Friday, June 01, 2012

Politicians and Messiah Language

Barack Obama with Superman
Obama isn't Superman, either.
About four years ago now, during the previous presidential election season, a number of Christian commentators tried to send a message to the American people. The message took many forms and used varying details, but one phrase kept popping up: “Obama is not the Messiah.” Now, I don’t want to make too much of the fact that Obama was the candidate being discussed here. This isn’t really about the fact that many Christians are opposed to Obama for ideological reasons. In theory, this accusation could have been made about anybody, provided that the candidate had the wellspring of popular support and of people placing their hopes in his candidacy that Obama had at the time.

The people sending the message against Obama’s Messiahship were, I suspect, intending to speak primarily to those of us who consider ourselves Christian. Moreover, I suspect that they were trying to convey a message that is worth repeating from time to time: Christians only have one Messiah: Jesus Christ himself (actually, I suppose that’s something of a redundant statement, since “Christ” is simply the Greek word for the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which itself means, “the anointed one”). I imagine that related to that is the message that any political candidate, being a mere human, and being subject to the same fallen nature that plagues all humanity (excepting, of course, for Jesus Christ), cannot hope to fix all of the problems that we might hope he or she might fix (not that Jesus himself tried to fix all of the problems that the people of his time expected him to fix, but I digress). To expect a politician to fundamentally change the world is foolhardy, at best, and idolatry at worst.

Four years later, I don’t see anyone who feels the need to remind Obama-supporters that Obama is not the Messiah (although I perhaps see a continuing need to remind some on the other side that Obama is not the Anti-Christ, either). Even those who support Obama recognize that a lot of the changes they may have hoped for have not (yet?) come to pass. On the other side, I frankly feel that if no one currently finds the need to remind Republicans that Romney is not the Messiah, this has more to do with Romney’s comparative lack of popular support even among his own party than because Republicans are less likely to need such reminders, in general (and I'm not even getting into the whole concern that some Christians have with the fact that Romney is a Mormon). Of course, as the campaign heats up, that could change rather quickly, on either side.

So, as we prepare to enter into a new round of presidential campaigning, I feel the need to argue that pointing out that a given politician “is not the Messiah” is unhelpful. The reason for this is not because the statement is wrong. Rather the problem is that we already know it’s wrong. Or, more to the point, Christians are so well-conditioned to understand that “Messiah” is language reserved for Jesus — and Jesus alone — that, even if we are in danger of placing a particular politician on too high a pedestal (as perhaps some were guilty of in regard to Obama four years ago), or of having unreasonable expectations for their future achievements, we not only don’t consciously believe that we’re thinking of the candidate as a Messiah, but the accusation of such will cause us to reject the argument being made automatically (“Of course we don’t think that Obama is the Messiah!”). Thus, the cautionary intention, even if it was a needed warning, is totally unheeded.

As people start to rally behind their chosen candidate, and make the case either why their guy should be elected or why the other guy shouldn't, what should be done if and when people start to climb onto a bandwagon of potentially idolatrous political adulation?

Well, personally, I would appreciate a little more effort on the part of those who seek to warn us that we might be thinking of a candidate in Messianic terms to make the case as to why they think there is a danger, rather than simply asserting that it is so. Even just acknowledging that we might not see what we in fact we are doing might be a start. I didn't see that four years ago. Rather, I saw a lot of what I can only call "preaching to the choir," which can never have hope to have any meaningful effect.

Of course, perhaps avoiding religiously-loaded language in a political campaign altogether would be even better. In fact, I wonder if the self-proclaimed opponents of "Messiah language" four years ago perhaps protested too much. It's not like people have been using such language in support of their candidate! Why bring it into the debate at all? If all opponents are doing is setting up a straw man, attacking a position no one actually believes in the first place, no meaningful dialogue can take place.

By all means, a healthy debate about the potential merits and dangers of a candidate is a necessary part of the political process, and one that more people should be engaging in (although I would obviously ask for it to be done with considerably less vitriol than tends to be the case these days). But there are already too many people confused about what the separation of church and state is, or has been, or should be, for us to start manufacturing religious language with which to speak of candidates!

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