Barack Obama: Liberal Theologian
President Obama’s statement at the Newtown Prayer Vigil made some theological assertions that are of interest.
He begins by quoting “Scripture” -- his quote is from 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, a passage of consolation, in which Paul contrasts his own earthly suffering with the ultimate prospect of being raised with Jesus. Paul’s second letter is haunted by his unnamed affliction and his sense that his life has been threatened by it. Disease? But the image is compelling: our earthly tent is being destroyed, but we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands, eternal in heaven.
Obama's choice of text suggests a metaphorical approach to these mass shootings: they are a disease, an affliction, even a sign of wasting away.
He then tells his audience that they are not alone; the nation grieves with them. He tells them that the courage of the school staff and the students at Sandy Hook have inspired the nation.
And then, he establishes a basic contradiction:
“In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for one another, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God's grace, that love will see you through.”
Violence and Evil on one side. Love on the other.
He turns from Newtown to the nation at large.
He starts with the love that parents have for their children, describing it. And then, he poses the question of whether we have fulfilled our responsibilities to our children. Have we kept them safe?
And he makes, for himself and for the nation, a confession atypical for contemporary political speech. Political leaders pose problems that are external to them and to the nation itself. Problems are “threats” not “afflictions”. Our leaders don’t discuss their own role in our nation’s problems, but only tell us that they are prepared to solve them. The confession of Obama recalls the metaphor of disease, of affliction. We are afflicted with mass gun violence, as though we are wasting away, and he, the President of the United States, is complicit in it.
Liberal religious leaders often speak this way; we confess our nation’s faults regularly, and often sloppily, wallowing in collective guilt. “We drive cars which use gas and so we are all complicit in Middle Eastern political violence.” I say “sloppily” because it short-circuits concrete analysis of real culpability.
Political leaders just don’t make confessions like that Obama made in Newtown. I was reminded of Jimmy Carter’s naming of the national “malaise” that prevented us from grappling concretely with energy policy. (Had he been heeded, rather than mocked, we would be in different place on climate change.) Political leaders have since then been relentlessly positive, optimistic and unreflective about all our national problems.
Obama makes a confession and then a pledge that he is going to do all he can to end school shootings. This pledge is the most conventional piece of his remarks, and has been criticized for vagueness and a lack of specificity. But he is making funeral remarks, not a State of the Union address.
He turns instead to the question of ultimate purpose. A confession implies that a standard or purpose has not been met. For example, a confession of crime is a confession that one has violated the laws made by the state. The conventional understanding of a confession of sin means that one has violated the laws or purposes of God.
What have we failed by allowing the Sandy Hook massacre? What is larger than ourselves that holds us accountable for our inaction? What are we measuring ourselves against?
Obama is approaching a fundamental problem in all liberal theology. Religious Liberals get it that there is no external and divine source of human morality. Religious Liberals know that all human understandings of God are variable and culturally determined and well, human. There is simply no reliable way to be sure of “God’s Will” or “God’s Law.”
Religious Liberals get it that we are forced to try to sort out some source of authority for human morality, and that it has to come from within.
So, against what authority does Obama measure us, and himself, and find us lacking?
He comes down to the love that we have for our children. We have failed to act in ways consistent with the love we feel, as parents, for our children.
“There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have -- for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace -- that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger -- we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that. That's what we can be sure of.”
He could have chosen another source of authority. After all, shooting people in a school is against the law. He could have just confessed that the nation fails to enforce the law and left it at that. Of course, that is not the real issue, since the law serves to try and punish the lawbreaker. In this case, the lawbreaker is already dead.
No, the confession would have had to be that he and the rest of us had failed to prevent the crime. And that goes right into all the debates that we have about gun control, mental health and whether we have trained our elementary students to sacrifice themselves by bum-rushing men with automatic weapons.
Preventing these attacks is complex and our priorities have been elsewhere. Preserving gun rights, for example. Saving money in health services. Selling video games. Ensuring the rights of those mentally ill people who are potentially violent.
People argue over policy priorities. But what should have been the highest priority? What is the priority that failure to fulfill constitutes an affliction, a sin?
Obama could have chosen any number of ultimate values: principles of justice, simple species survival, reverence for life over death.
But Obama says that the ultimate value that we failed was our love for our children.
Parental is not an intellectual abstraction. It is not a principle that we have to learn. It is nearly universal emotion that most people feel, or have at least envied. It is a foundational human experience.
John Dewey argued that the humanist religious liberal would be disciplined by what he called “idealized social ends.” The humanist would be willing to make sacrifices, even put his/her life on the line, for things like “justice”, “Peace”, or “solidarity”.
Instead of “idealized social ends”, Obama argues that we are to be disciplined by generalized, emotional processes. We move from the love and care we have for our children to the love and care we all have for all children, and then hold ourselves accountable to create social institutions that make that love operational. In short, we are accountable to the work of institutionalizing parental love as a governing value.
“Institutionalized Love” would be my phrase, and not Obama’s. But I think it is a plausible extension of his argument in Newtown. It brings to mind the Unitarian Universalist Association social justice shorthand: Standing on the Side of Love. It is making a social principle by generalizing from our own personally felt and most noble emotional sentiments. And it is placing those sentiments as ultimate values, to which we are spiritually accountable. Against which, we judge ourselves and make confession.
Liberal theology is a search for that which can be placed at the center of both our personal and social lives. At one point, liberal theologians talked about the Kingdom of God, the phrase used by Jesus. But if one’s theological explorations have questioned God as a Monarch, and even God as a Personal Agent, then that phrase is an antique. No one wants to live in a Kingdom anymore.
Another phrase has been the “Beloved Community”. To me, the phrase is fatally confusing. “Community” is a subset of “Humanity”. Is the community to attain this status of belovedness, the whole human family, or our people, the church the congregation.
So, inspired by Barack Obama, liberal theologian, I propose that we consider the phrase “institutionalized love”. Imagine a social order built to make general and concrete our most generous and noble emotion. Imagine everything built and governed to make love most possible.
I have no idea where such a quest would end. But I would know where it starts, because I have felt Love. I have seen it, witnessed it, and known it. It is the personal experience of the transcendent and holy, and can be the foundation upon which a life can be lived.
I do not credit Barack Obama with first articulating a theology based on the personal experience of love, specifically parental love. Really, the fact that he has gotten us this close to Universal Health Care Insurance coverage is enough of an achievement in my book.
But I think that his speech in Newtown shows how liberal theology might move forward.