Change you cannot believe

Jeremy Halcrow

As he stood to accept victory in last month's US Presidential elections, Obama's silky voice boomed out above a sea of placards announcing: "Change we can believe in". Given America's racist past, it was a thrilling moment that will reverberate through history. 

But is his promise of change shallow " even dangerous " rhetoric? Some evangelical Anglicans have made the point that Obama will not break with America's nationalistic faith that made the Bush years so problematic.

The Rev Justin Moffatt, who ministers in New York city, warned that Christians must avoid turning Obama into a "Messiah-figure'.

"The language of change and the desire for hope at times sounded like the foundation for a gospel message, albeit without Jesus' name being on the ballot… At times, [both] campaigns sounded like they were going to bring peace on earth " something promised only in Jesus."

For blogger Byron Smith, the problem is not that anyone thinks that Obama himself is Christ-like, but that so many Americans " both Democrats and Republicans " believe that their nation itself has a central role in God's salvation plan.

"My anxiety is less that people might think Obama is the Messiah" and more that Americans think their nation is Messianic," he said. "American exceptionalism is alive and well. It was referenced repeatedly by both candidates in their speeches and was an assumption deeply ingrained in most of the American commentators I saw interviewed."

Moffatt and Smith are correct, but it's not the whole story. Australians must avoid ridiculing American religiosity at this point, or risk slipping into an anti-Americanism that is completely unreflective about the errors in our own political culture.

Why is a national identity built on Gallipoli any more "godly' than one that has grown out of Gettysburg? 

It is true Bush appealed to faith in America's God-given role in order to prosecute his Middle East misadventure. Yet Howard was initially able to garner Australian support for the Iraq invasion, based on purely pragmatic appeals to our materialistic national psyche. To believe Iraq was all the fault of America's "god' is to have swallowed too much from the prophets of atheism: Dawkins, Hitchens and their fellow travellers.

Let's be clear: the central problem with the Bush-Howard doctrine was the assumptions underlying their unilateral interventionism in foreign affairs, not the belief Bush shares with Obama that God may have a higher calling for the American people. Plenty of neo-Cons are not Christians. And you don't need to be a believer to be full of hubris.

Indeed, the space US public life gives to Providence is often a virtue, not always a vice. As social philosopher Charles Taylor has pointed out, the central place of "God' in America's national myth helps create the fertile soil for belief that has been blown away by the winds of secularism elsewhere in the West long ago. The reality of unashamed political God-talk in America does help provide the church there with its dynamism and strength, as well as its excesses.

In contrast, the relentlessly materialistic public conversation in Australia " especially around economics " creates what Taylor calls an "immanent frame' into which only atheism can fit.

In a recent TV conversation, Briton Michael Parkinson and Australian Andrew Denton mocked Tony Blair for his admission that he prayed and read the Bible. Denton found it "disturbing' that a national leader thinks there is a father-figure "sitting on his shoulder'. Where Christians hear humility in Blair's admission, for Denton it implied the British PM suffered megalomania as he went to war in Iraq.

My point is not to debate Blair's mental state; nor the ethics of the war. Rather what is significant is that unlike America, we have a public space that assumes atheism as the norm. In Denton's mind he was making a completely uncontroversial and self-apparent observation.

Rather than pan American religiosity, it would be better for Australian Christians to confront the way our culture sucks the spirit from our nation's soul.

On this point Obama does offer hope for change " by reminding the secular-left in Australia that God never spoke for just one side of politics.