Dominic Lawson: Obama must beware of turning into a cult

His speeches are studded with religious rhetoric. A chapter in his book is entitled 'Faith'

Tuesday 26 February 2008 01:00

At this stage, it must be desperation rather than strategy: Hillary Clinton has unleashed the potentially deadly weapon of ridicule against Barack Obama. The almost hoarse Senator from New York told supporters in Rhode Island yesterday: "I could just stand up here and say [that] the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect."

Mrs Clinton did not mention her rival in this peroration but it was a very pertinent caricature of Mr Obama as the new Messiah. In fairness to Obama, the greatest claims for his near-divinity come not from his own lips but from his supporters. One of them is his own wife Michelle, who announced: "Our souls are broken in this nation. Barack Obama is the only person who understands that ... before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls." Even such a political veteran as the eighth-term Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush says Obama's political career has been "divinely ordered". His language is moderate compared to that used by some of Obama's youthful supporters, who talk openly of being members of "a cult" and of their rallies as being "religious experiences".

More surprisingly, seen-it-all reporters seem to have undergone a similar epiphany. MSNBC's Chris Matthews – somewhat to the consternation of his co-hosts – declared that Obama "comes along and he has the answers. This is the New Testament". The experienced Washington correspondent for The Australian, Geoff Elliott, reported: "You know something special is going on. The atmosphere at his events is such that one wonders if Obama is about to walk out with a basket with some loaves and fishes to feed the thousands."

Obama has a stock line which seems to play straight into the notion that he is an instrument of the divine. To a number of audiences, he has declared: "My job is be so persuasive that if there's anybody left out there who is still not sure whether they will vote, or is still not clear who they will vote for, that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down on you, you will experience an epiphany ... and you will suddenly realise that you must go to the polls and vote for Obama."

To be fair to Obama, this is said in a manner which just leaves open the idea that he is not being entirely serious. Yet I don't believe that those applauding this riff see it as elevated irony – and it is slightly creepy even as a joke. Perhaps it isn't a joke at all, but completely sincere: Obama's speeches are studded with religious rhetoric. For example, last October he told an audience of 4,000 that he hoped to be "an instrument of God" and that "I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth".

This sort of rhetoric from an American politician is not a novelty. There has been a strong sense ever since Independence – indeed it is at the heart of America's own sense of uniqueness – that this is a nation chosen by God, a sort of New Jerusalem. Barack Obama is certainly not the first campaigner for the presidency to use almost Biblical language to tell the American people that they and they alone can "save" the world from sin and wickedness.

Yet in recent decades the American Left has shunned such religiosity, regarding similar language used by the so-called "religious right" with extreme distaste. In such a strongly churchgoing country as the US, this was always going to limit the appeal of the Democrats. Anyone who has read Obama's book The Audacity Of Hope will already have known that the junior Senator from Illinois had no intention of ignoring this constituency, were he ever to run for the presidency.

There is an entire chapter on this, entitled "Faith". In it, Obama wrote: "The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religiosity has often inhibited us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem is rhetorical: scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their own personal morality and social justice."

He also wrote that for Democrats to shun religiosity is "bad politics" adding: "When we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts ... others will fill the vacuum." Well, if there ever was such a vacuum, Barack Obama is filling it now. As he will certainly have anticipated, many erstwhile Republican voters are seduced by this form of rhetoric and have been indicating that they will vote for Obama. In fact, he has invented a word for these voters: he calls them "Obamicans".

It is interesting that this seems to have been an unmitigated benefit. Not only has Obama successfully made an appeal to Republicans who viewed other Democrats as godless, but the Left has, by and large, ignored its scruples and refused to criticise its candidate's studied use of specifically Christian language and imagery. As a result, Obama has got away with claims to metaphysical virtue which would have been denounced as medievally idiotic presumption, had they been uttered by a Republican candidate.

To Obama's credit, he does not follow the religious Right in denouncing his opponents as wicked. The worst you can say is that this is implicit in his message, rather than explicit. Nevertheless, there is an underlying strain of intolerance in Obama's message of unification. In his victory speech in Wisconsin last week, he made his usual attack on "special interests". "We must put aside the divisions in Washington. We must work for a higher purpose" – or perhaps that should be Higher Purpose. Yet to stigmatise "divisions in Washington" is just acceptable rhetoric for denouncing the workings of a complex pluralistic democracy. For "divisions" read "disagreement" – or "opposition". Obama, of course, is a democrat as well as a Democrat; but there is something in this form of rhetoric that has echoes of fascism, with its idea that the squabbling of mere politicians should be overthrown in favour of one man's uniquely wise interpretation of the National Will. Phrases such as "everything must be changed" were also the stock-in-trade of fascist orators, raising hopes which ended in the most dreadful disillusionment – and worse.

I think Barack Obama understands this risk. For all the fever of his rallies, his own oratorical style never descends into ranting, still less foam-flecked hysteria. Yet the frenzy he has engendered contains within it the seeds of bitter disappointment, or even tragedy. There is the question of his own physical safety. Less morbidly, what will be the reaction of his supporters if he should fail to be elected President? Perhaps most troubling of all, what will be their reaction if he is elected, but the celestial choirs fail to appear and the world refuses to be perfect?

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