During the long presidential campaign, and especially on that triumphant evening of November 4, it appeared millions of Americans believed they had found a savior. The spirit in the air suggested that President-elect Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress would soon rally the economy, end wars, and set the captives free. And even now, with every brilliant Cabinet appointment the president-elect makes (at what seem to be daily press conferences), there’s agreement among most pundits that this man is inspired in his choices and that salvation is on the way.
But what happens when messiahs fail? What happens when promises of hope are met by realities of despair? What happens if prosperity eludes us? What happens if violence and terrorism abound? What happens if change results in more of the same in Washington and the world? Americans must be ready for this. Otherwise, we may be preparing ourselves for a fall of Edenic proportions.
After the election was called for Senator Obama (thank goodness it didn’t go into the next day or weeks), it felt like the biblical “day of Jubilee” was upon us. Pro-Obama crowds were euphoric as the revolution was seemingly televised. There was dancing and singing. Tears flowed. Everyone commented on the “historic” moment. Senator John McCain sought to wash the historic story as one for African Americans, but he was only partly right. The entire campaign–for both Democrats and Republicans–was an historic event. It was an emblem of how far the United States has changed, and we should all be proud of that.
One hundred years ago, an African American man was lynched in the United States every five days. National votes for women were still a dozen years away. One hundred years ago W. E. B. Du Bois had to defend the “souls” of black folks against claims that African Americans were soulless beasts. One hundred years ago, divorce laws made it next-to-impossible for women to divorce their husbands.
Without downplaying these historical changes, we should be wary.
In many ways, Barack Obama has been transformed into a symbol. He has become a totem, representing hope, change, and even salvation. During an interview that I did with NPR, one caller exulted as he referred to Obama as a “sublime mystery.” The caller was right, in a sense. Mysteries can be wonderful. They can be exciting. They can be comforting. “The body and the blood” of Christ have led billions to feel connected to God and to other Christians; Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired (and continues to inspire) Christian faith for so many. The narrative of the deathless state of Gautama Buddha has led countless people to seek enlightenment. I do not believe President-elect Obama is a mystery, but I am certainly frightened by those who do and those who want a mystery to have control over the United States army and have access to nuclear weapons.
Mysteries can be dangerous and days of Jubilee do not always end with eras of sublimity. In the United States, there have been alleged days of Jubilee before. On January 1, 1863, African Americans throughout the nation and many northern whites celebrated the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Nighttime vigils were held as southern blacks celebrated the day of the coming of the Lord. African Americans in South Carolina sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and talked about how it was the first time they felt proud to be Americans (recall that Frederick Douglass had lectured in the 1850s that the Fourth of July was a day for whites and not for blacks).
Let’s ignore for a moment that the Emancipation Proclamation freed very few slaves. Let’s ignore Harry Stout’s argument in Upon the Altar of the Nation that the proclamation provided a moral rationale for immoral total war. Let’s look forward 35 years from 1865 and be struck with a sobering thought. Within one generation, hope had turned to despair. Since the 1950s, African American scholars have referred to the 1890s and early twentieth century as “the nadir.” Thirty-five years after the day of Jubilee, women and men of color now experienced a low point defined by segregation, lynching, and fear.
Obama is neither the Antichrist nor a new Christ. I cannot write this as a prophet or theologian, for I am neither of those. I cannot write it as a historian for the tools of my trade provide no evidence for either. Instead, I write it as a citizen of this nation and the world. To attack Obama as the end of the world (as some conservative evangelicals have done) seems silly, but to vest in him the hopes for a national and world transformation seem equally troubling.
Perhaps these days we would be better off considering the “solemnity of this day.” One hundred years ago, another African American graduate of Harvard and Senate-candidate W. E. B. Du Bois prayed with his students at Atlanta University:
“Give us this night, O God, Peace in our land and the long silence that comes after strain and upheaval. Let us sense the solemnity of this day – its mighty meaning, its deep duty. Save this government. Cherish its great ideals – give strength and honesty and unbending courage to him whom the people today have named Chief Magistrate of these United States and make our country in truth a land where all men are free and equal in the pursuit of happiness. Amen.”
The essay was originally published at Religion Dispatches.
Good history lesson; it is important to remember the lessons and mistakes of the past as we move forward. But your concern about Obama as messiah seems a bit overdramatic.
I don’t think most of us who supported Obama actually think of him as a miracle worker or prophet. Yes, he’s a brilliant, ambitious politician who transformed the way millions of Americans think about politics. And, yes, he broke down a longstanding barrier in this country. But will he be able to fix the economy, get us out of these wars, institute new sources of energy, and accomplish healthcare reform in 4 or even 8 years? I think he’d be more likely to walk on water.
Amen! Anyone who thinks Obama is going to “change” the world is in for a rude awakening. As you say, he is not a mystery. He is an imperfect man! And I think we’re going to find out just how imperfect very soon.
I agree with Laurence. Nobody’s saying Obama is a messiah. But I do believe he’s going to bring some much needed change. His Cabinet appointments are already showing that he’s going to be a wise, pragmatic leader who surrounds himself with a lot of smart people. The savior talk is overblown, but I’m believing he’s going to be a great president.