The man from hope?

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 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).

Sometimes journalists and commenters, may veer in one direction (can you really compare Obama to the Dalai Lama?) and sometimes in another (wicked? really?).

I predict that journalists will continue to struggle, using traditional language broadly to describe quasi-religious feelings — and letting readers draw their own conclusions.

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  • Harris

    In reading commentary on left and right, I have encountered more the skepticism of Noonan than of any adulation for the President. Even the President’s own words suggest a polite dissent from the award, grateful as he is in response to the honor. In this case the religious investment in the President principally seems to arise overseas, an item in itself of considerable interest.

  • Dave

    It’s a pity the word “polarizing” has come to be identified with creating division, because its original, scientific meaning refers to the ability to align responding individual elements with the field of the polarizing influence. That’s an apt secular description of the Obama phenomenon, the power to align millions with his personality. With no secular vocabulary to draw upon, reporters with no religious intent are forced to resort to terms like “charismatic” or “messianic.”

  • Davis

    “It’s no secret” is one of those weasel phrases people use when they don’t have any evidence to cite.

    Arguably, many on the right repeatedly say some on the left view Obama in quasi-Messianic terms. Whether it is true or not has yet to be proven.

  • E.E. Evans

    Davis/Mithras, here’s a sampling of perspectives –

    By the way “Mithras” if you want to make a point, try making it politely. Otherwise, the next time, your comment will surely as the sun comes out tomorrow be deleted again.

  • Jerry

    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.

    That’s just wrong. The conversation on the left has been all about whether or not he deserved the award at this time or if he should have turned it down. This might not be true of the chattering classes, but the comments by Ruth Marcus on PBS News Hour on Friday are typical of what I’ve read from a left perspective:

    RUTH MARCUS: I just — the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t like peewee soccer, where everybody gets a nice trophy for trying hard and being part of the team.

    I think, when you give an aspirational prize, you give it to a group, perhaps, whose work you want to promote which needs a push to get to where it needs to go. But to give it to the president — and, look, I respect the president, I like the president, I support the president. I would like to see him achieve all the things that he was cited — that he won the Peace Prize for wanting to achieve. But I would like to actually see some achievement. Another comment: Obama and the Peace Prize: Too Much, Too Soon Another another friend on the left also pointed out that his nomination had to have been done at the latest within 11 days after his inauguration which means that the Prize was awarded for what he said during his campaign.

    Some people with the connivance of media have in the past and perhaps a bit continue to promote Obama as a miracle worker. For the vast majority on the left, at least from what I’ve seen, his #1 virtue is that he’s not President Bush. There were even quite a few comments from my friends on the left that he won the Nobel Prize for not being President Bush such as this posting

    There is certainly a thread of quasi-religious hero-worship that happens with the President. It’s happened with those on the right, such as President Reagan and those on the left such as President Obama. It happens with sports figures and entertainers. It also happens with religious figures such as a number of Christian preachers and the Dalai Lama. I think the Dalai Lama’s self-description as a simple monk is designed in part to discourage that tendency as well as from simple humility.

    I just spent a fun few minutes googling “hero worship” theology and found some interesting commentary including

  • Davis

    Unfortunately, those links aren’t terribly convincing (and include a conservative news source furthering the meme). The Politico article included faith-drenched language (in front of a southern, African American crowd), but it was the reporter who used the term Messianic without offering any real evidence beyond Oprah’s usual overblown rhetoric.

    Are you saying that anytime a politician or his followers use faith language, they are being Messianic? Was Reagan a Messiah figure when he talked about the city on the hill? Were his followers viewing him as a Messiah?

    • E.E. Evans

      Davis –

      As I noted, Americans have a history (it’s part of the strain of American exceptionalism that goes back to the Puritans) of seeing our leaders as anointed by God to lead us through difficult times or to lead the world. Literally as the Savior/Messiah? No.

      But as American Moses, Joshua’s, Messianic figures, yes — part of God’s Providential order for America. As I’ve mentioned here before, it got my attention when, at a prominent prayer breakfast, the invoker prayed for George Bush, chosen by God to lead America.

      What I was saying is that we are entering an era in which religious language can be taken literally, as you apparently are, or can denote more generic, secular virtues. There is are those on the left who see Obama as the one who will lead our country back from the brink of destruction — and those on the right who see him as an alien and the anti-Christ. As Harris noted, the Nobel Prize award introduces another element into the conversation — how do the Western Euoropeans view Obama?

      • E.E. Evans

        Here’s a fascinating except from an interview with Obama in which the age-old idea of exceptionalism is given a newer, secular definition — again, the transition between agreed-upon religious ideas in a less pluralistic society and a more ambiguous and secular (and global) cultural context :

  • Dave

    Davis, I definitely knew Reagan supporters in the run-up to the 1980 election who regarded him as a savior figure, and the same in 1984, without recourse to specifically religous language.

    Elizabeth, the Western European view of Obama is neatly summarized by his getting the Nobel Prize. There’s an enourmous sigh of relief, as far as I can tell from America, at no longer having a unilateralist interventionist in the White House.

