So what is the real significance of Barack Obama’s victory? Pundits’ fingers and tongues have been flying, of course, scoring the triumph in a variety of ways: the terrible legacy of slavery and racism has been dealt a conclusive blow; the Democratic Party has displaced the Republicans as the party of Middle America; the nation has rejected the pro-war policies of the last seven years; etc., each with its grain of truth. At the same time, shell-shocked Republican fingers are pointing: McCain was too old; it was the financial crisis; it was Bush; it was Iraq; it was Tina Fey. But the real reason that the near-nobody Barack Obama bested the war hero and veteran senator John McCain was that the latter’s campaign was insufficiently messianic. More important than the black or white or Jewish or Hispanic vote, Obama took the messiah vote, that burgeoning segment of the electorate consciously or unconsciously looking for a savior, an ersatz Christ figure, who will deliver them from the oppressive burden of post-Christian existence.
The conventional analyses of Obama’s victory have their place, and one needn’t look far to get one’s fill. But readers of these pages will appreciate that the only true significance to any event—even a presidential election—is to be found in the realm of the eternal. Temporal matters matter because, though temporal, yet are they nonetheless bound up with the eternal. The sparrow does not fall from the sky, nor a hair turn black or white, apart from the providence of the eternal God. The fool saith in his heart there is no God, and the thinking man appreciates that the only true consequences are the eternal ones. If we are nothing more than cleverly arranged amino acids, if the sun will one day die, protons fizzle out, and the whole universe grow cold—then so what about anything? Obama, McCain, war, peace, prosperity, impoverishment, American greatness or decline—who cares? Well, we care, because we sense in all of these things—however tentatively—questions of eternal significance.
With this in mind, we ask again: what is the significance of Barack Obama’s victory? Can we discern its transcendent significance—even if our speculations, made as they are through a glass darkly, must embrace provisionality?
I propose that with president-elect Obama we have taken a significant step toward the end of the world—and not just because a left-winger is likely to make a botch of whatever he touches. By the end of the world we mean the end of human history, which had its beginning with the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. The fall was the beginning of history; the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment—when we shall all be changed in the twinkling of an eye and the elements burn with fervent heat—will be the conclusion. History as we know it is the story of the separation of man from God through disobedience and the saga of his redemption through divine grace. We do not know when the Master shall return—no man knoweth the day nor hour—but we do have powerful indications from Holy Scripture and Tradition about the general course of history and what its latter days will look like. It is in this realm that we may endeavor to discern the significance of the events of our time.
During the campaign a running joke was the comparison between Obama and Jesus Christ. No, tee-hee, Barack wasn’t born in a manger! That sort of thing. Jokes serve as important political tools. Through jokes, it is possible to broach topics still inaccessible to non-facetious comment. If one causes offence through touching a taboo, one can always beat a retreat by saying that it was only a joke. Over time, insinuating an idea through humor paves the way for eventual, more explicit, acceptance. Jokes about Obama’s messiahship begin the process of intimating the idea that a political figure could actually be the messiah.
False messiahs only appeal to societies that have abandoned the True One, and Obama’s electoral triumph is an indication of how far Christian America has unraveled. Obama is hardly the first politician to cultivate messianic comparisons, and he certainly will not be the last. He is a symptom—albeit a striking one—of a wider disease, namely, that modern democratic politics have become, almost by nature, exercises in false messianism. Candidates, in particular those on the national level, are successful to the degree they are able to imply their saviorship, their capacity to save people from their existential plight. Candidates whose pretence to saviorship is inadequate, such as John McCain, lose. Candidates who eschew pretence to saviorship, such as Ron Paul, haven’t a chance.
You will know them by their fruit, spake the Lord. The fruits of false christs in the past—from Cromwell to Jim Jones—bear out the forces that drove them. The fruits of president Obama have yet to be reaped, but on one score he has already accomplished much. I was astonished during the campaign to hear from many otherwise seriously Christian people their support for a man so extremely pro-abortion. Barack Obama is perhaps the most charming front man the infanticide business has yet to produce, an industry which has claimed the lives of nearly fifty million Americans in the past thirty-five years (and not incidentally with annual revenues approaching a billion dollars). Flanked by his innocent little girls, he looks the young women of our time in the eye, pats their hand, and tells them, with profound feeling and sincerity, “It’s OK to kill your child.” And they, absolved of the guilt of their crime, proceed to do so at the rate of about 3,700 a day.
Obama intimates a change of epochs, from the post-Christian to the anti-Christian age. Different eras and their dominant characteristics invariably run together, but we can attempt a rough chronology. The post-Christian era we may identify as roughly coterminous with the end of World War II and the fall of European Communism at the end of the twentieth century. This post-Christian era was itself the consequence of the age of revolution, or the counter-Christian age, during which Christianity was the avowed enemy. The revolutionary upheavals of this counter-Christian era—from the French Revolution in 1789 through the European apocalypse of 1945—were explicitly against Christianity; they did their level best to expunge as far as possible the world’s greatest inheritance, its Christian tradition. Marxism was the leading ideology of the counter-Christian era, which led to Communism in the east and its antithesis, hyper-individualism, in the west. What secular observers of modern history invariably fail to appreciate, no matter how astute their worldly wisdom, is that the revolutions of the modern era were not merely about dethroning kings, but about dethroning the King of Kings, of stealing His throne and glory for ersatz political entrepreneurs. While the kings have gone, yet the King of Kings remains, and the world revolution proceeds, morphing through different stages to supplant the heavenly with the worldly, the immaculate with the profane, the Creator with the created.
