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Obama's 'Other Wordly' Gaffe

Ira Chernus

Who would have thought that Senators Obama and McCain would hold such similar views of the working class? Regardless of how you read Obama's now-famous remark, McCain seems to be on the same page.

Anti-Obamites attack the Illinois senator for peddling a trite and superficial stereotype of working class people. If that's what he did, the Arizona senator did much the same (though his words were reported as a slap at Obama and a defense of the working class). McCain said:

During the Great Depression there rose from small towns, rural communities, inner cities, a generation of Americans who fought to save the world from despotism and mass murder, and came home to build the wealthiest, strongest and most generous nation on earth. They believed in this country. They revered its past, but most importantly they believed in its future greatness, a greatness they themselves would create in the faith that everything is possible in America.

That's about as trite and superficial a history of mid-20th century America as you can find. The only difference is that Obama's stereotype is rather unpopular in the working class, while many Americans in the working class- and indeed in all classes-are eager to believe McCain's stereotype as if it were fact.

On the other hand, suppose Obama was offering a serious analysis of what happens when the political system keeps people's buying power and economic prospects virtually flat for some three decades. A deeper look at his analysis reveals why McCain was confirming Obama's view.

Consider the particular examples Obama gave of the dangerous results of bitterness: "They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

What do all these examples have in common? All involve creating dualistic categories of us against them. In each case, "they" are blamed for "our" problems. In each case, the line separating "us" from "them" is considered so absolute that it cannot be crossed. So the mere existence of the line, and thus of the categories it creates, looks like evidence of an absolute order in society, one that can never be erased. It creates a reassuring sense that there are eternal truths creating an enduring structure for human life.

In the case of guns, the difference between shooter and victim is clear: One is expected to remain alive while the other ends up dead. You can't get any more absolute than that. In the other cases, the line is less tangible, but for those who believe in it it's no less absolute.

It's especially revealing that Obama included religion in his list. Many scholarly views of religion suggest that it has such a powerful effect because its creeds, symbols, rituals, and myths create an image of a far more satisfying world-the world as it should be-which is held in creative tension with the frustrations of the world as it is. Indeed, one famous theory holds that "another world to live in" is what we mean by having a religion. And it's common in religious studies to assume that people are most likely to turn to that "other world" when they are most pained by the ordinary everyday world.

The "other world" can take the form of some heaven or paradise, but it certainly doesn't have to. It can be any imagined alternative to the world as it currently is. Even a very this-worldly society, but one where foreigners are kept out of "our" country, or the "lesser" people stay on their side of the tracks, or everyone is a free and responsible gun owner, can fill the bill.

A belief in this "other world" somehow compensates for the slings and arrows of this world, our theories say. The "how" is hotly debated among scholars. But most theories acknowledge one point that is especially important in times of rapid change: This world is frustrating because the change seems out of control. So the "other world" appeals precisely because its structure is believed to be eternal and absolutely unchanging.

That's really all Obama said or implied. As a scholar of religion, I found his remark trite not because it's a false or demeaning stereotype, but because it seems such an obvious no-brainer. It's the kind of basic stuff we teach in our Intro courses all the time. That does not necessarily mean it is true; it's just one academic approach among others. But there is nothing unusual or controversial about it.

Indeed, McCain's supposed critique of Obama's infamous remark showed just how true our theory might be. If Obama was offering a serious, albeit simplistic, Sociology of Religion 101 insight, McCain actually confirmed that his younger colleague got it right. McCain said, in effect, that the solid working-class folk who form the heart of America do live in an imagined world, where they all banded together to inflict righteous defeat, first on the depression and then on the fascists, and were rewarded for their virtue by coming to live in a nearly perfect society.

One key to McCain's surprising success in the polls thus far is his skill at purveying this imagined history, which so many Americans of all classes are eager to believe in. For too many of us, the mid-twentieth century-before the rapid change of "the '60s" set in-has become the "other world" we yearn to live in, with its fantasy of keeping us forever "number one" and thus immune from change. Republicans have traded successfully on that fantasy ever since Richard Nixon's victory in 1968. McCain is merely walking a well-worn path. And why shouldn't he? It's a path that has led to seven GOP victories in the last ten presidential elections.

From an academic religious studies viewpoint, Obama did make several mistakes. All of them help to explain why the tried-and-true Republican approach has done so well.

First, Obama omitted the most basic and dangerous binary dualism of all: the us against them of war. The classic case of working class and lower middle class people driven by poverty to embrace a war party is the Nazis, the case that McCain invoked as the classic evil "them" of U.S. history. Of course U.S. history itself is hardly free of this phenomenon. Hard-hat construction workers attacked peace demonstrators during the Vietnam war era, and then a decade later became "Reagan Democrats," supporting the very policies that have kept their real wages nearly stagnant for so many years now.

Today, less than a third of voters identify as Republicans or conservatives, yet nearly half say they will vote for McCain, who has built his campaign around his support for the war. And more than half say they trust McCain most to do the right thing in Iraq. What socioeconomic stratum does this crucial swing vote come from? I'm still waiting for the pollsters to tell us.

Second, any religion scholar knows that the kinds of frustrations that breed such absolute dualisms go far beyond economics. Any kind of change that seems beyond an individual's control can have the same effect. So people of any economic class may be drawn to the candidate who draws simplistic lines between "us" and "them" and promises that the difference will never be eased or blurred even one iota: No Surrender.

Third, religion scholars don't think that frustrated people are interested primarily in explanations. Explanations help. But people are often more concerned to find ways to accept frustrations that are inexplicable, and to accept the fact that they may always be inexplicable. In painful times, people want to be convinced that there is some enduring foundation to life, which we'll never understand but can always stand on, because it will never be washed away by the tides of historical change. Again, that favors the candidate who paints the most convincing picture of another world to live in, a fantasy of a social order beyond all change.

Obama is being pilloried for peeling back the fantasy just a tiny bit to offer the briefest glimpse of the socioeconomic and cultural reality beneath it. When he had a chance to elaborate (in a forum on faith, appropriately enough), he bowed to the political winds and tried to retract the substance of what he'd said.

But the cat is out of the bag and can't be put back in. His words stirred up a broad debate about the issue he raised. Even if the debate generates much more heat than light, it's still a good thing to have even a small ray of light shining on this undeniable reality-perhaps the most fundamental reality-of American politics.

Many people count on politicians to offer them images of another world to live in, a bulwark against the change that they fear will sweep them away. And many people cling to their religion for the same purpose, which saps religion of its rich resources for guiding change in more humane directions.

Those are obvious facts. We can imagine another world where politicians, mainstream journalists, and ordinary Americans feel totally free to acknowledge and discuss the facts openly. Maybe some day we will live in that other world. But it appears to be a long, long time before the dawn.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email:

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