chicago reader trois

Obama mentions in the Chicago Reader interview (absolutely essential reading for understanding his campaign and his outlook imo) that churches have a great deal of moral energy behind them and yet it peters out. Harold Washington-esque liberal politicians have a great deal of reformist progressive energy behind their politics and yet it peters out eventually.

The churches, so sayeth Obama, are each interested in their own pickup, their own growth in power (as are the Washington like pols).

The issue of moral energy, particularly in church contexts as well as political ones, I was reminded of Harold Bloom’s crucial insight that the primary MO of American Christianity is Revival. For the history as to why Bloom is right, Norman Hatch on the Revolution’s influence on American Christianity and vice versa.

The history of Christianity in America is one of massive grassroots energy, volunteerism, and social work, but rarely coordinated in nature. The abolitionist, temperance, and Civil Rights movements stand out as the prime counterexamples to that trend. Those represent something of what Obama means by a moral energy/vision tied to a concrete practical set of goals and coordinated effort.

Obama is clearly tapping into (especially through his sermon-esque speeches) the Revivalist strain in America. From Billy Graham, to MLK, to the Evangelical Awakenings of the 19th century, he stands in that line. Tent meetings to Iowa caucus.

In some ways he is closest I would say to Robert Kennedy. Interesting to note on the 40th Anniversary of MLK’s murder, while McCain and Clinton (great men/women theorists that they are) went to Memphis for the memorial, Obama was in Indianapolis. Indy was the site of RFK’s famous (riot-saving speech video here) where he called for calm upon the news of MLK’s death.

The video linked shows footage of RFK’s famous poverty tour and in that video you see the American civil religion as it used to be called in sociological terms. Revivalism.

But Revivalism aimed in a direction. For Revival will burn over this land continually. Always has always was. It is the Revolutionary nature of a Revolutionary people. But it can just as easily be linked to status quo racism and classism as well as to prosperity get out jail free & rich theology as in prophetic critique.

And this raises the s and c words social action and collectivism.

Hugh Hewitt and Jonah Goldberg have been those most loudly beating this drum on this issue.

Though to give some perspective, worth recalling to mind that Hewitt used to be on board with the people power/grass roots thing until that whole permanent Republican majority idea didn’t quite pan out. He has instead pushed for an extreme centralization of power (particularly in the arenas of statecraft and surveillance) for the executive. Now he’s worried that the unconstitutional and illegal monarchical power he has sought to promote and defend for the executive ends up in the wrong hands.

Qua Goldberg: This isn’t the place to rehash my thinking on Liberal Fascism. Only to say his argument would carry (for me anyway) a great deal more weight if he wasn’t such a loyal foot soldier for movement conservatism. Only someone who would seek to scrub violence as so central to historical fascism (as opposed to the hypothesized future non-violent lib. fascism) would write so cavalierly about starting a non-necessary war and actually promoting destruction of human life and violent mayhem.

So turning back onto the on-ramp to the main highway of this post, the danger variously expressed of messianistic strains to the Obama campaign, the irrationality and idol worship at times, and the fear of the masses. Could it all come to pass?

One I think it downplays the degree to which while Obama comes from that world of community organizing, from that world he has learned praxis/methodology but generally thinks recent liberalism has been too soft-headed in many ways.

On that influence of comm. org. particularly Saul Alinksy–Obama’s parsing of Alinksy (good, bad, and limited)–this brilliant piece by Ryan Lizza, going deep into the weeds and coming up with some real nuggets. Lizza writes the following:

The church also helped Obama develop politically. It provided him with new insights about getting people to act, or agitating, that his organizing pals didn’t always understand. “It’s true that the notion of self-interest was critical,” Obama told me. “But Alinsky understated the degree to which people’s hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people’s self-interest.” He continued, “Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.’ Those are just words. I have a dream.’ Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas.”

In other words the conservative narrative downplays both the degree to which he emphasizes people’s dreams (as opposed to simplistic Marxist economic fundamentalist analysis) and his hardheaded political side. As his wife said he is a community organizer thinking who has pursued politics as a method of community organizing.  I can’t think of any comparable figure running for president.  There have been populists to be sure: William Jennings Bryan down to John Edwards.  But they were all of the do it for the people model.  Again perhaps the analogy most apt is RFK, if any analogy works.


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