What Barack Obama Could Not (and Should Not) Say
By Sam Harris
Barack Obama delivered a truly brilliant and inspiring speech this week. There were a few things, however, that he did not and could not (and, indeed, should not) say:
He did not say that the mess he is in has as much to do with religion as with racism—and, indeed, religion is the reason why our political discourse in this country is so scandalously stupid. As Christopher Hitchens observed in Slate months ago, one glance at the website of the Trinity United Church of Christ should have convinced anyone that Obama’s connection to Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. would be a problem at some point in this campaign. Why couldn’t Obama just cut his ties to his church and move on?
Well, among other inexpediencies, this might have put his faith in Jesus in question. After all, Reverend Wright was the man who brought him to the “foot of the cross.” Might the Senator from Illinois be unsure whether the Creator of the universe brought forth his only Son from the womb of a Galilean virgin, taught him the carpenter’s trade, and then had him crucified for our benefit? Few suspicions could be more damaging in American politics today.
The stultifying effect of religion is everywhere to be seen in the 2008 Presidential campaign. The faith of the candidates has been a constant concern in the Republican contest, of course—where John McCain, lacking the expected aura of born-again bamboozlement, has been struggling to entice some proper religious maniacs to his cause. He now finds himself in the compassionate embrace of Pastor John Hagee, a man who claims to know that a global war will soon precipitate the Rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (problem solved). Prior to McCain’s ascendancy, we saw Governor Mitt Romney driven from the field by a Creationist yokel and his sectarian hordes.And this, despite the fact that the governor had been wearing consecrated Mormon underpants all the while, whose powers of protection are as yet unrecognized by Evangelicals.
Like every candidate, Obama must appeal to millions of voters who believe that without religion, most of us would spend our days raping and killing our neighbors and stealing their pornography. Examples of well-behaved and comparatively atheistic societies like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark—which surpass us in terrestrial virtues like education, health, public generosity, per capita aid to the developing world, and low rates of violent crime and infant mortality—are of no interest to our electorate whatsoever. It is, of course, good to know that people like Reverend Wright occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. But wouldn’t it be better to do these things for reasons that are not manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts?
Yes we can.
Happily, Obama did a fine job of distancing himself from Reverend Wright’s divisive views on racism in America, along with his fatuous “chickens come home to roost” assessment of our war against Islamic terrorism. But he did not (and should not) acknowledge that the worst parts of Reverend Wright’s sermons, as with most sermons, are his appeals to the empty hopes and baseless fears of his parishioners—people who could surely find better ways of advancing their interests in this world, if only they could banish the fiction of a world to come.
Obama did not say that religion’s effect on our society, and on the black community especially, has been destructive—and where it has seemed constructive it has generally taken the place of better things. Religion unites, motivates, and consoles beleaguered people not with knowledge, but with superstition and false promises. Surely there is a better way to bring people together in the 21st century. The truth is, despite the toothsomeness of his campaign slogan, we are not yet the people we have been waiting for. And if we don’t start talking sense to our children, they won’t be the ones we are waiting for either.
Obama was surely wise not to mention that Christianity was, without question, the great enabler of slavery in this country. The Confederate soldiers who eagerly laid down their lives at three times the rate of Union men, for the pleasure of keeping blacks in bondage and using them as farm equipment, did so with the conscious understanding that they were doing the Lord’s work. After Reconstruction, religion united Southern whites in their racist hatred and the black community in its squalor—inuring men and women on both sides to injustice far more efficiently than it inspired them to overcome it.
The problem of religious fatalism, ignorance, and false hope, while plain to see in most religious contexts, is now especially obvious in the black community. The popularity of “prosperity gospel” is perhaps the most galling example: where unctuous crooks like T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar persuade undereducated and underprivileged men and women to pray for wealth, while tithing what little wealth they have to their corrupt and swollen ministries. Men like Jakes and Dollar, whatever occasional good they may do, are unconscionable predators and curators of human ignorance. Is it too soon to say this in American politics? Yes it is.
Despite all that he does not and cannot say, Obama’s candidacy is genuinely thrilling: his heart is clearly in the right place; he is an order of magnitude more intelligent than the current occupant of the Oval Office; and he still stands a decent chance of becoming the next President of the United States. His election in November really would be a triumph of hope.
But Obama’s candidacy is also depressing, for it demonstrates that even a person of the greatest candor and eloquence must still claim to believe the unbelievable in order to have a political career in this country. We may be ready for the audacity of hope. Will we ever be ready for the audacity of reason?
March 21, 2008