Obama and Original Sin

After the 1992 election, the philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote:

Those who assert that the cultural questions somehow got put behind us in 1992 because economic matters were first and foremost the issues and themes of the presidential election are pushing an illusory hope. The cultural questions — abortion, family values, drugs, and race relations — were all joined in 1992, often in language that underscored just how much people of all political persuasions still look to government as the remedy for every ill, personal and political.

The problem with such reliance is this: democratic politics can reasonably offer hope, but it cannot promise deliverance. Yet deliverance, a dramatic and rapturous sea change to bring in the new and sweep out the old and corrupt, is what loud voices and dominant groups on both the left and the right seek.

The very gridlock that the two major parties and Ross Perot’s angry, antiparty protesters all decried is generated by their own actions in promising deliverance and in deepening cultural cleavages rather than alleviating them by removing some questions from government’s purview, or at least from government’s control as the final arbiter.

One might wonder why the government can offer hope if it cannot provide deliverance. But some things never change.

Among the presidential candidates on offer, Barack Obama most clearly offers deliverance as well as hope. His mixing of religion and politics was clearly on view in a recent debate when he called money “the original sin of politics.”

Should he be elected, Obama will not provide “a dramatic and rapturous sea change to bring in the new and sweep out the old and corrupt.” That is, he will not provide deliverance because doing so is beyond the power of the government or at least beyond the ambit of a constitutionally limited government. Should Obama succeed in ridding politics of “money” (that is, of private financing of campaigns), we will live in a world where the government and its officials control all financing of political struggle. Some would find therein deliverance. Most would not.

In Obama’s defense, you can say that he no doubt truly believes he can bring deliverance to “the people.” And some voters no doubt are demanding deliverance through public financing and other, more coercive forms of the Lord’s work. But Obama is a thoughtful man, and I wonder why he does not realize that his promise of deliverance will frustrate his larger hope to restore faith in government.

As Elshtain suggests, Obama’s inevitable failure to provide deliverance will foster more distrust in the federal government. And rightly so. Such distrust is warranted at any time, not least because promises of deliverance through coercion inevitably violate individual rights. Still, it is puzzling why a thoughtful man like Obama does not conclude with Elshtain that “removing some questions from government’s purview” might be a better way to offer hope,  if not deliverance.