Prophet Obama smites king McCain
Theo Hobson sees parallels with the leaders of ancient Israel and God’s modern day elect, America
The current race for the White House is more blatantly biblical than any in recent times. Two Judaic archetypes are having a stand-off. In the red corner we have the military tough-guy; in the blue corner we have the prophet of peace.
McCain is a politician whose authority has been forged in war, like one of the kings of ancient Israel. In fact modern Israel has revived this warrior tradition: McCain looks very like one of those scary war veterans who end up running the country, Sharon or Netanyahu.
Of course other American presidential candidates have served in the military, including Kennedy, but this guy's different: he volunteered for extra torture. He makes Rambo look like a conscientious objector. His message is that the divine purpose of America depends on security.
It isn't easy for Americans being God's chosen people, because they have to balance two things: the moral purpose that proves they're God's elect, and the power that keeps them safe and strong, in case God's pre-utopian plans include a bit of smiting.
So if you're John McCain you don't spout liberal platitudes about giving every kid a chance until you've made damn sure your enemies are scared of you. His running mate Sarah Palin resembles Deborah, who sang and danced about the drowning of Pharaoh's army: just rejoice! Politics is ultimately about leading the people in a victory-cry.
But of course there's more to Old Testament politics than tribal militarism. The strength of the nation is not an end in itself, but the means to world peace. What does it profit a chosen people if it gains the world but loses its soul?
In ancient Israel the macho kings were challenged by the prophets, counter-cultural figures who condemned military triumphalism, exposed court scandals (including sexual ones), and most importantly banged on about justice for the poor and oppressed.
They also attacked the hypocrisy of the religious right who put rigid moralism before compassion. Let's not forget what our strength is for, they cried: not to lord it over the other nations but to serve a vision of global harmony. They came out with heart-stopping rhetoric about God's justice filling the earth like the waters fill the sea, and all tears being wiped away.
In America this prophetic tradition was fairly well integrated into mainstream politics, for centuries. Then a new, intense variant of it emerged: Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement generally. Here was a vivid replaying of the Exodus story. America had thought itself the chosen people, and then a new Moses type came along and everything was turned upside down. The idea of America as a new version of Israel collapsed, with the warriors going one way and the prophets of peace the other.
Obama could not be more firmly in the prophetic tradition. His first memoir is essentially a story of being called to a special role of quasi-religious leadership. There are even echoes of the Moses story in his gradual, angst-ridden discovery that his true identity lay with the oppressed. His calm rhetorical power is a sign that he wears the mantle of Martin Luther King.
But he has the sense to widen the appeal, to make his open-air church tones appealing to whites, and those wary of gloopy liberal sentiment. For he understands the divided state of American religion, and knows he must appeal beyond the prophetic heartland. He even signals his respect for the warrior tradition, which insists that national security comes first.
At the penultimate debate he promised to do his utmost to find and kill Osama bin Laden, and the violence felt odd, like Jesus advocating stoning. But this is what he has to do, if the balance of this God-rocked nation is to be restored. ·
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