Obama-as-Sojourner v. McCain-as-Mythic-Hero

The economy is sinking, an incumbent Republican president has abysmally
low ratings, and the Democrats outpoll the GOP on virtually every
issue. A Republican should have no chance at all to win the presidency.
Yet the two-week political convention season has come and gone, and the
polls still show John McCain well within striking distance of victory.
How can it be?

To understand it, says
McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, you have to start with one basic
fact: "This election is not about issues. This election is about a
composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

As a historian of religions I'd put it a just bit differently: This
election is not a choice between two competing policy positions. It's a
choice between two clusters of symbols. Each candidate tries to create
a believable mythic drama, with himself as the hero. So the election as
a whole becomes a mythic contest between two sets of symbolic images.
Elections have probably always been like that. But today the question
is what each candidate symbolizes, and which symbolic message will win
the most votes in 2008.

What does McCain symbolize? Since the selection of Sarah Palin as his
running mate, the most popular answer among the pundits is "anti-
elitism." "Ordinary people," they say, hate the Democrats for looking
down on them. They "may be struggling economically, detest President
Bush and oppose the Iraq war," as an LA Times post-convention analysis put it, "but still may vote based on a visceral sense of which candidate respects their way of life."

But these "ordinary people" who feel alienated from the "elitist" Obama are largely creatures of imagination.
When pollsters ask "Which candidate has values most like yours?" or
"Which candidate best understands and cares about your needs?", Obama
consistently comes out ahead. The McCain campaign's strenuous effort to
make the biracial son of a single mom from Kansas a symbol of "elitism"
isn't working very well.

What is working is McCain's focus on "experience" and on the realm of
war, the military, and national security. That's the one area where
McCain consistently bests his opponent in the polls. It's only his
claim to experience on these issues that are keeping him competitive.

That does not mean the voters prefer McCain's war policies. Since last
February, when it became clear that the Arizona senator would be the
GOP's nominee, the pattern has not changed: Even when a comfortable
majority of those polled support Obama's policy - withdrawing troops on
a fixed timetable - more say they trust McCain than Obama to "do the
right thing" in Iraq. Why? In June, a Pew Center for the People and the
Press poll found that nearly 40% of the public didn't know McCain's
position on troop withdrawal. Perhaps many voters don't care to know
his stand on that issue, or any other. They care about the symbolic
meaning of his experience in the realm of war.

Of course everyone - even if they know nothing else of McCain's
experience - knows what his experience in war was: years of captivity
and torture. In case they might have forgotten, McCain offered a
detailed retelling of his horrific experience as the emotional
centerpiece of his acceptance speech. From that spellbinding tale he
launched into a rousing conclusion, whipping the audience into a frenzy
as he shouted: "Fight with me. Fight with me. ... Stand up and fight."

What McCain symbolizes, above all, is patriotic toughness. He is the
mythic hero who always puts "country first" and will "never surrender"
to the nation's enemies and their evildoing. To millions of Americans -
a minority, to be sure, but perhaps enough to tip the election - that
image outweighs every other consideration as they decide how to cast
their vote for president. Why should it be so? It's a huge puzzle, too
complicated to settle for any simple answers. Let's try to put together
some of the pieces.

One valuable piece comes from a recent column by the New York Times'
(neo?)conservative pundit David Brooks. The root of Obama's problem
with the voters, he suggests, is that Obama "has been a sojourner." His
life journey has taken him to many places and many political positions.
But he has never settled down in one place. And "voters seem to be slow
to trust a sojourner they cannot place."

Brooks goes on to contrast the two candidates by their differing
autobiographies: "McCain's 'Faith of My Fathers' is a story of a
prodigal son. It is about an immature boy who suffers and discovers his
place in the long line of warriors that produced him." He becomes a man
by returning home. Obama, on the other hand, seems to have no home:
"'Dreams From My Father' is a journey forward, about a man who took the
disparate parts of his past and constructed an identity of his own. If
you grew up in the 1950s," Brooks adds, "you were inclined to regard
your identity as something you were born with. If you grew up in the
1970s, you were more likely to regard your identity as something you
created." Hence the age gap, with older voters inclining to the
Republican while the youngest voters eagerly rush to the Democrat.

