Bellah on Obama

Art Remillard

I have wondered for some time what Robert Bellah might think of President Obama's civil religious tone. Alas I have an answer. A segment of his "This is Our Moment, This is Our Time," from The Immanent Frame:

There is another element in Obama’s thinking that needs comment: his concern for America and its historical promise. It has been hard for his opponents to call Obama unpatriotic when he speaks so glowingly of our nation and its heritage. It is the eloquence with which he did that in his keynote address in 2004 that first told me that a remarkable new presence had arrived on the American scene. But what Obama has stressed is the promise of America, one that is still unfulfilled. It is our task as he has so often said to help create a more perfect union because this one is so imperfect. Obama has rejected the idea that supporting the Iraq War is a measure of patriotism. He has said, in effect, that the true patriot will oppose such a war.

Already in 2004 this reminded me of what I wrote in my most frequently reprinted article, “Civil Religion in America,” which was a call to see that the best of our tradition required opposition to the Vietnam War, not support of it. Too many have read that article as describing American civil religion as “integrating,” or “Durkheimian,” in a way that doesn’t appreciate the radicalism of Durkheim. Some friends who do understand what I had written in 1966 told me they thought Obama had read it. I have no reason to think he has. He doesn’t need me to see that the promise is the core we must celebrate, not the often desperately disappointing reality, which he notes when he promises to close Guantanamo and renounce torture as American policy. That one can see America as a beacon of hope, even, in Lincoln’s words, as “the last best hope of earth,” while also recognizing that America has committed the gravest of crimes from the colonial period to the present, seems to escape critics from the left and the right. Obama would never speak like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but he knows, as any serious American knows, that Jeremiah Wright was telling the truth, even if not the whole truth, and that denial of the terrible side of our history is no more healthy for us than it would be for Germany or Japan.


Manlius at: January 22, 2009 at 1:30 PM said...

Interesting piece. The overall point about a society that recognizes it failures but strives to its ideals is well taken.

One little quibble, however. His last sentence is right to say "would be" for Germany, but he really should say "is" for Japan. While Germany is very open about her past sins, Japan is not.

Anonymous at: January 22, 2009 at 1:53 PM said...

In that case, perhaps it should say "is" for the U.S. as well.

Manlius at: January 23, 2009 at 6:51 AM said...

Anonymous, the last sentence already does say "is" for the U.S.

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