Maybe He's Not the Kind of Cynic I Hoped He Was

It is common, I suspect, to imagine that we agree with our friends about nearly everything. Learning that a friend likes a particular kind of music or food or sport can be jarring. If I were to tell my friends tomorrow that I am secretly a big fan of, say, NASCAR racing or polka concerts or post-modern dance, I daresay that they would be surprised. And for good reason. Even though we have never talked about these things, my friends have good reason to think that they know me well enough to predict my views on such matters.

Applied to politicians, this phenomenon suggests that we imagine "our guy" to hold the same core set of beliefs that we hold. Even clear evidence to the contrary can be studiously ignored, such as the Religious Right's adoration of Ronald Reagan despite his non-attendance at religious services and his administration's failure to deliver on the fundamentalist Christian social agenda -- or to a large degree even to try to do so. (Yes, his judicial appointments were conservative, but they included a fair number of judges who were business conservatives with no religious zeal. They were nothing like the Bush II judges.) Once religious conservatives had become convinced that Reagan was their guy, it no longer seemed to matter what he did.

Among liberals, there must surely be a similar type of cognitive defense at work. Late in the 2004 Presidential campaign, John Kerry went hunting; and even though I strongly believe that hunting is immoral and disgusting, my response was simply to shrug. Kerry obviously thought he had to make a show of being a Regular Guy, and I could confidently imagine that he was as disgusted by the display as I was. I was certain that, once in office, Kerry's decisions would not be guided by the views of the voters whom he was so cynically trying to court. (This example is particularly memorable, of course, because it was so transparent. Everyone viewed it as insincere and obviously calculated.) He could not say publicly that he favored strong gun control, and as President he might not even make public moves in that direction, but at least I could feel confident that his administration would not move in the wrong direction.

Certainly the same phenomenon applied to many of the members of the Senate who voted for the resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Kerry's supporters in 2004, and Hillary Clinton's in 2008, tied themselves in knots trying to justify their candidate's votes, when everyone knew the real explanation: Kerry, Clinton, Edwards, and others had made a nakedly political calculation that they could not be viable presidential candidates if they were seen as soft on terrorism. By the end of the 2004 campaign, even I had managed to suspend reality enough to believe Kerry's explanation for his vote.

Which brings us back to religion. As an atheist, I have always found it easy to imagine that shows of piety from the politicians I support are purely for show. It is relatively easy to go to church on a regular basis and to make sure that the public knows about it. The controversy over Obama's former minister in Chicago thus seemed especially absurd to me, because it seemed that Obama's presidential candidacy was being threatened by having chosen the wrong fig leaf to cover his secret non- (or tepid) religiosity. He probably was not an out-and-out atheist, but I imagined that his ties to churches were more a matter of political necessity than anything else.

When the controversy over the fundamentalist minister Rick Warren erupted prior to Obama's inauguration, my angry denunciations (here, here, and here) were ultimately rooted in my sense that this was all politically calculated and that Obama was being more accommodating to the Religious Right than was necessary to accomplish his political goals. If Obama wants to neutralize the Republicans' base, I thought, let him try; but be realistic about it and make sure that the quids and the quos add up. Inviting Warren to give the invocation on January 20 thus seemed like a naive negotiating strategy, given the low likelihood of any serious payoff and the effect that such a move had on Obama's pro-gay civil rights (and pro-science, and pro-choice) supporters. It also seemed to suggest that Obama was likely to give too much to the Warren crowd in the future.

Earlier this week, the editors of The New York Times expressed disappointment that Obama had failed to reverse one of President Bush's executive orders "authorizing religious-oriented recipients of federal funding to hire and fire on religious grounds." Obama the candidate had promised to extend Bush's so-called faith-based initiative, but he had promised to end religious discrimination in these programs. The Times thus rightly called Obama to task for breaking an important campaign promise.

This incident, at first glance, seemed to support my take on Obama and religion. He had made the political calculation that he could not be seen as anti-religion and had thus promised to continue a program that I oppose; but he had made that decision tolerable by promising to negate the worst aspects of Bush's program. Now, he was continuing his capitulation to the Warren crowd. Validation, no?

Maybe not. It is becoming at least equally plausible to conclude that Obama is actually religious in a way that goes beyond using organized religion as a stand-in for basic morality, that his moves are not political calculations designed to walk the very thin line between being politically viable and being committed to secularism in public policy making. Instead, he might have been counting on the secular left to believe that deep down he is one of us, and we are now learning to our dismay that he is not. In other words, I wanted and expected him to be a cynic, in exactly the way that any national politician must bow to certain expectations to be viable. It might turn out, though, that he was playing people like me rather than playing the religious crowd -- in other words, that he really does like polka. I feel so used.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan