Ed Kilgore argues that Obama can’t possibly be a materialist in any way, and I might be willing to credit this, except that Obama’s first line of defense after the controversy erupted was that what he said was something that “everybody” knew to be true and what he actually said lends itself pretty readily to a materialist view of human motivations. The choice of words is significant. You “cling” to something as if it were a security blanket, a reassurance that does not, in fact, help you except to distract you from your surroundings. This is to treat these things as forms of escapism and neurotic obsession. This is to treat the things to which one “clings” as if they were sedatives or the fix for an addict. It is to treat normal human responses as if they were pathological.
In Obama’s defense, Sullivan then said that Obama was making an economic determinist argument while complaining about others who were saying that he was making an economic determinist argument. It’s worth noting that it is possible to be religious and employ a materialist interpretation of history–indeed, this is at the heart of a lot of liberation theology as well as a lot of bad historiography of ancient and medieval heresy that sought to make Donatists out to be a social protest movement and the non-Chalcedonians into proto-nationalists. (After all, so the argument went, no one could get so worked up over such technical distinctions–there had to be something real behind them.) That Obama goes to a church that embraces a strain of liberation theology tends to confirm the impression that he would see economic conditions and religious motivation as closely related. Indeed, from the perspective of liberation theology it would probably not sound insulting to say that economic distress and alienation cause people to “cling” to their religion, since a significant part of the rationale for liberation theology is to employ the Gospel for the empowerment of marginalised and alienated people. In that way, there is an instrumentalist view of religion contained in liberation theology.
However, liberation theology is profoundly wrong about almost everything, and that is part of the problem. Once we get past general pieties, Obama’s liberal Christianity is significantly different from that of a lot of the voters he’s trying to reach. Of course, liberation theology is no less, but is in fact more, political than most forms of fundamentalism; fundamentalism may counsel withdrawal from the political realm just as easily as it advocates seeking political power, but liberation theology assumes that the Gospel is meant to be worked out through political change and political action. If the problems Sullivan has with fundamentalism are its supposed rigidity and its intrusion into the political world, it seems to me he should be just as concerned about the explicit politicisation of the Gospel that liberation theology and the Social Gospel necessarily entail.
Sullivan then said that Obama’s statement was simply clumsy and not specific enough when talking about religion:
I think what Obama probably meant by it is a certain kind of religion, a neurotic, rigid variety that is often – but not always – part of the fundamentalist psyche. Many atheists and fundamentalists believe that there is only one valid form of religion: fundamentalism. And so you can see why they would intrepret Obama’s off-hand remark the way they have – as a denigration of all faith. But those of us in grayer areas and those of us who believe Obama’s own protestations of faith see something more complicated. What we see – and what history has sometimes shown – is that economic, political and cultural frustration can indeed be expressed by the rise a certain kind of religious belief.
Examples would be helpful. Intense, moralistic and zealous religious revivals are not typically products of “economic, political and cultural frustration.” A major period of North Indian Islamic revivalism did not occur under the Raj or in post-independence India, but under the Muslim Mughals. What frustration was Sirhindi expressing? I suppose if you make the much less sweeping claim that such frustration “can” be expressed in this way, it is a bit more defensible, but I am seriously trying to think of relevant examples and there are not many that come to mind. Thomas Muentzer’s apocalyptic preaching and the resulting peasants’ revolt that he stoked might be one, but an interpretation of fundamentalism or strict religious revivalism that would treat the aberration of Muentzer as typical is not a very good one. The Raskol did not come from political frustration, but from resistance to liturgical reform. If there is any alienation involved in that case, it is the feeling of being alienated from a church hierarchy that the Old Believers held to be in error. Persecution and alienation followed the rise of Old Belief. They did not precede it or lead to it. The rise of Nichiren Buddism, which I suppose most would regard as the least “tolerant” kind of Buddhism (even in relation to other forms of Buddhism), cannot really be explained in this way, either.
You also don’t need to be a fundamentalist to find what he said to be a denigration of all faith (or at least of all the faithful who live in small town America), since religion is lumped in together with racism and what Obama’s audience would probably call xenophobia in what comes across as a laundry list of the small-minded errors of small-town people. When Obama says he sympathises with these people, I think he really does, except that his sympathy is one that fundamentally doesn’t take seriously their stated concerns as their real concerns. The remarks give the impression that Obama thinks when these voters say that mass immigration worries them, they are actually talking about unemployment; when they object to gun control, they are really saying that they want health insurance. Like the Donatists according to that bad historiography of decades past, they don’t actually care about the things they say they care about–they’re secretly talking about their frustrations with something else.
Kaus has been right in likening this to the similarly condescending language about white resentments he used in the Philadelphia speech: some people have legitimate grievances that must be understood fully, while others have concerns that are actually displaced frustration with their economic status and these are being manipulated by wily political operators. Obama didn’t “cling” to Wright and Trinity because of economic frustrations; he joined, by his own account, in some part because he felt inspired by what he found there and remained out of faithfulness to his church. In general, I find the assumption that people are drawn to religion, whether it is liberation theology or fundamentalism, for reasons other than the content of the religion, to be the most depressingly condescending part of the entire claim. That Obama’s defenders think that this what he meant and that he is basically right is just plain depressing.
Meanwhile, none of Obama’s defenders has been able to explain what exactly Obama proposes to do that is any different from the establishment that has failed the people with whom he allegedly sympathises. Obama is essentially a free trader, and his protectionist turn during the campaign has been pretty obviously calculated as a vote-winning strategy, so he doesn’t really promise to challenge the free trade orthodoxy that prevails in government. Part of the frustration, both economic and otherwise, that Americans feel is the government’s failure to address immigration reform and border security. Obama, of course, is to the left of Clinton and McCain on immigration and offers all the “bitter” people nothing different from the status quo. That is perhaps the most frustrating thing about what Obama said.
Update: One other point should be made. In his latest post on this, Sullivan also wrote:
When the world disappoints or disorients, the appeal of a more absolute and unquestioning faith as a rock in a storm is powerful.
But the wisdom Christian pessimism teaches us that the world will always disappoint and disorient. That is what the world does. The world does not become more disorienting in bad economic times. Also, it seems as if those who are most likely to take an interest in religious and cultural issues as a matter of voting tend to be those who are already relatively better-off and economically secure.