OK. McCain is experienced as a tough, patriotic, self-sacrificing
warrior hero and as a man of the '50s, with a fixed identity, defined
by a home that he knows and eventually embraces. Obama is seen as a man
of the '70s on an endless journey, always seeking new ways to construct
his ever-changing identity. But why should this symbolism of life as
journey lead many voters to accept the Republicans' pejorative image of
Obama as a self-seeking young dandy, too weak to stand up against the
evil enemy, too selfish to sacrifice all for country?

The missing link comes from another consistent finding in the polls.
The best indicator of how someone is likely to vote is church
attendance: The more often non-Hispanic whites go to church, the more
likely they are to vote for the Republican. And the percentages, which
have held steady all summer, are almost exactly what they were in the 2004 election.

Of course going to church means different things to different people,
as the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow discovered when
he set out to trace the history of recent American spirituality. In his
book After Heaven he lays out the pattern he found, and it's strikingly similar to Brooks' take on this year's election.

The 1950s was an era dominated by "the spirituality of dwelling,"
Wuthnow contends. Churchgoers were likely to feel very much at home in
their houses of worship. A church was an emotionally comforting
dwelling place, Wuthnow wrote, because it offered "a sheltering canopy
that protects people from chaos. ... The Soul was deemed to reside in a
sacred space that required geographic fortification. ... Spiritual
sanctuaries were fortresses whose walls needed to be protected."

By the 1970s, a new mode of spirituality had grown up alongside the old
- a "spirituality of seeking" that offered endless new possibilities
for spiritual growth, as long as the seeker never settled down in one
church, which meant never feeling (or wanting to feel) at home in any
one. The seedbed of the spirituality of seeking was, of course, the era
we call "the sixties," the time when so many young people asked
passionately: "How does it feel to be without a home, like a rolling
stone?" Many commentators have noted that forty years later our
presidential elections are still ways to refight the continuing culture
battles that began in that tumultuous time. The Republicans keep it
that way because they reap such huge political benefit from attacking
cultural symbols of "the sixties."

Every new round brings new symbolic issues, however. In 2004, much
media attention was focused on social issues like abortion and gay
rights. In fact, though, more careful post-election studies found that
the key to Bush's success was the voters' fear of terrorism. Yet for
the many churchgoers who voted Republican because they were still
seeking the spirituality of dwelling, the difference between the social
issues and the national security issues may not have been very
important. Those were merely two different ways to symbolize the
ongoing battle waged by those inside the sanctuary walls to fend off
those outside.

In 2008, many American still flock to their sanctuaries as fortresses
protecting them against uncertainty, especially moral uncertainty. They
want what Wuthnow calls "sharp symbolic boundaries" demarcating good
and evil. And their fundamental goal remains the same: "erecting
boundaries around the perimeters of one's life ... so that life inside
could be kept under control." For the ultimate threat to spiritual
"dwellers" comes from their own unruly human desires and the
uncontrollability of life.

In the '50s, as today, the spirituality of dwelling was directly linked
to the discourse of national identity. The entire nation was treated as
a dwelling place, its protective walls coterminous with its
geographical borders. If churches "were sacred fortresses," as Wuthnow
says, "the nation in which they lived was even more in need of being
inviolable.... Being a good American was a way of exhibiting faith, and
both depended on keeping intruders out. Communism, of course, was the
most feared intruder of all."

"The cold war symbolized [rather than caused] American's concern to
have a safe nation in which to live," according to Wuthnow. Since the
true threat came from within American life itself, it is hardly
surprising that the communist threat was seen as much inside as outside
the nation: "Americans feared that their fortress could be invaded at
any time. They spent increasing amounts on national defense [and] built
bomb shelters," while at the same time they "searched for subversives
in their midst."

It could hardly have been otherwise. Whenever people shelter behind
walls for protection, they reinforce the fears that sent them behind
those walls in the first place. Their sense of their own virtue comes
to depend on keeping up the fight against the evil enemy, which means
that they must have an enemy to fight. Its name hardly matters, as long
as it effectively symbolizes a threat of moral disorder. But since what
they are fighting is ultimately the fear born of their own uncertainty,
the enemy must always be within as well as without.

