Friday, October 17, 2008

My Support for Obama

At the risk of losing friends of this blog, I want to say a few words about why I intend to vote for Obama in November. I'm not trying to convince anyone to vote one way or another. And I don't ultimately trust in any political party or human government. I have pledged my allegiance to the reign of God. I serve the future day of God's shalom, and that is bigger than any national or political identity. (I guess I'm wiritng mostly because some of my Christian friends find it totally inconceivable that I could vote this way).

Having said that, I tend to line up more with Democrats than Republicans, not all the time, but much of the time. And it has to do less with the specifics of particular issues than it does an overall picture of what it means to be human in God's world. Specifically, it has to do with what it means to be a person.

So, here it is. We tend to think of persons in terms that we inherited from the Enlightenment. I think notions of what it means to be human that found expression during the Enlightenment are severely flawed. What do I mean by this? Many Enlightenment perspectives view the person as a radically autonomous individual, or subject. It's what Charles Taylor calls the buffered self. It's what philosophy refers to as the turn to the subject. It's what the Bible, in my opinion, calls sin. There are a lot of different ways to describe it, but it tends to define the world as a series of autonomous objects and subjects. The individual is primarily a self-consciousness, radically free, able through common sense to see things as they actually are. Truth is an object in this scheme, it exists independent of observation and is to be uncovered, not disclosed. And the individual is the final arbiter in these matters. I think all of this is wrong.

This tends to drop a cluster bomb full of polarities or dualisms--subject-object, public-private, theory-praxis--always a bad idea when thinking about reality in a world created by one God. And it places the individual as an autonomous actor at the center of this reality, a radical free agent. What is best for the individual, therefore, is best for everyone. Enlightened self-interest is the way to deliver a society that works for all.

This is the opposite of what passes as good theology for me. Personhood is not defined through autonomy or through self-consciousness, but precisely through relatedness, through community. And the individual is not simply a blank slate freely choosing in situations characterized by freedom. There are things that precede our acts of interpretation that are given to us, that we do not simply choose and are largely unaware of. The bible refers to this as principalities and powers. Heidegger referred to this as thrownness, Gadamer as fore-grounding. There is always a pre-understanding that enables us to understand. We are not simply acting upon reality, but are always a consequence of that reality that preceeds us.

Because of all of this, I'm interested in understandings of reality that begin with otherness, where otherness isn't defined as threat, but as opportunity for real community and genuine discovery of meaning. I believe otherness, not the unfettered conscience of the individual, is the precondition for both personhood and truth.

So when someone divides the world into good guys and bad guys, when the perspective of the other is diminished, when a candidate accuses the other as not being like us (both do it, but it's been pronounced on the Republican side in my opinion) when enemies are persons to vilify and not speak to, we move further from the possibilities of the Kingdom of God.

The Republican philosophy tends to be more committed to a social vision rooted in the autonomous individual. I tend not to be impressed by their arguments. Even if this vision of the world "works," which I don't think it does, it still isn't in line with the perspectives of the Kingdom.

I want to begin with an understanding of reality that is defined by community. Society is not just a collection of individuals who create a social compact. We are inescapably relational and communal, and we find our true personhood when we act not out of self-interest but out of the interest of the whole. And the test here is related to the plight of the poor. Discernment of the good in the Kingdom of God is always about mercy, and that is often defined in economic terms in the Bible. The question is not so much, am I better off than I was four years ago? The question is, are the poor better off? Are children in poverty better off? Are the mentally ill better off? Are the elderly better off?

You should know that both Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olberman turn my stomach, that both Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken are big fat idiots in my book. This is not primarily because of where they stand on the issues, but because they treat otherness as dangerous. They are community killers. And there are politicians in both parties who are absolutely clueless in this regard.

I'm anticipating that some of you will want to know how in the world I can vote for a pro-choice candidate. I am anti-abortion, though I'm not sure where legal definitions should begin (historically speaking, the church has varied widely on this issue through the centuries) and what to do with cases like the health of the mother and rape and incest which makes this terribly difficult to legislate. Here I understand McCain's frustration expressed in the last debate. The health of the mother seems to make this impossible to address from a legislative standpoint. But I think he's wrong to characterize this as a radical position on abortion.

I'm not a one issue voter (you can't isolate abortion from economic or health care issues in my opinion), and I'm fairly cynical that the Republicans are really serious about it as a public policy issue. They've had all the branches of government for the better part of the last decade and have done virtually nothing. I've read that abortions are more frequent today than they were during the Clinton years, and I don't find this surprising. I don't think this is about personal choice (I am not in that sense pro-choice which assumes the sovreignty of the autonomous individual), but neither is this simply a problem of personal morality either (which likewise assumes individual autonomy). I am for a culture of life, but this would also include issues like the death penalty and war and torture for me, and there are no candidates or parties that have a monopoly on these issues.

