The results of my scientific poll of scholars of religion and theology at various universities (n = 14) have now been tabulated. The question asked was: “With which current presidential aspirant would you most like to sit down and discuss issues pertaining to faith—Church/State issues, Gnostic Gospels, Schleiermacher, anything?” Save one stray vote for former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, every professor I spoke to expressed a preference for the same candidate. If, like me, you believe that the titles of classic Jazz albums are repositories of timeless wisdom and wit, then my campus findings may be summarized by the title of Bill Evans' 1958 masterpiece: “Everybody digs Barack Obama.” Incontrovertible proof of the Academy’s liberal bias, this adulation for the Senator from Illinois? Perhaps. Yet he does possess qualities that make him uniquely attractive to people with advanced degrees in religious studies and other subjects. Obama can sound awfully professorial, as opposed to wonkish, when discussing issues pertaining to faith. The decade he spent as a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago has clearly left its mark. When reading or listening to him analyze questions of public policy and religion many scholars undoubtedly experience the pleasure of recognition. They may even conclude--somewhat narcissistically-- that “Senator Obama is one of us!”
All presidential candidates must weave what I call “a narrative of faith.” Here again, Obama offers something out of the ordinary. The generic storyline of a Protestant aspirant for High Office goes something like this. Candidate X was once an OK Christian. Then a traumatic episode occurred which solidified his or her faith, resulting in deepened spiritual awareness. Candidate X emerged from these travails a better, stronger Christian--a “hard champion” of godly virtue (Here, using the title of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1985 album).
Mr. Obama’s narrative is rather different. As a child, he was schooled in both Catholic and Muslim institutions. Too, there is reason to believe that prior to his later-life baptism he was under-churched or non-churched and may even have flirted with a casual sort of non-belief. All of these experiences tincture his thinking on religion with more sophistication and edge than any other candidate in the race.
Last, as regards religious imaging, God Talk, and so forth, Senator Obama is a very original and cunning operator. Much in the way that he manages to constantly criticize the Democratic Party all the while portraying himself as the embodiment of a Democrat, Obama can lampoon the faith and values game while playing it with extraordinary skill. His quip about the “politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps (off rhythm) to the gospel choir” is a classic zinger. It is a mustard-filled paint-ball aimed at John Kerry that then ricochets directly into one of Hillary Clinton’s preferred photo-ops.
Of course, the types of politicians who mesmerize the theology professors are rarely the ones who sway the American electorate. Opposition Research teams may also dig Barack Obama, as we shall soon see.
Posted by Jacques Berlinerblau on August 27, 2007 9:44 AM