In the wake of the unprecedented physical and moral destruction of the counter-Christian age of revolution was left a spiritual wasteland, i.e., post-Christianity. Nihilism, the hallmark of the post-Christian age, was the logical result of the counter-Christian era’s destructiveness, but nihilism is highly unstable. One can’t believe in nothing—practically or logically—for very long, and so inevitably something must fill the void.
Into the negative spiritual and cultural space of post-Christianity now marches anti-Christianity, an era marked by pretenders to Christ’s throne. By anti-Christian we mean primarily in place of Christianity: the age in which false churches and false saviors set themselves up in place of the True Church and the True Savior. Today’s world has substantially abandoned authentic Christianity, yet the problems Christianity addresses—life, death, sin, salvation—persist even while the answers it provides are no longer socially effective. Thus do we enter the era of anti-Christianity in which salvation is sought in worldly institutions and men, in false churches and false christs, to an ever greater and more explicit degree. It is in this sense that Obama’s historic triumph is both logical and alarming.
The great world-destroying ideologies of the modern era, viz., Communism and National Socialism, however seductive, were too divisive to appeal on a universal level. They possessed a decidedly us-versus-them logic that both made them effective yet limited their reach. Lenin, Hitler, Mao, et al. made their livings excoriating the other, the enemies of their respective revolutions, of saving their societies from the evil machinations of those who would destroy them. In contrast, in the tautologous newspeak of contemporary democratic politics, the only bad guys are unnamed “extremists” and “terrorists” to be smart-bombed into oblivion or sanitized out of public view. Identification of specific enemies (remember “the Japs,” “Gerry,” “Charlie”) is increasingly passé.
Obama manifests modern democracy’s bland universalizing tendency to an unprecedented degree. Two closely related qualities of his campaign stand out: its ability to unite and its indomitable vagueness. Obama is at once everything and nothing: black, white, Asian, other; Christian but maybe Muslim (and a newfound friend of the Jewish State); pro-children and pro-abortion; a socialist who wants to curb spending; a member of the anti-establishment establishment; pro-America yet friends with Amerikkka-haters and terrorists. There’s something there for everyone. We all have a tendency to hear what we want to hear, and the able mass-seducer exploits this principle to the utmost. In order to unite a diverse audience, his message must be of sufficient vagueness so as not to alienate any significant element. Like sodium pentothal, Obama’s infantile message of “hope” and “change” (and salvation?) had the effect of reducing the powers of resistance in his audience and warming their affections for reasons they really could not explain. Recall his Brandenburg Gate speech shortly after his primary victory. 200,000 Germans adoring a black, quasi-Muslim, first-term senator from the Midwest surely represents a breakthrough of some kind, albeit not for the better.
So far, the pretence to messiahship by modern statesmen has been implicit. But what little may separate us from the actual, explicit worship of a man on a popular level may be illustrated by the following thought experiment. Imagine this: during the next few months, the financial crisis grows ever darker, and the question of what our new president will do to save his people grows ever more urgent. Then, during his inaugural address, with the fever-pitch of excitement rippling through the adoring faces, president Obama makes the following statement:
My friends, we have fought the good fight. We have run the good race. We stand now at the beginning of a new era for America and for the world. My brothers and sisters, do not be afraid. I have come to deliver you from the fears of your former darkness. Today, the prophecy is fulfilled in your eyes. Behold your God.
How would the crowd and the nation react? Many would surely recoil at such monstrous blasphemy; many would conclude that America’s first mostly-black president had, on his first day, taken utter leave of his senses; but some—some—would, one strongly suspects, bow down to the man. Think of the armies of giddy volunteers, the starry-eyed graduate students, the black grandmothers persuaded that the ancient curse has finally been lifted. So far fetched? What is the practical definition of worship? When does one cross the line into idolatry? Have some of Obama’s fans already committed sacrilege? Did the Germans under Hitler? The French under Napoleon? Parts of America under Roosevelt, Kennedy—Reagan?
One expects that the messianic sheen will begin to wear off as the Obama administration comes into contact with the realities of governance, but this does not diminish the larger significance of Obama’s victory. False messiahs invariably disappoint, but their attractiveness indicates the extent to which a society that follows them has grown spiritually leprous. False messiahs are only possible in societies that have abandoned the True One. Sarah Palin’s apparently devastating line at the Republican Convention (back when we still had the luxury of speculating about the inadequacies of a McCain administration) that the presidency is not a step on the path to personal fulfillment has been effectively falsified. Actually, Sarah, it is; it is a step on the path to all of our fulfillment through the incarnation of our hopes and dreams in Barack Hussein Obama. Kyrie eleison.