The Religious Experience of Barack Obama


CHARLOTTE–After John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush by a margin much larger than Democrats had contemplated, some liberals spent their Monday-morning quarterbacking agonizing over how they could possibly narrow the wide and growing gap among religious voters. Others washed their hands of the whole enterprise, drawing up "Jesusland" maps on the Internet that consigned vast swaths of the country to irredeemable superstition.

It's one of the many curiosities of two-party politics that Team A routinely mirrors or even adopts major personality traits of Team B within tidy eight-year cycles, but still the speed with which Democratic gatherings have become openly religious revivals is enough to induce whiplash. Aside from Bill Clinton (who must always be in a category by himself) speakers at the just-concluded Democratic National Convention who got the best response were those who most resembled–and sometimes were–pastors.

You probably didn't watch Emanuel Cleaver's raucous speech Wednesday, but it had the arena howling and delegates in the concourses stuck in their tracks, shaking their heads with a smile, talking back to the wide-screens with well-placed "That's right!"s. Delegates and other fans, some of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, responded most happily to the slow-building growl-and-shout, the Baptist-style call-and-response, the affirmation of both community and communities.

President Barack Obama didn't give a particularly good acceptance speech Thursday night, but for the thousands in the arena it didn't matter one bit. They were here to see him more than listen to him, to communicate their love to him (often by bursting forth with "I LOVE YOU!!"s) more than hear about his plans for the next four years. The last five minutes of the speech was a festival of hollering back, of responding not to Obama's frequently inaudible remarks but to the rising timbre of his voice. I think it's impossible to understand the ongoing appeal of this odd and embattled president without grappling with the notion that he is an essentially religious figure.

Consciously or no, the Democratic Party and Obama himself played into that devotional relationship every hour of this convention. The president was portrayed as a kind of omnipotent father figure, whose abiding faith in his flock deserved tribute. "President Obama believes in you!" Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California) beseeched the audience tonight. Vice President Joe Biden kept coming back to that that theme. "We have incredible faith in the decency, and the hard work of the American people," he said. "And you deserve a president who will never quit on you."

The Democrats are selling themselves in 2012 as the party that simply cares more. They feel your pain, only this time it's not a snicker-worthy campaign ploy from a slick southern politician; it's a governing creed. Simply by virtue of being more empathetic, they will produce better policies and outcomes, particularly those that affect the identity groups within the Democratic coalition: women, Hispanics, blacks, the gay and lesbian community.

Mitt Romney's ultimate problem is that he does not, he cannot, walk in these people's shoes. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro might have put it best in his keynote speech Tuesday night:

Now, like many of you, I watched last week's Republican convention. They told a few stories of individual success. We all celebrate individual success. But the question is, how do we multiply that success? The answer is President Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn't get it. A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. "Start a business," he said. But how? "Borrow money if you have to from your parents," he told them. Gee, why didn't I think of that? Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn't determine whether you can pursue your dreams. I don't think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he's a good guy. He just has no idea how good he's had it.

Because Democrats care more about education, education outcomes will be better; there was precious little discussion of policy toward those ends. "Government has a role in this," Obama said last night, "But teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students–you gotta do the work." Well okay then!

Democrats might yet win by exploiting the Caring Gap. Certainly having the Republican Party to compete against helps. But for those of us voters who want government to be neither mom nor dad, and who like to keep our religious experiences separate from the exertion of public policy, a depressing reality has been reinforced thise week: The two major parties are incapable of treating you like an adult. Meanwhile, they are demanding–and sometimes receiving–a devotion that borders on the unhealthy.