This letter was written in response to Michael Gerson's column in today's Washington Post, "Better than the Bitter."
Dear Mr. Gerson,
I think you have correctly identified Barack Obama’s chief flaw, “Obamaism.” I'm not sure, however, that you are correct or fair in your conclusion that Obama's remark about "clinging to religion" indicates that his own religious outlook is inauthentic. Let's stipulate that it was a boneheaded remark--"elitist" if you will. But I think that Obama identified a kind of resort to religion that has existed throughout time: the impulse, when afraid, to construct a golden calf to pray to, or a sword to wield against enemies real and imagined. I submit that it is also true that politicians--from Aaron to Karl Rove-- have taken advantage of this impulse to direct the masses toward their chosen objectives. Not everything that calls itself religion qualifies as a wholehearted commitment to the divine; indeed much of what takes place under that name has precious little to do with the Almighty at all. (Thus Kenneth Copeland's sneering dismissal of rote Christianity with the tart epithet, "That's ‘religion!’”) The problem with such "religion" is not that it marks its practitioners as bitter rubes, but that, as an artifact created by (and manipulated by) humans, it is a hope builded upon sand, and will fail those who resort to it.
Is this what Obama meant in his remarks in San Francisco? I have no idea; if so, it's an almost sure bet that it was lost upon his audience. I raise this subject not for Obama but for you: from your writings, I intuit that you will understand what I mean. There is a core of authenticity in many of President Bush's best speeches that I attribute to you, and that have been the saving grace (well, almost saving) of his presidency for me. Like the New Yorker, I am a frequent fan of the message, and the "Gersonian" tones in which it is delivered, if not the messenger.
That said, I wonder if you will agree that much harm has been done to the message of Christianity in the last quarter-century by those who have employed it cynically as a tool to manipulate that class of voters to which Obama referred to his ill-starred remarks in San Francisco. In a conference on "Race and Religion," Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that it was better to say "race or religion,” because the one excluded the other. By the same token, perhaps we must say "politics or religion," recognizing that both are necessary to the state, but that religion in the service of the party, rather than the nation, can never be other than idolatry.
I believe we share an acquaintance in common; I have worked a good bit with Lew Lehrman, at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, where I was for seven years the associate director. In that context, I would observe that when Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, perhaps most powerful invocation of religion in American oratory, he did so as the successful candidate of the Union party, and not as a Republican.
All best wishes,