You know, there’s always the question of whether a candidate’s idealism can survive once he or she is in office. The most obvious example is Al Gore. He’s won an Oscar, he’s won a Nobel Prize, but could he have stood up for his beliefs in such a bold way if he’d been elected president? Or would he have been constrained by the system and by the collective consciousness of the nation?
Al Gore’s problem, in my view, is that he never liked politics. He’s actually deeply uncomfortable in it but felt he had to do it because of his father. He’s much more comfortable in a private sector role and has, in fact, been much more successful in a private sector role, and I admire him for that.
I think Obama has picked this path of public office for all rather naïve, earnest reasons about service and so on and so forth. So far, I’m not a cynic about him—I probably will be at some point. Power corrupts people, and they have to make compromises. If you’re a grown-up, you’re not looking for total purity. But you are looking for someone who is at least attempting to do the right thing. He won’t be able to do this entirely, and this is the world we live in.
How would an Obama presidency influence Americans’s own sense of identity? Based on the example of South Africa, having a black president might not make all racial problems magically disappear, but it drastically influences the way a nation sees itself.
I do think that the day a black man becomes president of the United States will be a day that will make every American, alive or dead, stop and look. However, I don’t really know what the impact will be, because we are talking about a historical event that is impossible to anticipate. If, for example, he becomes the nominee and fails for clearly racial reasons, then it could have the reverse effect.
You mean it could set back the morale several years?
None of these things are without risk. But given this country’s original sin, giving Obama a chance would, among other things, be a form of absolution. Even though Obama is not representative of the African-American experience. His identity as a black man was not actually ingrained in him at an early age. He had to sort of learn it in his teens as he discovered himself, which obviously resonates with me as a gay man. Gay people often have a sense of dwelling in more than one world simultaneously, and, I think he does, too. The complexity of the man is what makes him a much more typical American than many of the others now running, in as much as he represents the future complexity of America, culturally, racially, and, as I argue in the piece, religiously.
As you put it in the piece, he’s both a believer and a doubter. Politicians rarely reveal any religious doubt, and you mention that as an asset. But it might not be an asset in red states, which is where religion matters the most.
No, it isn’t. But the struggle in America is not just between religion and atheism—between faith and non-faith—it’s increasingly between atheism and fundamentalism, which are actually two forms of fundamentalism that are strangling the experience of a more modern, intelligent, faith experience. And that’s a big question, whether that moderate faith experience will endure. Now this is a very interesting subject in many ways. Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God kind of argues that a moderate political theology is unstable and impossible and will collapse.
Why is that?
Because it neither commands the respect of believers, nor does it command the respect of the non-believers. But Obama is an eternal moderate, and I think that that’s important. I’m not interested in religion being moderate for any instrumental reasons, but because I think that any religious faith that has not come to terms with the limits of human knowledge and consciousness is an extraordinarily limited and unintelligent faith. I don’t believe that reason and faith are incompatible. And I don’t believe that doubt and faith are incompatible.
To give you a simple, rather crude example: if you were a fundamentalist Christian and you actually believed the world was made 6,000 years ago in its entirety, it would be impossible to believe that in the modern world without having to deny and oppose some extraordinarily resilient facts and theories, both in terms of science and in terms of human history. Yes, it might be easy to believe that, but at the same time, you could make the case that it’s hard to believe that. The more distant faith becomes from reality, the more insanely absolutist and unthinking and irrational and stupid the faith becomes. I see Obama as a way to bridge these divides.
Of course, we’re sitting here as a Catholic speaking to a Jew. We both come from scholarly religious traditions.
You guys more than us. Although Catholics, unlike other Christians, are committed to reasoning within faith. Thank God for Aquinas.
Right. But I’m not sure our view of religion is shared by the majority of Americans. For plenty of people, faith doesn’t have anything to do with reconciling streams of knowledge, or with panels of scholars debating ideas. It’s about opening up to a Holy Spirit that trumps science, reason, the devil, and everything else.
That’s fear, not faith.
Whatever it is, I wonder whether Obama will be able to reach the demographic that feels that way.
He can’t. He won’t. Those people are not going to vote for Obama. They may have a very hard time voting for Giuliani. But I think the job of leading public officials is to challenge this kind of fundamentalist movement rather than to exploit it. I think it’s dangerous, even though emotionally and psychologically you can see its appeal. Because it’s not true, because its fundamentals are a lie, because it is actually not faith, it is something that people mistake for faith—it will fail.
But not before it’s done a lot of damage to human society and human lives—human civilization potentially. We will learn these things are lies in the ruins of a massive terror attack or in the hollow shell of our constitution once it has been gutted of all our protections from executive power.
Part of the context of this piece is really as follows: if you believe the world’s okay, then the case for Obama is actually rather weak. Why would we listen to this rather young, untested figure? Let’s go to security mom, Hillary, or big daddy Rudy. If you believe, as I do, that the world seems to be hurtling toward something quite catastrophic, then the requirement of the United States to actually evolve itself to resist that trend—as opposed to accelerating it—is quite high. And Obama in fact puts the brake on what I think is our accelerating path towards global warfare and possible constitutional crisis.
Now, does that make me sound like a drama queen? Sure. I may be wrong. But if I had actually, seven years ago, sat down with you and given you the scenario we’ve lived through these last six years, you would have thought I was worse than a drama queen—you’d have thought I was out of my mind. Look at the instability of Pakistan, look at the fragility in Iran, look at the metastasizing chaos in Iraq that I do not believe is going to be resolved in the foreseeable future. The risks that we are running are huge.