It’s hard to picture how John McCain, who stirs little passion, could end up beating a man like Barack Obama for whom many people care deeply. Indeed, many recent polls have shown Obama running ahead, either by a slight or a significant margin. Whether lukewarm McCain supporters like me will even show up to vote should be a major concern for the Arizona senator’s campaign.
Is there anything McCain can do to generate even a hint of Obama-style enthusiasm? Yes, but it would require an act of soul-searching and self-revelation, taking a lesson from Obama.
According to conventional wisdom, so many hearts swell for Obama because of the prospect of electing our first black president. That’s part of it, but surely not all. Among white voters, there is no recent precedent for such emotional extremes being evoked by issues of race.
Ah but religion — that certainly has the power to call forth swoons and palpitations.
Obama has been shrewd to cast himself as an explicitly religious candidate, as in the campaign flier that’s been circulated in southern states. It shows the candidate standing at a church pulpit with a glowing cross behind him, surmounting inspirational quotes from Obama such as: “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.”
Obama courts the perception that his campaign isn’t just a campaign but a spiritual quest that voters are invited to join. As he declared before the New Hampshire primary, “I am going to try to be so persuasive, so that those of you who are still wavering…will suddenly come to the conclusion — a light beam will shine through — will light you up — and you will experience an epiphany — I have to vote for Barack!”
This is all in contrast to John McCain’s approach. McCain has been strikingly shy about uttering anything like a statement of faith. To do so would likely be foreign to his personality. What then?
How about a statement of worldview? Grounded, ideally, in his Christian beliefs; but if not, that’s okay, too. The word, “worldview,” is popular among the Evangelical constituency that McCain urgently needs to draw to his side, evoking the contention, shared by other religious believers, that “religion” is too narrow a word for the life commitment that most stirs our passions.
Christianity or Judaism offers not just a set of patterns of worship, ritual, or dogma but a picture of reality. A big picture, explaining not only what’s right and wrong in public and private life, but why they are right or wrong, why making such distinctions matters, and how it all fits together with man’s origins and his ultimate end.
A worldview is more than a political philosophy. It gives meaning to life.
Obama’s candidacy represents not just a set of policy preferences — about which he’s often vague — but rather, a potential source of such meaning for his supporters. In a time like ours when there is no obvious and immediate threat to our physical existence, ultimate questions come begging at our sleeve to be answered.
We live in a strange and sad time when secularism has hollowed out confidence in the traditional answers to the great questions of life. To be so ungrounded, as many Americans are, in a faith in anything greater than your own appetites and interests is bound to evoke anxiety, even dread. Obama implicitly addresses himself to that existential condition.
As for John McCain, more invocations of “service to country” are not going to cut it. A country, even a great one, is not a source of ultimate meaning or value.
Life has meaning to John McCain. Let him tell us why, in his own style, even if he must preface the discussion by admitting that to speak so personally makes this old-fashioned man uncomfortable. The military has its unique idiom for discussing matters of spirituality, a way of communicating that’s available to McCain.
The gesture of opening himself up, telling us candidly what he believes beyond Social Security or health-care reform could go a long way toward giving his unenthused admirers reason to care about him. We would admire him, then, not for what he did at the Hanoi Hilton 40 years ago but for the quality of his soul now.
— David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative.