The election of Obama is a good thing for many reasons. On average and compared with the alternative, I think it reduces the chance of new wars (though there will still be wars); it increases the chance of an international agreement on a response to climate change (though such a response will still probably be too little, too late); it helps to undermine racial stereotypes and mistrust (though violence and prejudice will survive); it is a little less likely to lead towards unbridled consumerism (but don't hold your breath); it is less likely to continue to undermine civil liberties and the rule of law (though Obama did vote to extend the Patriot act); it will almost certainly improve the quality of metaphors in political discourse ("war on terror"?); it may well improve access to healthcare for some of America's poor (though it will not erase poverty); and could even make this foreign nation a little less alien to some of the rest of the world (though one election doesn't undo the myriad sins of empire, even if Kenya has declared a national holiday).
But the speeches and discussion also left me worried. Not so much at the extreme partisanship of some commentators, who were unable to be gracious in victory or defeat. Not even so much at the Obamamania that thinks the election of one man has banished the politics of fear and ushered in a new era of honesty. After all, emotional attachment to political representatives is generally a good thing and this moment is a moving one for many people.
No, my anxiety is less that people might think Obama is the messiah (we will be surely disabused of that notion quickly enough) and more that Americans think their nation is messianic. American exceptionalism is alive and well. It was referenced repeatedly by both candidates in their speeches (full texts: McCain and Obama) and was an assumption deeply ingrained in most of the American commentators I saw interviewed last night (remaining politely unchallenged by the BBC coverage, apart from one or two significant pauses at (in)appropriate moments).
From its foundation, the United States has believed itself to be a unique nation, with a God-given role to be a light on a hill. This belief is the most ironic - yet also most frequent - theological error in a country obsessed with a "separation" between church and state: the confusion of the two.
Governments do indeed have a genuine role to play in God's plan, but the exaltation of Christ ("All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" - Matthew 28.18) has revealed this role to be temporary and passing. At the end, when Christ will hand the kingdom to the Father, he will have "destroyed every ruler and every authority and power." (1 Corinthians 15.24) But what of now? Christ has been granted all authority but hasn't yet destroyed all competing authorities. Where are states left after the exaltation of Christ and before the final consummation? They do indeed still hold authority from God (Romans 13.1-7), but of a limited and strictly provisional kind. Crucially, this authority is not redemptive, but focused on, and limited to, the prosecution of justice: punishing the wrongdoer and commending those who do right. Governments are not the messiah, they simply restrain the very naughty boys (and girls). American political aspirations have often gone well beyond this mandate, hoping to "heal this nation" and "repair this world", in the words of another Obama speech.
For this argument in full, see O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations.
But increasingly, it seems, US political rhetoric has become less about having a divinely-appointed role as it is a self-made one. God's gift or summons of the American people to a manifest destiny (confusing America with biblical Israel) has turned into a works gospel of an international pre-eminence earned through hard-work and self-belief. "We are the ones we have been waiting for." America is exceptional because it is the most fervent in believing itself to be so; it is the self-made nation that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps, conquering the world through will-power.
To illustrate these claims, let us turn briefly to the two speeches last night. The graciousness and eloquence of both candidates was evident in their respective speeches. Throughout the campaign, it had become clear that neither were going to be as rich a source for comic gaffes as Bush, but both speeches were highlights of public discourse. Yet both included strident claims to American exceptionalism.
McCain (emphasis added):
"And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history."The greatness of America consists in its escape from historical necessity through sheer willpower.
Obama: (emphasis added)
"[Tonight's election result] is the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."Once more history is to be grasped and manipulated and determined by those who are self-determined, who believe it to be possible to do so.
Here is the key section from a little later in Obama's oration:
"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if Americas beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.This was finally an acknowledgement (so rare in this campaign) that America is not the extent of the world and finally a hint that more people were watching this election (and are likely to be affected by its outcome) outside the States than inside them. Even the claim to leadership need not itself be problematic, as long as the manner of leadership is moral, through ideals - that is, through persuasion and example, rather than merely military might or brute wealth.
"For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
However, it is the content of these ideals that forms the basis of a contemporary destructive idolatry. According to Obama, the genius of America is its transcendence of the past and the perfectibility of its union. Notice first how clever politically this is, to identify the genius of the nation with a progressivist mindset. Notice also the irony of this claim to many non-American ears, who usually see the American political spectrum balanced further to the conservative end of scale than elsewhere.
But it is this latter phrase, the perfectibility of the union, that really demands further reflection. The whole second paragraph here ("For that is the true genius of America [...] must achieve tomorrow") is taken word for word from his rightly famous speech on 18th March 2008, titled "A More Perfect Union", in which he directly addressed race relations for the first time in his campaign (and which will be studied for years to come as a model of effective communication. If you've never heard or read it, do so. You won't regret it). Yet, apart from this one paragraph which he re-used last night, that earlier speech was careful to speak of the political improvability of society but not of its perfectibility. I have written previously about the dangers of conceiving change in this way and of the necessity of liberating politics from the burden of perfection. But Obama offered no concessions: "what we can and must achieve tomorrow". While he mentioned the long-term nature of this project, he laid the full burden of this perfection upon his audience:
"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there."The expectation and demand for moral (or social) perfection outside of God's gracious calling, Christ's atoning sacrifice and the Spirit's indwelling is destructively impossible. Yet Obama offered this possibility based on little more than grit and determination: "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." Or rather, he offered it on the basis of a messianic promise: the promise of a nation where grit and determination, willpower and a belief that America is different can overcome all obstacles.
America is the leader of the world because it is special. It is special because of its ideals. Its ideals include the idea that America is perfectible. It is perfectible through willpower. Thus, America believes itself to be the desire of the nations largely because it desires this very fact to be true with such zeal. It is a self-made messiah with a mission to perfect itself, thus demonstrating to the world its own perfectibility.
Yet this account leaves no room for historical contingency or divine providence. Indeed America has become supposedly great through the denial of contingent limitations, the overcoming of nature through the unfettered human will. There is no acknowledgement of other factors that have contributed to America's global pre-eminence. America is great because it wants to be great, not because land was forcefully taken from an indigenous population decimated by European disease, not because of aggressive wars of expansion, not because the land thus claimed and united by a single European power was rich in natural resources, not because of the discovery and exploitation of oil, and not because of a thousand other factors. Of course, these alone do not explain American history, but neither does sheer willpower. And the danger of an account that only admits the latter is that when, inevitably, there are tectonic shifts in world power (through, for example, the eclipse of oil as a primary means of cheap and abundant energy, whether this occurs in five years or fifty years), there is no room in this self-understanding for America to be anything other than first. The danger of a messianic America based on a narrative of willpower is that if and when America's rule is threatened, it will never cede power graciously. It will blame first itself (those amongst it who oppose the changes "necessary" to keep the country great) and then those who stand in its way, with a zeal that is all the more blind for being so self-referential.
Obama, like so many of America's great orators, is deeply grounded in biblical imagery and language. His words will continue to inspire millions, even as the nation he will soon lead faces a bewildering array of urgent and protracted problems. Yet by perpetuating the myth of American exceptionalism, he continues a tradition that itself stands in urgent need of change.