In a column published today in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer severely criticizes the messianic aspirations of Barak Obama, even comparing his extraordinary electoral success at one point to a "cult" with all the earmarks of an irrational mass following and mesmeric charisma.
Krauthammer is among the first commentators I've encountered to take issue with the messianic and theologically suspect claims by Obama to "repair the world." Quoting Obama, Krauthammer writes, "We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest." I don't need to consult with my Catechism to detect several heresies here, among them Pelagianism (belief in the human capacity to achieve our own salvation) and Montanism (ecstatic prophecy). Krauthammer's misgivings are well placed and should generate more widespread suspicion and concern.
Yet, Krauthammer reveals his own theological shallowness in condemning Obama's millenarian claims NOT as a form of heresy, but rather, merely as a manifestation of religion simpliciter. He writes, "the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a 'salvational fervor' and 'idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria.'" The charismatic appeal as a "kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia." What Krauthammer appears not to realize is that the greatest critiques of just these sorts of inappropriate and unrealistic aspirations to "repair the world" or "make time different" have not been secular - which has often adapted this kind of belief in the form of political ideology - but rather, orthodox belief, particularly the main Christian tradition firmly established by Augustine during the early Church. Insisting upon the distinction between the City of God where the heart can rest and salvation lies, and the City of Man, which is inescapably marked by the stain of Original Sin and the inexpungable human lust for dominion ("libido dominandi"), Augustine chided heretical contemporaries against the belief in perfectibility in this world, cautioned against the belief that salvation lie in our power to achieve, and urged upon his contemporaries a realism and humility regarding what is possible in the realm of politics. Most importantly, Augustinian realism clarifies the distinction between "hope" and "optimism," the former which is closely aligned to humility and modest expectations for what is possible in the saeculum, the latter which inclines toward over-confidence in the human power of transformation and perfection. Hope resists ideology and overinvesting in the prospect of political transformation; optimism either results in ideology resistant to the hard data of reality with attendant abuses by political elites, and ultimately elicits in optimism's close kin, disappointment, cynicism and despair.
For a campaign that so freely and frequently resorts to the language of "hope," Obama in fact evokes its exact opposite. His salvific and heretical language - reminiscent of the 19th-century rhetoric of Social Gospel such as that enunciated by Walter Rauschenbusch (whose grandson was Richard Rorty) or progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey, could in fact use a good dose of theological hope and its accompanying call to humility and realism. Indeed, what marks above all the fundamental similarity of all the candidates in the current election season is the absence of any such theologically-informed realism based on belief in the two cities of Augustine, such as that once articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr or later by Christopher Lasch in his "New Oxford Review" essays attacking gnosticism. But it is perhaps our own obsession with the race for the Presidency - burdened with attendant belief that its outcome might represent a fundamental and permanent improvement in our condition - that contributes to the overestimation of what is possible in politics, and now manifests itself in our longings for someone who will heal the world.
In this sense, amid our readiness for "change, we should recognize a deeper consistency between the appeal of one who would "heal the world" and the messianism that has so often colored the language of our current President. Particularly pronounced in his Second Inaugural, President Bush declared that it was now the permanent intention of the United States to support freedom everywhere, with the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The war in Iraq was undertaken for many and mixed reasons, but among them certainly - and perhaps underlying most deeply the optimism that informed the belief in the best-case scenario following the invasion, rather the possibility of a worse- or worst-case scenario - was this belief in the capacity of our nation to be the agent of the expulsion of "libido dominandi" from the world.
Let me be clear: my criticisms should not be confused as a call to avoid religious language in politics - far from it (in this sense, Krauthammer's critique is fundamentally similar to the Rawlsian calls to strip religious language from the "public square"). Rather, it's an insistence that theology matters, and we should be ready to draw distinctions between the claims of our political leaders - or aspirants to rule - based on theological grounds.
This is one great peril of the overestimation of the human capacity to "heal the world": the willingness to allow optimism to overcome good sense, and at its worse to permit ideology to trump our flawed human reality. But it is, I suspect, the other peril that we will face with an Obama presidency, namely the disappointment that will set in when, inevitably, such healing of the world proves elusive. Right now the expectations for transformation that will almost inevitably take place following the disastrous Presidency of G.W. Bush run so high as to exceed the capacity of any political leader to realize. And, as a number of commentators increasingly point out - none better than David Brooks in a recent column - the hard facts of reality, both internationally and domestically, will press in upon us starting on the first day of a new presidency, no less than they do so right now. Indeed, given the broader sets of limits that we face and increasingly confront, what is most needful is a leader who is prepared to tell us this hard truth, not promising transformation but acknowledging the hard facts of natural limits and the need for sacrifice that will be forced upon us in a far harder form unless we make some difficult choices and changes now. The prospects for disillusionment become ever more certain, the more we are tempted to convince ourselves, and are drawn to promises, that we await a future of "healing," "redemption," and paradisic contentment.
We are apt to forget that there has been one who has, and can, heal the world, but he stands for no office and offers no platform. Christians, above all, should avoid investing our hopes too fully in this world, and chasten those who would promise salvation that is only finally possible in a city beyond and after our own.