It’s no secret on this blog that I’m a McCain supporter. I believe that he has an appropriate understanding of the benefits of public policy on behalf of the common good, and its limits as a tool to re-engineer society. He has personally sacrificed for the United States, is demonstrably competent, and knows how to work with those who see things differently to accomplish important goals. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think Sen. McCain is right for the challenges of the presidency – domestic and international – and I will vote for him. But I’m not his disciple.
Perhaps that is why I’m struggling so much as I watch Sen. Obama’s approach to attaining elected office. Much of the time, it’s unclear to me whether he’s running for president or messiah. When I listen to Barack Obama speak, I hear a sermon. Healthcare benefits and entitlement checks will flow like milk and honey. The lion and the lamb will lie down together and we’ll be a people of peace, respected around the world. We’ll power our land with earth, wind, and sun. We’ll all pay less and get more (well, most of us). We’ll all come together in unity, and he will lead us.
I find this rhetoric deeply unsettling. It is working (well) in ways that go way beyond political differences and move into the realm of faith. I clearly recognize that some Obama supporters are thoughtful people who weigh issues and prefer his approach (including some of my fellow bloggers with whom I heartily disagree but nonetheless respect and love). But, if he wins the election, it will be because he has deeply stirred the religious passions of a staggering number people who view him not as a politician, but as a savior. For a nation that has clung so tenaciously to the concept that church and state are separate, we seem to be teetering on the edge of a remarkable remake of state into a form of church, with Sen. Obama as its charismatic leader.
Authentic church is built on authentic community. Its members come together in a common commitment to the gospel, and seek to serve their Lord and one another in love. Christianity calls for death to self in favor of following Jesus, with the sure knowledge that it will require sacrifice. Service is expected of everyone, and giving flows from redeemed hearts. Although faith in Jesus affords believers tastes of the fruits of redemption in the here and now, the fullness of his promises is reserved for the age to come.
As envisioned by Obama, however, the church of state offers benefits without sacrifice. There is no personal repentance, no call to service. The prayer of the church of state is “what’s in it for me?” Tax “cuts” for just about everyone, including the great numbers who pay no taxes. The so-called “rich” – the new unclean out group if ever there was one – are the appointed scapegoats. Omitted from the narrative is that they already pay most of the taxes. The top five percent of taxpayers (those making adjusted gross income of $154,000 and up) pay sixty percent of the total federal tax dollars collected from individuals. The group in the next five percent pays an additional eleven percent of the total. By contrast, the bottom fifty percent – those earning $32,000 or less – pay only three percent of the total.
It’s worth noting that the senator is not setting his proposed requirements for massive additional revenue (because like it or not, someone has to pay for all this) as a challenge before redeemed hearts. Rather, his plan is to simply take more from those who have it because he wants it for his purposes. It matters not that they may have gotten it through hard work, personal sacrifice, and careful planning, and that they may have their own plans. It also matters not that even if he takes it all, it will never be enough. In the church of state, the gospel call to give freely is replaced with a legal mandate to take, and the gospel call to sacrifice is replaced with a secular decree of entitlement.
He also brings of promises peace, unity, and green. But the gospel call in all these areas presupposes life-giving unity with Christ. Part of the Christian hope is that as these benefits well up in the hearts of believers in community, they will spill over into our spheres of influence, and move us towards provisional acts of redemption in creation.
But in the church of state, Christ is not the center of these promises, Sen. Obama is. He is expected to raise our international stature by pitting talk against action as if they are somehow mutually exclusive. He is portrayed as the great red and blue unifier, as if our polarized society will somehow disappear with his Robin Hood-like redistribution of the wealth. He is also the great green-earther, as if solar, wind, and geothermal power are simply waiting to be harnessed for our clean and economical use at his say-so.
All the while, he is attracting impressive numbers of acolytes. I recently asked an Obama follower why he was so enthusiastic. He replied that Obama makes him feel calm. He also told me that he didn’t mind paying yet more in taxes – he felt that it was somehow a way for him to give back. When I pointed out that he could not only give back on his own, but direct it to his causes, he shrugged. Michael Smerconish, a popular conservative talk radio host, recently declared his support for Sen. Obama. Amid a string of surprisingly vague reasons for his choice, he indicated that Sen. Obama, if victorious, will give us hope. In support of that, here’s what he said: “Wednesday morning will come and an Obama presidency holds the greatest chance for unifying us here at home and restoring our prestige around the globe.”
Am I the only one bothered by this? I hear these things, and the category they trigger isn’t politics, it’s religion.
Why does Sen. Obama engender such hope among so many? Could it be that even though rampant secularism has taken hold in the United States, it cannot quash the human need to worship? Could it be that although Christian faith is on the wane, religious impulses are alive and well and still seeking haven in a gospel, albeit a secular one that requires nothing from them? For, there is no “ask not what your country can do for you” here, there is only follow me and I will give you _____. The problem is that – at least for now – the United States of America is not the church, and Sen. Obama is not the messiah.