It is, in fact, unavoidable.  Campaigns for re-election always have a different flavor than campaigns for election. They are about grim persistence rather than passionate conversion. They are about fending off disillusionment and offering more pedestrian possibilities.  So, the pundits say, there is an “enthusiasm gap” that puts the Democratic Party at a distinct disadvantage this election season.  It is little wonder that democratic politics lurches from one party and its messianic pretensions to another.

The question now is whether we are on the cusp of another lurch and a different direction. My fear is that the fact that Barack Obama is not the Messiah may threaten his very limited but very real accomplishments in both international and domestic affairs. Obama’s healthcare reform plan is an important step in the right direction—though it does not realize the gospel’s promise of “abundant life.” Obama’s consumer and banking regulations as well as his economic stimulus and automobile industry bailouts have constrained the prerogatives of the powerful and recognized our economic interdependence—though they did not realize a Kingdom in which the “first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Obama’s efforts in the international arena have slowly pulled America back from the military adventurism of the Bush administration and presented a more humble and collaborative face to the world—though his policies have not beaten our swords into plowshares or made the lion lay down with the lamb.

Barack Obama is not the Messiah. His election in 2008 did not inaugurate the Kingdom of God. If he wins the 2012 election it will be partly because he repented of his messianic pretentions and partly because the American people repented of their messianic expectations. Politics is a more humble affair than American election campaigns portray. But that does not mean they are unimportant. Elections make a real but not an ultimate difference. The language of faith should not be used to lend an aura of absolute significance to our political campaigns, which they do not and cannot embody. Rather, the language of faith best contributes to politics when it keeps our eyes on the light of a distant horizon as we wind our way through the shadowy and ambiguous events of contemporary life.  The language of Christian faith offers an ultimate hope that allows us can survive the disappointments and frustrations of mundane political realities.   I suggest that my friends and colleagues who are disillusioned by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party change their assumptions about faith and politics. They must embrace more humble political expectations. Otherwise, some finite but significant goods will be lost.

The 2012 Democratic Convention embodied the sort of humility and resolve appropriate to a President running for a second term. President Obama not only acknowledged his failures and the nation’s disappointment but also made a strong case for the importance of continuing to move in the same direction. On the other hand, the Republican Convention portrayed Obama as the Anti-Christ and offered vague and gauzy promises of miraculous economic, political, and social salvation if the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected. The fact that President Obama has a  small but significant lead in most polls may show that the American people have also repented of their messianic expectations and their readiness to deal with our nation’s problems in a more realistic, long-term, and grown-up manner.

Long ago, Max Weber, the great sociologist of religion, wrote, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” Today, we must confront our loss of passion with perspective. We have seen the truth—Barack Obama is not our savior—but we must not let this lead to hopelessness or despair. Instead, we must find a larger and deeper hope that can sustain us through these difficult, conflicted, and ambiguous time. As Michelle Obama said in her Democratic Convention on Tuesday evening, “we are playing a long game here and change is hard.” In the end, during this political campaign, I encourage my friends and colleagues to place their faith in God rather than any finite power or personality. It is the only way to avoid the foolish exuberance and enervating disillusionment that plagues democratic politics.  Christian faith provokes a deeper hope and a steadier path. Neither Barack Obama nor the Democratic Party will save the world. But, I will vote for them because I believe their policies point, ambiguously and imperfectly, toward the real hope and the true change—God’s Kingdom and the New Creation.

 

  • Larry G Smith

    Very good reading and well written

    • Tim Beach-Verhey

      Thanks Larry.

  • Phaerisee

    As a conservative, I am not so sure that Romney is the lesser of two evils, at least when it comes to the future of the Republican party. If we persist in ignoring our base composed of conservatives, christians and catholics we will continue to lose. Lincoln said you cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. Sacrificing conservative principles in an attempt to appeal to moderates simply is not electorally pragmatic for a Republican victory. If true conservatives want to send a message to the GOP leadership they should vote for Obama. If they cannot stomach voting for someone to the left of center, then they should consider voting for Independent candidate Gary Johnson. Nothing will change unless we send a message.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92L4LHcT75s&feature=relmfu

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92L4LHcT75s&feature=relmfu

  • http://conservingtheculture.com Linda Whitlock

    Do you truly see unlimited, tax-payer supported abortion — the sine qua non of the Democratic party’s existence (and platform) — as pointing “ambiguously and imperfectly, toward the real hope and the true change—God’s Kingdom and the New Creation”? As a Christian, even if I supported the Democrat’s economic policies, which I don’t, I could never support a party that holds so tenaciously to such a position. The million plus children aborted every year are all human beings created in God’s image.

    • Tim Beach-Verhey

      Dear Linda:
      I do not see Abortion as nearly as central to the Democratic Party’s platform as you do. In fact, I think most Democrats would recognize that abortion is tragic and should be limited as much as possible. But they are also aware that desperate women without options will turn to horrifying means to end a pregnancy and so simply making abortion illegal does not stop it. Rather it simply makes it more gruesome and tragic. I would love to see us live in a country where there are very few or even no abortions at all because every child is wanted and loved and every parent has the capacity to take care of the life entrusted to them. Unfortunately, our society refuses to provide resources for parents and often forces them into unpleasant choices. I lay that at the feet of the Republicans rather than the Democrats. I believe that Republican economic policies make abortion more frequent and unavoidable. Then the Republican party has the temerity to blame others for their own moral failures.

    • Frank

      Agreed Linda. Anyone who values life cannot possibly with good conscience vote for any Democrat.

  • http://www.profligategrace.com/ Amy Laura

    Hey, Tim! Great to hear your “voice.” Thank you so much for this! Someone just posted a clip of me, anguishing over similar questions. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theworkofthepeople/2012/09/amy-laura-hall-obamapalin-ticket-video/
    I think that some Christians are called to point out the absurdity of today’s landscape, in ways that may indeed threaten a victory in November, but which seem nonetheless necessary. For instance, I think that this little piece of theater is brilliant:
    http://gawker.com/5941326/ask-the-dnc-is-romney-ready-for-the-kill-list
    Also, have you seen Lee Camp’s running commentary on the bank bail-outs and such? He is an equal opportunity pain in the backside, in a way that Amos and Micah would appreciate, I think.
    http://leecamp.net/category/past-moment-of-clarities/
    Ok, enough links! Peace to you, wise friend!

    • Tim Beach-Verhey

      Amy:
      thanks for your comments. I look forward to reviewing the links you sent. Peace to you, wise friend!

  • Birger

    Its difficult, yes impossible for a democrat to write a truly objective essay here. It will be slanted toward
    Democratic views. The truth is we as a nation is in dire danger of apostasy ,and rejection of any Christian values. Our leaders are courting Islam and supporting that religion,while denying our constitutional right as Christian,and free speech. It’s time to wake up and support what our constitution stands for.

    • Tim Beach-Verhey

      Dear Sir, I think you are incorrect. And I am not quite sure what you could possibly mean by our nation courting Islam or denying Christians their right to free speech. I have not come across any cases of Christians being kept from speaking their mind in the public realm or of Islam being given a special place in our society. The sort of victimization and self-pity your comment expresses is counter to the sense of fairness I associate with our constitution and the spirit of generosity and courage I associate with followers of Christ. Sincerely, Tim


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