Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Kairos and Obama

I ran across a fascinating article in USA Today, comparing the Obama phenomenon to one of this nation's periodic religious revivals. Mary Zeiss Stange (professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College) writes,

It has to do with two concepts that are deeply embedded in the Protestant theology... The first is kairos (in the biblical Greek), which refers to an "opening" in ordinary time, a historical moment when a collective sense of deeply meaningful change is in the air. The other is metanoia (another Greek term), which refers to a radical change of mind or consciousness... It might be this spirit--and I use that term intentionally--that Obama's audiences are picking up on.

Stange continues,
In 30 years of college teaching, I have never seen anything like it. It is truly, to use the student vernacular, awesome... And his followers are not just carried away by lofty rhetoric. They are actually, increasingly well-informed on the issues. They know what kind of world my boomer generation is bequeathing them. They have every reason not to hope, yet they're audacious enough to try.

This may help explain that sinking "wrong side of history" feeling I keep having about supporting Hillary. But it also may explain this atheist's uneasiness with the emotions surrounding Obama's remarkable movement. Anyway, I thought it was worth passing along. I rarely read such articles, so this may be old hat to all of you, but it was an eye-opener for me.

25 comments:

History Buff said...

The link below is for an interesting article that Emily Yoffe from Slate wrote about what psychological personality tests reveal about Cliton, Obama and McCain.

She calls Obama's personality type the Idealist. According to Yoffe we have never had an Idealist leader, with the possible exception of Lincoln. She says partly this is because this personality type tends to be leaders of movements (MLK, Ghandhi) rather than office holders. That might be what is making you feel uneasy.

Clinton and McCain on the other hand fit in very well with established leadership types.

http://www.slate.com/id/2184696/pagenum/all/#page_start

Raised By Republicans said...

Why the need to find a non-rational explation for supporting Obama? Is it so shocking that a rational, thoughtful person could support Obama? Why must the explanation for Obama's success in the campaign be explained by the mystical, the emotional?

Why can't the exlpanation be that supporters of Obama have reasoned and thoughtful criteria in mind and that according to those Obama is their prefered candidate?

The Law Talking Guy said...

I'm not surprised, but I think it's less about Obama than about American rhetoric in general. I also don't think it's about a "nonrational response" as RBR puts it, but as a culturally determined response.

The fact that an American audience is reacting in a way that could be interpreted as religious in a Protestant vein is not surpising- we are the most religious Protestant nation on Earth. I believe that even the brains of American atheists are - to use a crude analogy - culturally programmed to accept rhetorical stimulation of this kind. It's not god-talk that we get excited by, but we are accustomed to the language and rhetoric of the King James bible, the Tent Revival, and Cotton Mather. I am reminded of a story on NPR some years ago that said that, for many people, peppermint acts on the same neural pathways as THC and can be psychologically addictive. In a sense, sounding a chord that stimulates religious nerve receptors in the brain is as American as apple pie. The language and rhythm of the King James Bible and the Tent Revival are part of what makes American speech and rhetoric what it is. Re-read "sinners in the hands of an angry god" by Cotton Mather to see how the speech itself sounds "modern" to our ears. It's our kind of talk, regardless of the subject matter. This is just part of how we communicate as Americans.

So this is not limited to Obama. If he's a master at it, and he appears to be, that bodes well for electability. Think of FDR and his famous line, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." It is no mystery that the angels in the bible always begin with the greeting, "Fear not." Lincoln's Gettysburg address and the Second Inaugural are so powerful, in part, because they echo the repetitive poetry of the psalms. There's nothing particularly religious about this type of rhetoric, but it is very American to employ such devices.

Obama's rhetorical brilliance is in dipping into this deep cultural wellspring to connect emotionally with his audiences as well as intellectually through the content of his speech.

Obama is also, himself, a religious person naturally prone to such rhetoric. On PBS I heard him say (a big goof, IMHO) that we need to get past the idea that "the poor will always be with us." Obviously, this was a phrase that rattled around in his skull, even while he forgot its religious origin. Gwen Ifel did not remind him that those were Jesus' words, which an American politician would do well not to reject.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Of course, I meant John Edwards, not Cotton Mather. A name that makes my point even more poignant.

Dr. Strangelove said...

It is not at all shocking that a rational, thoughtful person could support Obama. To me, this article is not about why so many people choose to support Obama; it is about why a remarkable number of them also feel a deep emotional connection with the campaign.

I think LTG is right that Obama's oratory recalls deep Protestant religious themes in this country. But the article goes further and I am intrigued by the direction it goes. Intentionally or not (likely not) Obama has found himself in a position where he has become something of a spiritual leader. To many it seems he offers more than just policies; he offers a sense of national purpose and renewal. (In some ways Reagan had a similar draw, but it was not as strong and he had no particular connection with young voters.)

I just remembered that there has been a curious tendency of Catholics and Jews to prefer Hillary... I wonder if this is wrapped up in there somewhere. Probably not. Just a random thought.

Raised By Republicans said...

Not to disagree with you but it's worth pointing out that Catholic and Jewish Democrats tend to be associated with the traditional party establishment.

History Buff said...

I don't know if this has anything to do with this string, but I've noticed that Obama's campaign signs are different than most candidates. They are purple. I'm a Lutheran (Protestant Liturgical) and purple is the liturgical color for lent (the period of atonement before Easter) and it is sometimes used for advent (the coming of Christ).

It is also the color of royalty.

Pombat said...

It's also neither red nor blue, but an even blend of the two.

Whoever designed those posters understands some psychology...

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, I think Pombat is on to it. Purple is commonly used to refer to the center of American politics. The people who are not firmly attached to either party.

Obama is trying to appeal to independents.

