This past Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I was privileged enough to attend the 57th presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol. Spirits were high and it seemed as if we were breathing recycled air infused with the hope of four years past. As the President approached the stage, he appeared with the confidence of a second term sage, and yet there was a newer, fresher quality about him – purified and politically born-again. As he began to speak, the religious undertones leaped out into the pews. Beautifully crafted in diction, rhetoric, and reference, Obama pleased and inspired his dedicated supporters. Guiding us historically through Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall, we understood the meaningful tributes toward women, African Americans, and the LGBT communities. But there was an excess – another constituent represented – God had entered the stage.
The President began, invoking the sacred document of the constitution:
What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
As I stood amidst my fellow citizens with our sacrificially chilled bodies, I heard shouts from left and right – “preach,” “we love you Barack,” and “Amen.” Obama-as-candidate became, once again, Obama-as-preacher. I happily joined in the collective effervescence, bordering on a sort of secular admiration yet quiet anticipation that perhaps the democratic party was beginning to dress for Sunday church again. Since this moment, I’ve been wondering whether or not Obama’s re-election now gives him the freedom to perform the religious rhetoric the liberal party once crafted so well.
It was only a couple of years ago that Theo Hobson, a British theologian, academic, and outspoken advocate for “secular liberalism,” published an article in Open Democracy called, “The Religious Crisis of American Liberalism.” Hobson begins his piece by reminding his readers of the short-lived rise and fall of “liberal idealism” during President Obama’s campaign in 2008. Indeed, though I didn’t work on the 2008 campaign, my experience organizing in 2012 was much more about “forwardness” than “hope.” Hobson argues that contrary to a steady rise and maintenance of outspoken Tea Party activists in recent years, liberals lack an audible political voice to echo Obama’s idealism. In response to his question, “Why is liberalism so much culturally weaker than conservatism?” Hobson responds that the answer “lies in the relationship of liberalism with religion.”
Obama’s branded rhetoric of “hope,” Hobson argues, placed him in the same liberal religious tradition as civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on prophetic justice and the Social Gospel. Obama’s strategic link to prophetic religion was based on the idea of “his candidacy as ‘unlikely’, and ‘improbable’: as if his career was a reason-defying miracle, as if he were not a normal politician but the amazed witness to God’s action, like Abraham or Joseph.” Hobson’s main argument is that while Obama’s prophetic trope resonated with American liberals for a short-lived cultural moment, the reason it faded so quickly is because the liberal prophetic tradition in America “lacks clear roots in contemporary culture.” In short, conservatives have bogarted religion when it comes to politics, and American liberals have lost their key religious ingredient, which once effectively motivated their followers.
Of course, compared to more outspoken activist theologians like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Obama isn’t exactly the black liberation theologian of our time. In fact, West is very clear about differentiating Obama from the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., evidenced most recently by his condemnation of Obama using Dr. King’s bible during his inauguration. He says, “All the blood sweat and tears that went in to producing a MLK, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power no matter what color they are. So the righteous indignation of a Mlk, Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation. And that makes my blood boil.” For West, a Dr. King bible is significantly and starkly not the bible of Jesus, even as socialist, feminist, and progressive as some of the Social Gospelers made Jesus seem.
I respect and welcome the fiery critique of this presidential performance, and yet, at the same time, I was beginning to feel like for the first time in a long time, the liberal prophet tradition was reignited in both religious rhetoric and symbol gesture. Yes, Dr. King might have his way with Obama, but does it make the President any less of a branch on the genealogical tree of a this liberal prophetic tradition? Consider this part of Obama’s speech:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Now consider the language in this 1952 letter Martin Luther King wrote to his wife: ‘‘Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world’’ (Papers 6:126). If he is not drawing on a rich tradition of progressive theology and prophetic justice, then what bible deserves the hand of the President? If anything, a diversity of biblical literature on the inaugural stage I believe would serve civil society pretty well.
But here’s my main question. If Obama is perhaps repaving the way for prophetic justice in liberal politics, what kind of space is available for a non-patriarchal religious voice in the public sphere? While so-called evangelical feminists like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin seemed to break the theo-political glass ceiling two elections ago, can we imagine their left counterpart? Could one imagine, say, a Hillary Clinton sworn in on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, The Women’s Bible? Are we preventing avenues for the female religious left to navigate? What of non-Protestant traditions? What will our political female preachers look like? Is Oprah’s capitalist gospel all that we have made room for? In the spirit of modern individualism, are we better off following our personal bibles (I welcome a Hannah Arendtian bible), or can we rally under a shared aegis of an MLK-inspired, organized movement of pluralistic American crusaders, fighting for justice, freedom, and equality, in the name of (enter preferred divine inspiration here). In short, do the ideals of liberal tolerance and diversity prevent the possibility of a re-birth of a liberal prophetic tradition?