Our prayers are with Barack Obama as he visits his ailing grandmother, a woman who, with his late grandfather, raised him in Hawaii for several years. His affectionate portrayal of “Toot,” with all her many virtues graces the pages of Dreams from My Father. She came to public attention in his famous speech on race, in which he renounced the Reverend Wright for his belief that America could not change its racism. He could not disown him any more than he could disown his own grandmother, “who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street” and who indulged in racial and ethnic stereotypes “that made me cringe.” (The episode is more complex than Obama lets on his speech, as his autobiography makes clear, pp. 87-89).
Obama will doubtless shed tears as his grandmother fails. In Dreams from My Father he weeps at length twice—first, when he is moved by a sermon by the Reverend Wright, “The Audacity of Hope.” He does not weep because he has come to accept God and all his power and mercy (a point I misunderstood in my earlier post) but because he sees the power of God over others’ lives—a power he does not yet accept. He weeps because he is outside the community the Reverend Wright is calling into being in his stirring cadences. (In his later book, The Audacity of Hope, he will note that he was baptized—why doesn’t he mention this in the earlier book? This is a rare revisiting of his earlier book in the later.) The other time he weeps is when he visits the graves of his father and grandfather, in Kenya. Earlier he had declared to his Kenyan relatives, in jest, “I am Luo.” Obama sees himself as fulfilling their dreams, moving beyond the modernity that opened up their lives, while it threatened their control over life:
“For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about was not longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.” [429-430]
At book’s end, with his brother at Obama’s wedding, he follows the tribal custom of dribbling drinks on the floor, and toasts to “a happy ending.” “And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive.”
The world and Obama, Obama and the world. Who is Obama? How does he understand being an American? How does he understand being human?
What he writes about faith is central to understanding who he is. Thus, we cringe when we read in Audacity of Hope about the “the books of Timothy and Luke” and are reminded of Howard Dean’s claim that Job was his favorite New Testament reading (102, from the 2008 Vintage edition; add about 40 pages to get the correct citation in the first, 2006 edition). The focus on faith went beyond his anthropologist mother’s influence. She had gotten him interested in political philosophy (244), which he tried to apply in his community organizer work. His mother enabled him to float above cultures, but he willed himself to be rooted in the black community.
It was the Reverend Wright who changed his life, by making him part of the black church and giving him roots. Obama’s earlier book noted the political importance of being a church member ”to spur social change.” And he discovered that he could retain his modern skepticism and embrace this church that called sinners. “It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized” (Audacity, 246). This is social gospel Christianity. His later conversion account is prosaic, compared with his earlier, tearful encounter as one who held back. One is led to wonder whether the same man wrote both books. The key here is that when he wrote as a politician, he was a changed man.
But not completely different. We are reminded in all this of chapter 18 of Machiavelli’s Prince, “In What Mode Faith Should Be Kept by Princes.” A careful reading of this brief, rich chapter praising malleability or change helps illuminate Obama’s political character. Princes must keep up appearances but must always be in charge of the way they appear.
Critics have derided Obama as “the messiah,” ridiculed the Greek columns at his acceptance speech, and lampooned his “presidential” seal, with a Latin (!) motto expressing a rather un-classical view. But the criticism goes much deeper. The flaw of Marxism (and its competitor social gospel Christianity) on this point is making man into a God. Theoretically, there should be no place for tragedy, no place for tears. Toot’s decline restores Obama’s humanity, for the moment. As we pray for him and his family, we should pray for all the candidates and for the United States of America as well.