Over the past few days, I’ve been wondering about the significance of religious or quasi-religious words in a culture in which a shared understanding of these words appears to be disappearing. My curiosity was first piqued by a column by Gene Lyons in Salon. The critic argues that an interview (not so much the act?) sex offender Roman Polanski (here’s Mollie’s take from last week) gave should get a “special place in hell.” His column is sprinkled with words like “holy writ”, “sins” and the most definitely not complimentary “professional Christian” (applied to Nevada Senator John Ensign.
We have reached a new phase in devolution away from Christian cultural dominance when words formely associated with specific doctrines become fodder for a cynical riff on the misdeeds of politicians and Hollywood denizens.
So if Polanski, in this new paradigm, is a sinner, (except to some French philosophes and Hollywood types) then who is one of the sometimes sacred, sometimes secular anointed — or son of Satan?
It’s no secret that President Barack Obama has been viewed in quasi-Messianic terms by some on the left — and as quite something else by some on the right. And when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize by five Norwegians yesterday, journalists had to find a secular language which embraced the semi-religious fervor of liberal expectations — and the equally zealous antipathy of some opponents.
It’s a dynamic that Eli Saslow captures really nicely in an article posted on the Washingtonpost.com website:
This is how it has always gone with Obama: His latest coronation, this time as Nobel Peace Prize winner, inspired a dozen different reactions that were similar only in their intensity.
Instead of the universal tribute that often accompanies a Nobel Prize, Obama’s award resulted in a deluge of response that included all the divisiveness of the presidential campaign. The reactions Friday to Obama’s winning the prize tended to cast him as either a savior or a fraud, with little conversation in between. There was bewilderment and cynicism, hope and pride. Debate raged about who Obama is and what he will become.
Some called the prize the ultimate endorsement of a great president; others called it evidence that, once again, charisma had trumped results. Some called it a miracle; others called it a joke. Some believed Obama had earned the prize by uniting the country, rewriting black history and redeeming America in the eyes of the world; others said Obama had earned — and accomplished — nothing.
Is Obama a savior, miracle-worker, redeemer? Or is he a fraud, a man who is all charisma and no substance, a suit who shows up work but doesn’t get the job done? Interestingly, here the Messianic language comes from the left — and those quoted on right seems to echo the benchmarks of the business world (but in New Jersey they may feel differently about the President). But although many of the phrases might be cribbed from a theological thesaurus, the meaning is is often ambiguous. Does the secular left attach religious expectations to the President? Or are their hopes for a secular reformation more in line with many Europeans perhaps like those who awarded Obama the Nobel Prize?
Saslow continues, later in the article:
Even the committee was summoning hope, a word used so regularly on Friday that it felt reminiscent of Obama’s campaign. He spent 18 months drawing record crowds at campaign rallies, inspiring supporters to chant “Yes we can” and plaster red-white-and-blue HOPE posters on street lamps across the country. It was then that Obama started to become the man to whom people attached their own aspirations and definitions, a candidate not of accomplishment, not yet, but of an ever-growing mystique.
Americans have often seen their Presidents as divinely led men of destiny. But in the past, even if one disagreed, there was some agreeement on what that meant. I think Saslow is on to something here — but in a country in which many citizens don’t believe in God or Satan, and many define those entitites in ways that have little to do with tradition, it’s difficult to find the right way to describe the intensity of the emotions that whirl around this President (and certainly swirled around the second George Bush).
I predict that journalists will continue to struggle, using traditional language broadly to describe quasi-religious feelings — and letting readers draw their own conclusions.