The Civic Gospel of Hope

Published on
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the Seattle Times

The Civic Gospel of Hope

by
James Wellman

Barack Obama knows how to preach. Obama is at his best in the American political pulpit. This is where he inspires, challenges and lays out a promise of a better America, calling out to the "better angels of our nature" and laying down a civic gospel of hope that recalls Abraham Lincoln rather than George W. Bush, Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Malcolm X.

We know that enemy-creation is the fastest way to mobilize followers. Bush learned this from one of the great teachers, Karl Rove. It worked. When Americans are afraid, they like to know whom they are against and who is evil. And, of course, the axis of evil came easily: Iraq, North Korea and Iran. We bombed the first, bought off the second and ran out of reasons and money to bomb the third.

Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been deserving scapegoats. But, Americans have finally come to realize that enemy-making as foreign policy or as a strategy to unify the country has its downside. It makes everyone sick.

Obama mobilizes his followers in a different way, practicing the virtues of Lincoln and King rather than Bush or Malcolm X.

Lincoln kept his enemies close, even in his Cabinet; he refused to demonize the South; he sought to bind the nation's wounds, "With malice toward none, with charity for all."

King prodded his followers to nonviolence precisely because he believed that the only vision worth dying for was one that included all, blacks and whites, "... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners."

The civic gospel of George W. Bush has championed an exclusiv-ist Christianity that mobilized white evangelicals and conservative Catholics to vote; he has advocated that America as a Christian nation offers the world political freedom and democracy; he believes that military strength not only deters evil but triumphs over it. In the end, for Bush, violence is redemptive - a civic gospel at the end of a gun.

Obama has a much different civic gospel. It is one honed by an African-American Christian spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, and a belief that in Christ all are one: Differences in gender, ethnicity, age, income and even sexual orientation no longer matter - it is a radical vision of inclusiveness.

Unlike Bush's civic gospel of scarce resources, in Obama's gospel grace is generous and unending. Obama said in winning South Carolina, he did not see a "black South Carolina, but South Carolina." This vision transcends difference and is based on a larger hope to overcome identity politics, as he says: "It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us."

In Obama's civic gospel, the old ways of identifying oneself by whom one is against are obliterated. Obama's civic gospel, unlike that of Bush or the early Malcolm X, depends on a "mystic chord" bringing all together.

In one of Obama's early debates, in response to the question of whether he would meet with the leaders of nations who are our enemies, he said, "Yes." Many thought it naive at best - but this is who he is.

Like Lincoln, he wants those who are against him to be close. Obama draws difference and diversity into his political circles, white, black, Latin, gay, straight, religious and nonreligious followers, all gathering under an umbrella of a deeper and profound vision of unity - an audacious hope that is mobilized not based on division but on addition, not on derision but on rising above the political gamesmanship.

It is a truism that to unify without making enemies is enormously risky and difficult; Obama knows this. It takes a leader and orator of enormous talent to pull it off - a civic gospel of hope. He just might do it.

James Wellman is associate professor and chairman of the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. His new book is "Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest," published by Oxford.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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