In the late '60s, the internal chaos of rapid social change - forever
after known as "Liberalism" - joined communism as the prevailing symbol
of evil in conservative circles. The Republican party presented itself
as the guardian of a familiar, dependable, eternally true moral order
on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Indeed, the cold war became
primarily a way to symbolize and whip up fervor for the culture war.
The enemy became an enormously complex, protean, malleable, and thus
easily manipulated compound of many symbolic elements.

The prime threat was ultimately spiritual seeking itself, since it
undermined the possibility of any permanent certainty in the realm of
values. With the spirituality of dwelling the central bulwark against
the uncertainty of change, every kind of spiritual seeking could look
like a threat to the nation, as dangerous as the communists and their
nuclear arsenal. Every seeker would be, by definition, an enemy to "the
American way" and thus guilty of lacking patriotism. Since seeking was
so often the product of education, higher education (especially at
elite institutions) fit neatly into the pattern.

When "seeking" became the enemy, the connection of "dwelling" with
fighting for national security became more complex. Seekers proudly
boasted that they were on a journey of self-realization, looking for
their own unique identity and ever new ways of self-actualization.
Dwellers, always intent on restraining the evil inside themselves as
well as outside their walls, feared that the growing focus on self
would soon break down all restraints and trigger the social chaos their
walls had been built to stave off. So they reaffirmed self- restraint
as the axis of their value system.

Conversely, they condemned all the newly-linked evils - spiritual
seeking, liberalism, communism, and elitism, along with sex, drugs,
rock 'n roll and all the rest - as just so many manifestations of self-
indulgence, a loosening of all internal restraints against selfish
desire. With the inner bulwark against evil gone so slack, every
external bulwark was weakened too, they feared, so that the whole
nation stood in danger of being overrun by its enemies. The whole
diabolical stew was ultimately a spiritual failure - a straying from,
or perhaps even a rebellion against, the ways of God. In the
conservative worldview it all made perfect sense. It still does. That's
why a smart conservative like David Brooks can pounce on Obama's
rootless life of sojourning as the root of his political (and
presumably spiritual) problem. It's why the seeming rootlessness can be
so threatening to many voters. It's why some voters who agree with
Obama's view on the Iraq war still trust McCain more to do the right
thing in that tragic conflict. It's why many more trust him most to be
commander-in-chief and wage the war against terrorism, our modern-day
substitute for the communists of the cold war era.

McCain gains all that trust because of his experience, not in
government, but in prison, where he seems to have sacrificed the most
basic human desire - the desire to escape physical pain - in order to
serve his military comrades, his sense of honor, and his beloved
country. For the "dwellers" who fear the breakdown of restraints all
around them, he is a precious symbol of self-restraint and thus a
symbol of hope that the threats which seem to impinge from every side
can ultimately be held off forever. Even among "dwellers" who recognize
the folly of the Republican war policy in Iraq, some will find that
symbolism overriding their policy concerns and pushing them to vote for

It won't always be this way. History is on the side of the "seekers."
Eventually they will dominate public life, including the political
process. The "dwellers" sense that they are fighting a rear-guard
action, which is why their counterattack is so ferocious. For now,
though, the Obama campaign feels forced to play "me too," trying
mightily to convince the "dwellers" that their candidate is just as
deeply commited as any Republican to a permanent structure of American

But they are fighting an uphill battle. The spirituality of dwelling
requires a threatening enemy to fight against. Democrats can hardly
cast Republicans as agents of cultural change who would undermine the
stability of "the American way." Too few voters would buy that. Nor can
the Dems cast the many "seekers" under their big tent as a threat, lest
they fracture their growing but still fragile coalition.

That leaves them with two options. They can continue to muddle through
as they are doing, hoping that economic distress is indeed, as Obama
suggests, deep and wide enough to outweigh all the cultural factors
working against them. That's a big risk; it may not be true.

Or Obama could use his extraordinary skills as a communicator to
explain the difference between pragmatic national security and the
emotional security provided by symbols of "dwelling." He could warn the
nation about the perils of conflating the two and provide a program for
meeting the cultural needs of "dwellers" that does not venture onto the
dangerous terrain of national security.

That's a big risk too - perhaps, in an election this close, too much of a risk to ask any candidate to take.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.