by Bert Clere
24 May 2016
This post is the second of a two-part reflection on President Obama’s legacy. You can read the first part here.
President Obama has been arguably the most socially liberal President in US history. He has unapologetically defended abortion rights, and, since “evolving,” been a relentless advocate for gay rights and gay marriage. But he has done so with a strong sense of humility and commitment to civility. As a liberal Christian, he has been a model of a Western leader who retains a deep commitment to Christian principles while governing in a generous way to those of other faiths and more secular-minded citizens. In his first inaugural Obama proclaimed, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Here he was acknowledging atheists and agnostics as full and equal citizens, equal participants in the American project. It was a rebuke to the notion that being religious is a requirement for being a good American. Obama’s comfort with religious pluralism likely fuels the allegation on the right that he is a Muslim, a slur that, as Colin Powell pointed out, should never have been a slur to begin with. Obama’s comfort with secularism has led some on the left (like Bill Maher) to conclude that Obama merely professes Christianity because he feels he has to. But I think this is as bad a misreading of him as the right’s paranoia about his religion.
Obama has said that he came to faith from a place of skepticism and that many doubts remain. But it’s obvious he has spent a good deal of time reflecting on Christian theology and that it has shaped his own thinking and presidency in considerable ways. His speech in Charleston after the murders of the Mother Emanuel 9 is a good example. Obama spoke movingly of the concept of grace, and said that the alleged murderer “surely sensed the meaning of his violent act…An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin. Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.” These words were bittersweet, raw, and graceful, as the moment demanded. Obama was addressing a community and a nation torn apart by a horrific act of violence and the historical legacy of racism that helped create it. Obama’s invocation of the mysterious ways of God and the necessity of grace was unifying and spoke to the palpable chords that bind the US together in spite of our divisions. It was a deeply religious speech yet doctrinally broad and inclusive.
Because Obama has feet in both the religious and secular camps, he has been able to remind these divergent groups of common purposes. It’s a difficult task that has generated its own backlash. Some conservatives feel that the end-result of Obama’s social policies will be their marginalization and, perhaps, persecution. The Hobby Lobby case, in which religious employers sued to assert their right not to pay for birth control in health insurance, showed the fault lines of these issues. The fact that SCOTUS ruled in favor of the conservative view shows that they are hardly marginalized yet. But, with the increasing diversity of religious and non-religious viewpoints in the US, the balance Obama has attempted to strike is necessary for the continuing functionality and cohesiveness of our society. It’s unlikely the United States is going back to becoming an exclusively Christian conservative country in the future, if it ever was in the first place. Likewise, secularism itself will become bankrupt if it cannot make fair and reasonable accommodations to religious belief and practice. Though Obama is socially liberal, he has repeatedly offered olive branches to conservative Christians and emphasized the relevance and importance of religious belief in the US. He has also sought to make non-believers feel welcome and offered them a place at the table of civic life. This is exactly the kind of leadership that our volatile and increasingly diverse social fabric calls for.
Any political discussion of Obama will always return to his being the first nonwhite President of the US. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear…and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.” Obama’s family roots lie in Kansas, Hawaii, and Kenya. His political instincts were shaped by a blending of midwestern populism and civil rights activism. That diverse and unique political identity was written into his very DNA.
Yet Coates is right that Obama has not been able to transcend the racial divisions that persist in the US in spite of his message of hope and change. Historians will not see it as a coincidence that our first black president was heckled during a State of the Union with shouts of “You Lie!” from a white congressman from South Carolina. Obama has refused to get in the gutter with these sorts of attacks, wisely knowing that it would only give fuel to his opponents to dismiss him as an “angry” or “militant” black politician. By remaining cool and civil on issues of race, Obama has let many of his opponents embarrass themselves with critiques of him that often display more anger and blind reaction than substantive critique.
It is hard not to connect some of this virulent opposition among Republicans with the GOP’s embrace of Dixiecrats and the Southern Strategy 50 years ago. However, Obama himself is quick to discourage any simple or binary reading of these factors. In 2014 he told the New Yorker, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.” It’s this ability to see all aspects of a debate that has made Obama an effective leader on racial issues, in spite of the rancor he often provokes.
His speech on Reverend Jeremiah Wright back in 2008 was notable in its sympathy for the economic plight of white Americans:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
Obama’s policies have reflected the “rising tide lifts all boats” aspects of liberalism. Like most liberals, he supports Affirmative Action but rejects calls for reparations and similar race-specific progressive policies. The Stimulus and ACA were designed to help all Americans. The American Jobs Act was intended to give job opportunities to all Americans. Obama acknowledges the unique discriminations faced by black Americans. But he views the economic advancement of all races as equally important. In spite of pursuing color-blind economic uplift in Appalachia and the South, Obama has faced almost total opposition from white voters in these areas. A cynic might argue that this is proof Obama’s conciliatory stances just don’t work. But Obama has always played the long game, and his attempts to unite whites and blacks behind mutually beneficial policies will be more and more embraced by politicians in coming years. His administration has been an ongoing rebuke to the Southern Strategy of divide and conquer, once epitomized in Senator Jesse Helms’ notorious “white hands” ad of 1990. To gauge Obama’s success, ask yourself this question: Would you be more likely to win an election in future years with Obama’s politics or Jesse Helms’?
Obama certainly doesn’t negate or hide his black identity. His statement, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” was a moving embrace of the aspects of blackness that continue to be reviled and persecuted in this country. It has been Obama’s mission as President to help nurture a social fabric that provides economic opportunity and a voice to young African American men like Trayvon Martin. Martin tragically fell victim to a kind of violence against African American men that still happens all too often in the US and has been with us since our founding. While acknowledging Martin’s killing for the tragic injustice that it was, Obama has continued to push for a nation in which those sorts of tragedies will be fewer and fewer. Obama’s presidency is not an end to America’s racial problems. But it is a pivot point where those problems have been brought more clearly out in the open and dealt with in more honest terms. In Notes On The House of Bondage, James Baldwin wrote to fellow black Americans, “we have survived, children, the very last white country the world will ever see.” Obama’s message to white and black Americans is that they can survive and thrive together. The grey hairs and lines on his face demonstrate just how difficult this stance has been to maintain through the barrage of attacks he has faced. But I see Obama, not just as an effective liberal President, but as a leader who made America great by pointing us back to the melting pot that is the true source of our strength.
Bert Clere is a writer trying to figure out what comes after postmodernism. You can follow his experiments at twitter.com/BertClere.