Barack Obama talks a lot about faith. Curious as to how his spiritual inspirations might concretely affect his politics, I went to his website and clicked on “faith.” I found the usual boilerplate about “the global battle against AIDS” and a call — now familiar to connoisseurs of the Obama style — for “deeper, more substantive discussion.” I also found an exhortation to “religious people” to translate their “concerns” into “universal values.”
Few values can be more universal than that of human freedom. Few have historically been as intertwined with religious sensibility. Yet Obama, the candidate of faith, has done little to oppose modern liberalism’s embrace of a secularizing agenda that has weakened the power of religion to promote the “universal value” of freedom at home and around the world.
The free institutions we enjoy in the West today are in part a by-product of the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, which insist on the innate dignity of each and every human life. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him,” says the Book of Genesis. Even the weakest among us, Christ taught in the Beatitudes, has value in the eyes of God.
Hundreds of years passed before the West translated this belief into political institutions that recognize that all human beings are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
It took a while, but it happened. The question today is whether these institutions can flourish in the face of rapid secularization.
A Judeo-Christian cultural heritage is not, to be sure, a sufficient condition for free institutions: witness Russia. Nor is it a necessary condition: witness India and Japan. Yet the idea that animates those institutions is intimately related to the spiritual culture of the West.
Take a look at Freedom House’s 2008 map of the world, and it’s clear that free institutions are strongest in Europe, in what was once the seat of Christendom, and in places colonized by European nations — the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, India, and South Africa. Perhaps free institutions will one day prosper throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. At present they do not.
“If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God),” T. S. Eliot said, “you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Eliot’s warning has not been taken seriously by liberals, among them Obama himself, who in five areas of current controversy sides with the secularists:
Area one: Beginning with New Deal justice Hugo Black in the 1940s, liberal judges have banished emblems of Judeo-Christian faith from the public square and have imposed a state-sponsored cult of secularism on public schools. Obama, far from taking a stand against the jurisprudence that descends from Black’s opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, is critical of two judges who have resisted the judiciary’s attempt to secularize society, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Two: Liberal philosophers have embraced a theory of “value pluralism” that has degraded the West’s traditional notions of good and evil and provided a philosophical framework for moral relativism. Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, rejects the idea of “absolute truth” and argues that the Constitution rejects it too. It follows that if nothing is absolutely true, then nothing is absolutely right, and nothing absolutely wrong.
Three: Liberal historians have worked to deny or, where denial is impossible, to lament the influence of Judeo-Christian ideals on the development of Western political institutions, and have in particular disparaged the notion of original sin, which figured prominently in the statesmanship of the Founders. Obama, seeing himself in messianic terms, rejects the politics of limits that the Founders, wary of the imperfections of human nature, embedded in the Constitution.
Four: Liberalism’s celebrity elites have spawned an artistic culture that makes a fetish of what is hellish in human nature: in contrast to the art of Dante and Baudelaire and Dostoevsky, the new poetic culture of Warhol, Madonna, and their imitators offers its devotees no insight into the possibility of transcending, through divine grace, what is hellish in us. Obama worked to “block a bill that was designed solely to protect the life of infants already born, and outside the womb, who had miraculously survived the attempt to kill them during an abortion.”
Five: The poetry of liberal celebritydom is characterized by a rhythmic primitiveness evident in the monotonous backbeat of the bass drum (that primal, Jupiter Tonans thumping that often emanates from passing cars). Pope Benedict calls this music “Dionysian” both because of its “cultic character” and its power to enslave the soul to the “elemental passions.” Yet in spite of its brutish qualities, the new music has to a great extent replaced, as an educative force, the West’s older poetic culture which, before it was scrapped as a teaching tool by liberal educators in the last century, provided for the intergenerational transmission of artistic and spiritual culture.
Obama’s strategy is based on exciting, in the electorate, the same hysterical and cultic enthusiasm that the Pope has rightly diagnosed as a sickness of modern secular culture.
Liberals justify their secularizing agenda with cries of “established church” and claim, improbably, to be haunted by visions of Theocracy, even as the saturnalian excesses of Britney and Paris dominate the cultural horizon.
But something more is at work than the fear that America may go the way of England and establish Christianity as the national religion.
The belief that we can dispense with God because we possess the power to be God is, Whittaker Chambers said, “man’s second oldest faith.” Its “promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’”
People will always yearn for that forbidden fruit. The problem with liberalism is that it encourages us to yearn for it. It teaches us to covet the right to abort the unwanted child and euthanize the inconvenient old person, to seek salvation, not in spiritual travail, but in the antidepressant tablet, to look forward to a world redeemed, not through divine grace, but through genetically modified designer babies.
To his credit, Obama supports faith-based initiatives that counteract the sterility of secularism. But this single, painless deviation from liberal orthodoxy scarcely demonstrates that he has grasped the magnitude of the problem.
In Europe a decline in religious faith has contributed to the sterilization of the culture. Fertility rates tell the story: The former citadel of Christianity is no longer replacing its population. A similar trend is apparent in America’s “blue” states: Fertility rates in New England now resemble those of northern Europe.
Conventional wisdom ascribes changes in fertility rates to economic conditions. But such conditions are only part of the story. Fertility rates reflect people’s confidence in life. Such confidence reflects not only an economic calculation but also an existential one: it is a measure of people’s faith in the value and purpose of life.
Phillip Longman, a New America Foundation demographer who has studied the “divide between who is having children and who isn’t,” notes that “religiously minded Americans are putting far more of their genes into the future than their liberal, secular counterparts. . . . Fertility correlates strongly with religious conviction. In the United States, fully 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say that their ideal family is three or more children. By contrast, only 27 percent of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.”
What liberalism needs is a leader who recognizes that liberals have been too long suckled in an outworn secularism, and who offers instead a program of creative re-engagement with a spiritual culture that inspired the painting of Giotto and the poetry of Dante, the Moses of Michelangelo and his Sistine frescoes, the cantatas of Bach and the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven.
For all his faith-talk, Barack Obama is not that leader.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.