Michael Knox Beran: Obama’s Messianic Politics ... Why his healer-redeemer rhetoric has a limited appeal





[Michael Knox Beran’s most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.]

It is too soon to tell whether Senator Obama’s magic is beginning to fail him. But his recent defeats in Ohio and Texas point to difficulties he confronts when trying to sell his brand of healer-redeemer politics to large swaths of the electorate.

Why the catchwords of his redemption rhetoric — “journey,” “real change,” “that’s what hope is, imagining”— have mesmerized certain slices of the demographic pie is puzzling to those who lack the proper mental receptors for whatever psychic gamma waves he emits. But take a step back, and the nature of Senator Obama’s appeal becomes a little clearer. I imagine an anthropologist, centuries hence, sifting through the ruins of our civilization and concluding something like this: “The rise of the cult of Obama, a young lawmaker from one of his people’s middle-western metropolises, suggests parallels with the earlier progress of the Egyptian cult of Osiris and the Greco-Phrygian worship of Adonis-Attis, in which civilizations which had lost their original spiritual inspirations sought rejuvenation in the figure of a beautiful young man who promised to redeem a barren time. The Obama cult was especially popular among those citizens who, in the scribal forms of the day, checked the box designated ‘some college’ in their communications with the central authority . . .”

One of the tests of a leader is whether he has a capacity to mobilize his people’s myths. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan all reworked Biblical parables of healing and redemption in their rhetoric. Obama’s ability to work successfully in this vein is evidence of his uncommon political skills. But in revising the politics of redemption he’s both made it less Biblical and focused it more relentlessly than his predecessors on the radiance of a particular kind of shamanistic magic (his own). The Obama millennium is more New Age than New Testament, more rock concert than “Rock of Ages.”

The difficulty with his I-am-the-Adonis-who-changes-winter-into-spring version of the redemption myth is that it resonates most strongly with a relatively small group of voters — prosperous, college-educated Democrats who are less likely than their poorer, less-educated partisans to have faith in the West’s traditional healer-redeemer figure (Jesus), or so church-attendance rates suggest. In a blue state like Connecticut, income and church attendance are negatively correlated; in blue-land, it is the poorer folk who are more likely to be conventionally pious. They aren’t looking for a messiah; they’ve already found one in church.

The rich, churchless, blue-state elites, by contrast, are hungry for the kind of secular nirvana Obama is serving up. Obama-mania is a political expression of the same impulse that underlies a broader movement, among the educated rich, towards a post-Christian spirituality, evident in such fetishes as yoga, feng-shui, investment-banker Buddhism, and tennis-set Sufism — the small-is-beautiful and green-is-good crazes.

Obama’s defeats in Texas and Ohio suggest that he has yet to find a way to extend his niche appeal to a larger electorate, one that is indifferent to the charms of the renewal rites in The Golden Bough and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” ...


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Frances Ann Starn - 3/8/2008

but no substance. For Obama's on-the-ground economic plans, read David Leonhardt's intelligent Feb. 2 interview in the NYTimes. Now Obama just needs to talk more about these plans.


Vernon Clayson - 3/8/2008

I agree with Lisa Kazmier. Obama's rhetoric is lofty and inspiring in comparison to Hillary Clinton's abrasive and demanding screed. Mr. Beran makes light of Obama's speeches, he seems to think they are meaningless but history is replete with the words of leaders, Lincoln's words were magical, FDR's words stirred us as a nation in the most dire of wars, and, without knowing Mr. Beran, I imagine he revels in the words of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Words is all we are left with, Mr. Beran, listen to Obama, you will hear his words down through the years.
They will be far more memorable than the words of any politician since Ronald Reagan.


Lisa Kazmier - 3/8/2008

Well, I've actually heard Obama speak in person and I do not recognize this "Messiah" person you describe. The man is very gifted and only to Clinton supporters is that a slam.

Nice Rovian politics.