November 13, 2008
E Pluribus Obama
— M. Cooper Harriss
In the November 6th New York Times, photographer Matt Mendelsohn describes a restlessness that overcame him on election night, leading him to drive across the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, "expecting to find a crowd and some news." Instead he found roughly twenty-five people huddled around a transistor radio, a crowd so relatively small and quiet that they were unmolested by camera crews who, like Mendelsohn, expected numbers and bombast more in keeping with the throng in Grant Park, Chicago, not quite forty-score miles away.
Mendelsohn's instincts upon the election of our first president of color resound for evident reasons (Lincoln as "Great Emancipator" and the Memorial's steps as the location of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech). They also respond to signals manufactured by Obama's campaign, ranging from the announcement of his candidacy at the site of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, to his invocation of the man and his words last Tuesday night. But to ascribe this rhetoric simply to matters of race overlooks a broader religious move that the President-elect and his handlers appear to understand, and which surely has contributed to their success.
Abraham Lincoln is the patron saint of the American civil religion, a category that Robert Bellah codified in 1967 as "a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or...as revealed through the experience of the American people." That Bellah's definition coincided with discernible fractures in a singular American mythology is significant. Commentators including our own Martin Marty have noted that the past four decades have witnessed a shift from "the one" to "the many" in national discourse. Marty's formulation in the third volume of Modern American Religion marks a movement from "centripetal" to "centrifugal," from a strong, centrally unified national identity to one thrust away from a center, multivalent. Within this context, "Americanness" has become a competitive hermeneutic, recently evident in the debates surrounding the nature of patriotism and the responsibilities of liberty and citizenship.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln finds himself created, like Albert Schweitzer said of Jesus, by "each individual...in accordance with his own character." Consequently, how should we read the Obama candidacy and these earliest phases of his presidency? Is "change" skin deep or does it extend further? Might we also read a return to a centripetal orientation of American national identity, a new validation of a civil religion lost for nearly two generations? Should we even aspire for a sense of "one" over the pluralistic diversity of "the many," given the very real hegemonic potential that such a homogenous orientation raises? These are questions to bear in mind, and questions to which we shall, no doubt, return.
But in the hopeful interim, we might remember Ralph Ellison, another antecedent of the president-elect. In a recent article for The New Republic, David Samuels remarks on the evident influence Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) exerts on Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995) and, thereby, "as a major influence on his personal evolution." I would argue that another portion of Ellison's work resonates with Obama's candidacy-especially with his centripetal understanding of American civil religion: the second novel that Ellison wrote from 1952 until his death in 1994 and never completed, though excerpts were published as Juneteenth in 1999. In Juneteenth we find Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting white New England senator, engaged in deathbed conversations with Reverend Hickman, an African-American preacher. The reader learns that Sunraider was once known as "Bliss," a child of ambiguous racial origins who, though he could pass for white, was adopted by Hickman, raised and loved by his congregants, and trained in the homiletical arts of the black church. Indeed, Sunraider's hateful "white" eloquence was fostered by Bliss's "black" rhetorical apprenticeship-evincing Ellison's profound understanding of the irony of American history.
At a pivotal moment in the novel's disjointed chronology, Hickman stands at the Lincoln Memorial, considering "some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood, hate or heartbreak." His admiration for Lincoln conflates with Bliss's betrayal. Yet, ironically, it is the racist Sunraider, speaking on the Senate floor, who invokes the one and the many: "[H]istory has put to us three fatal questions, has written them across our sky in accents of accusation...How can the many be as one? How can the future deny the Past? And How can the light deny the dark?"
Now that the remarkable feat that many believed they would not live to see is accomplished, these questions, which invoke the mystery of American faith, should occupy our concern, and the new president's. May we rejoice in this remarkable moment, yet not blind ourselves in tragic self-satisfaction to the challenges and complexities of what lies ahead.
Read Matt Mendlesohn in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/06/opinion/06mendelsohn.html
Read David Samuels, on Obama and Invisible Man, in The New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=5c263e1d-d75d-4af9-a1d7-5cb761500092
Read Robert Bellah on American civil religion:
M. Cooper Harriss, a junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center, is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and managing editor of the journal Ethics, published by the University of Chicago Press.