  • Mollie

    My favorite religion angle came from Ana Marie Cox’s twitter feed:

    A McCain aide writes: “I guess our ‘celebrity’ ads were prescient… And relatively understated.”

    Those celebrity ads were spun as religious, I recall. Might be worth a follow-up to deal with the current global scene.

    Until then, I just continue to love this story. Love it. All news should be this fun/funny.

  • Dave

    Elizabeth @8: American exceptionalism is an underground current that connects left and right. Lefties hold the USA to an incredibly high standard. The ACLU wants us to be squeaky-clean under the Bill of Rights. Americans United for Separation of Church and State want the same under the establishment clause. Supporters of the various flavors of affirmative action want the last effects of slavery effaced when other former-slaveholding countries accept such things as part of the backwash of history. All of these are examples of American exceptionism on the left.

  • Davis

    All news should be this fun/funny.

    It’s definitely a great distraction, but also a spectacle of cynicism.

  • Dave

    Davis, I don’t see the skepticism about Obama as cynicism, at least not in the modern sense. It’s perfectly rational to be skeptical of the fact that Obama has so far been mostly inspiration and short on accomplishment in most of the things he talks about. I say that as an Obama supporter; I am animated by hope for him. But I can’t put down those who are not so animated as cynics, only as skeptics.

    I can put them down if they get animated by hope for figures on the right and denigrate those who are not, but that’s hypocrisy, not cynicism.

    I say “modern sense” in that the Classic Cynics believed everyone is ultimately motivated by self-interest. I’ll cop to being a Cynic in that sense.

  • Davis

    I agree on the skepticism. Much of the discussion by Obama critics, however, is much more cynical than it is skeptical. And cynical in a snarky, Twitter-brief sort of way. But it’s been that kind of summer, with Birthers and tea partiers and shouters and death panels. It all seems very cynical, as opposed to being thoughtful and skeptical.

  • EireDuck

    If we start seeing Obama as a savior and awarding him everything prematurely, will he even get anything done?

    The precedent this award sets is dangerous and silly, as this video aptly illustrates:

  • Bern

    This is all quite fascinating. I have opined before about the duality of Obama worship and Obama damnation–a plague on both their houses!–found ths op-ed in the latimes. Something to consider–without the charged language of messianism or demonism:,0,6945839.column

  • Jerry

    Dave, I think your point #11 about American exceptionalism on the left is spot on. Outside of Washington and some think-tanks I don’t see much support for realpolitik, certainly not as a strategy.

    Davis, your #14 is a statement about the wingnuts who are doing the shouting. The thoughtful criticism I’m seeing comes typically from the left and some from the right such as David Brooks who are critiquing his foreign and domestic policies rather than being reflexively against anything he espouses.

  • Davis

    your #14 is a statement about the wingnuts who are doing the shouting.

    To some extent. But, sadly, it also includes commentators on Fox News, CNN, conservative bloggers, much of the elite conservative media.

  • Bram

    Obama demonization is an excessive but a needed corrective to Obama messianism.

    Obama messianism is in part a Manichaean counterpart to Bush demonization.

    It could be argued that Bush demonization was a Manichaean counterpart to Clinton demonization.

    But I think that the Bush demonization was really something different, really something other, and something much more troubling, than the tit to Clinton oppositionism’s tat.

    I do think that secularism reached a critical mass on the left in the 90′s such that first Bush demonization and then Obama messianism emerged on the left as weird and pathological pseudo-cosmologies that serve as the basis for a weird and pathological kind of pseudo-religion with its an even weirder and even more pathological tendency to drift toward fundamentalism and chiliasm.

    So, I think, however excessive it may sometimes be, Obama demonization is generally more healthy than not, and far less frightening, far less troubling, than Obama messianism.

  • Jerry

    commentators on Fox News, CNN

    This topic has continued to rattle around in the recesses of my mind. What is going on is far beyond the narrow angle of vision of such people. Bram I think reflects on the toxic manifestation of what is a deeply-rooted American paradox.

    Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification but I think has an element of truth.

    There is one stream in America that is deeply rooted in personal liberty streaming from the Declaration of Independence. This is championed by non-wingnut conservatives who celebrate individual choice and individual responsibility.

    There is another stream in America that is the secular AND religious manifestation of the sense that we shall be judged as a nation as to how well we care for our brothers and “the least of these”. This sense of national collective responsibility is held by thoughtful people on the left.

    These two groups also, of course, have different ideas about how best to realize the self-evident truth that we are all created equal.

    So those on the left are hopeful President Obama will be able to move us closer to a shared vision of equality and national responsibility.

    That people go overboard is not at all surprising. That the media focuses with laser-like vision on the minority that are whacky is totally predictable.

    Of course, we all need to “get religion”. But equally we all need to “get perspective”!

    • E.E. Evans


      If you can reword your comment in a way that supports your argument without itelling the commenter his conclusions are based on thin air, I’ll let it through. ;-)

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