His signs in Iowa were largely white with black letters saying "HOPE" - which had an interesting effect against a snowy background: all you saw was a floating word "HOPE."

The Law Talking Guy said...

The Obama signs I see are blue. I haven't seen purple ones. Maybe they're a funky shade of blue, but it's not lavender, mauve, or any of that.

I can explain the Jewish thang. I was at a party with lots of Israelis (Israeli immigrants to the USA) and some were talking that Obama was anti-Israel. Seems there's some scuttlebutt going around about that. Of course, the truth is just that Clinton is senator from New York who is therefore "in" with all the right Jewish/Israeli groups in the country, something that Obama has not yet had to do in Chicago. Of course, I hope Obama will not, as president, just give Israel a blank check, but in US politics, anything short of unconditional support for everything Israel does is considered "anti-semitic" and "anti-Israel" by a great many.

Dr. Strangelove said...

The most dramatic poster is a print by Shepard Fairey. You can see it shown here. It is a sort of pop-art graphic of Obama's face, looking determined and not smiling, in false-color posterized muted red/white/blue. There is only one word on the sign: Hope. There is no name, no "vote for me" or anything else. I saw two yesterday as stickers on cars.

It is a remarkable poster. Iconic in every sense of the word.

USWest said...

Along the lines of the "signage" issue, you may want to read this from All Things Considered. They discuss the "Franchising" notion behind some of Obama's grassroots success.

I agree with Dr. S. I think the US Today article is very interesting. And I have commented on this blog before that the devotion of Obama's supporters is a bit disconcerting to me. I wonder if you can be that devoted and still be rational which also implies some objectivity.

I don't trust American voters anymore. They are prone to cults of personality and that worries me. I am certain that RBR is choosing Obama for rational reasons. But RBR is not the average American. Average Americans like bandwagons and trends. Besides, when two candidates are similar enough in their positions, there is little to go on but the gut.

Over the last few years, I have lost a great deal of my idealism and my hope. I have been deeply affected by the Bush years, and not necessarily in a positive way. I guess you can say that I've become more politically mature and more suspicious, as Dr. S says, of those who gather a following as Obama has. I have a much better idea of how the world works and how people are motivated. This is a nation looking for a savior. And many think that Obama may be that man. Let's just say that I've become too acquainted with disappointment to give into the alluring charm of such an idea.

Dr. Strangelove said...

As a public service to our many local Obama supporters, you can purchase stickers and variants of the poster

Official Obama site has "change" poster prints for sale.

Sticker Robot has the "hope" sticker for sale.

Obey Giant has the "progress" small placard limited edition (currently sold out).

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest writes, "I've become too acquainted with disappointment... I have lost a great deal of my idealism and my hope. I have been deeply affected by the Bush years..." Yes, this is my feeling too. Well said, USWest.

Is the Obama phenomenon a cult of personality, though? The USA Today article says no, and that's what intrigued me. It provides a way to understand the phenomenon not as some personality cult, but as something even more rare. The crowds are not really worshipping Obama the man per se, but rather are experiencing and expressing a strong emotional response to the national spiritual revival his campaign represents to many people.

History Buff said...

The interesting part about the All Things Considered article is Obama giving permission to grass roots organizations to do things on their own. This is a church model for promoting mission work. Someone comes up with an idea and the leader says go for it. This is especially used in emerging church organizations.

One other aside, our church mission statement is "In an uncertain world, our HOPE is Jesus Christ". Obama's supporters almost have the same mission statement.

Raised By Republicans said...

Giving a lot of discretion to local constituents isn't a church thing, it's an American thing. Think about the hierarch in the Catholic Church or the Church of England? Even the Lutherans can be pretty centralized when they want to be - thus the splits along, among other things, national/ethnic lines in the past before rejoining in the ELCA.

History Buff said...

You're right, it's not a Lutheran thing it's a nondenominational thing.
But, it seems like most national political campaigns are much more structured, and not permission giving.

History Buff said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing his style, it can be very empowering and innovative. (Something we may need right now, especially when it comes to Global Warming and other Science issues) It's just very unusual for the Commander and Chief. They usually tend to be "deciders" as Bush likes to say. I think it's very refreshing and I can see why it makes young people, especially, enthusiastic.

Raised By Republicans said...

I don't think you're criticizing Obama. I just don't think his campaign style quite as unusual as you think.

Think about the 527 organizations? The whole point is that they are autonomous. Decentralization is a common feature of American politics and a rather unusual feature when it comes to religion - especially Christianity.

History Buff said...

That's true but aren't the 527 organizations mostly used as a way for a candidate to attack another without being directly involved? I guess what I'm saying is that Obama's way is more forthright, less under the table.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Actually, Obama got his start as an organizer for a largely Catholic-based parish network.

Raised By Republicans said...

527s are mostly known for being attack dogs but they do positive issue pushing too. If you see an ad telling you to "ask your congressman about X" that's probably a 527 group or something very much like it.

I'm aware of Obama's religious community group connections (I like him despite that). But I just don't think that decentralation is an organization strategy that can be said to be mainly religious. Nearly everything in American life is organized that way - including many religious organizations.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - I would argue that centralization is actually very unusual in religion, and almost unique to Christianity - probably because it germinated as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. Muslims have no single world "church." Nor do Jews, although the rabbinate is more organized in Europe than America. And Hinduism and Buddhism are known for being decentralized.

History Buff said...

Also, although there are important figures in evangelical Christianity, most of the churches are self- contained and not part of a hierarchy.

The Law Talking Guy said...

True, but nondenominational evangelical churches are not actually a big slice of the evangelical pie. Numerically, most are methodist, baptist, Church of Christ, etc.