Here's my final point. Obama has two things I like that I think are necessary given the mess we're in. I'm convinced he's not an ideologue (I know this is disputable, but he's simply not a black and white thinker). He's a pragmatist and he runs a tight ship. He's out campaigned both the Clinton machine and the Republican juggernaut that has dominated presidential politics the past 16 years. He's disciplined and will get things done. And he's a brilliant orator, and in times of massive social dislocation the poets are the ones who lead. When Hillary says, all he's done is make a great speech, she diminishes the power of a great speech. It's true, as McCain points out that oratory can simply gloss things, but its also true there is no transformation apart from new images, apart from language that moves past previous limit-expressions. We believe, after all, that God creates through his Word. It's the poet-prophets who deliver Israel, not the kings.

I've been disappointed with Senator Obama at points during the campaign. I am under no illusions that either candidate will usher in the Kingdom of God. But I will vote in a few weeks, and I am voting for Barack Obama.


Redlefty said...

Count me in as well, although as a Texan the electoral college assures that my vote won't really "count" in the final tally.

I have a similar list of traits that eventually swayed me:

1) Ability to set a positive, thoughtful tone (we're gonna need it to address some big issues)

2) Ability to appoint and delegate authority to the right people (like you mentioned, his smart campaign management bodes well for cabinet/advisor decisions)

Presidents aren't dictators, so as long as he/she can do the two things above for the next four years, I'm fine with that.

And interestingly, I just had the abortion discussion with a co-worker (and Christian) today. I made the same point that Republicans had the White House and both houses of Congress for six years and did nothing about the issue. So why only vote for that party?

Brad said...

Incredible post Mark! If I vote (which I continue to be in the process of discerning), I am squarely in your camp. Excellent articulation of the theological reasons behind it all. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully articulated. My sense is that you wouldn't lose any blog friends here. The kind of thought you have expressed from the beginning here, whether on missional ecclessiology or theo-politics, is one and the same, and very consistent. In my estimation, if you've lost anyone, it would be because of their inability to connect some dots that are really close together...


Anonymous said...

Glad to see someone else posted their articulation of their voting decision making process.

The issue with individualism has to do with rights versus obligations. For the current GOP government is about individual rights. Obama's language is about the public good's obligation to the country. Big difference.

I would like to see people not get so personally attached to a party or a candidate that they find disagreements with people so large that it becomes an affront to that person and creates character judgments that are not fair.

I voiced my opinion last night as well largely because someone asked. The counter claims have been that I am buying into spin, which I actually am not. If Republicans wanted a conservative maverick, they needed to nominate Ron Paul who is more like what McCain used to be.

Mark Love said...


Thanks for the positive feedback. I'm open to hearing negative as well. It's about hospitality.

Drew, thanks for commenting. Your cite is massive. Thanks for your work.


SteveA said...

Excellent! I will be happy to vote for him as well. We need a game-changer and maybe he's the one.

Question. What writings have helped you with perceiving the flaws of the enlightenment and have pointed the way to something else?

Mark Love said...


The critique is pretty pervasive and found in a lot of places. I've cited here Charles Taylor's works, and he is methodologically extending the critique of the phenomenologists--Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer. Once you get to Ricouer, the subject-object split has been overcome by "oneself as another." You have the work of guys like Levinas who define personhood totally in relation to otherness. These impulses gets picked up by theologians like Misoslav Volf, Walter Brueggemann, Joel Green. The social Trinitarians have a lot to say of a constructive nature, but its stinking hard reading. Here you have writers like Zizioulas, Moltmann, Pannenberg, LaCugna. But theologians are proposing constructive alternatives. I think of a book like Volf's Exclusion and Embrace or Joel Green's book, Salvation, Brueggemann's, The Covenanted Self.

Hope this helps.


Unknown said...

Great post, Mark.

Check out Arnold Toynbee's massive A Study of History that parallels your description of society.

He describes the rise and fall of civilizations and, in that, defines society as "a system of human relationships."

Civilizations fall when individuals forget that society is relational. Intentionality in being other-centered is a requirement for survival.

Cheryl Russell said...

Great post! You are right, neither candidate will issue in the Kingdom of God. But, I'm seeing more and more on the left that resonates with what I believe about what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.

IF I vote, I will vote for change. I haven't said much about politics, both my Christian friends and non-Christian friends think I'm crazy because I don't feel a sense of patriotic duty here. But, I don't.

Neither will I be a one issue voter. I am most annoyed with people who have turned voting, even due to one issue, into a salvation issue. I am most saddened by the knowledge that many of my brothers and sisters care more about the legislation than the people that it affects. That doesn't speak Gospel to me.

Anonymous said...

Much appreciated. I just spent the past week in substantive, relatively peaceful dialogue with several people about politics and faith, and in particular about abortion and same gender marriage.

What relief to read this blog post and comments. Far too often, I find myself in conversation with Christians who think I'm deceived and have aborted my faith.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. However, I'm intrigued that although Obama advocates the duty to share wealth with the poor, he only donated 1% of his personal income to charity last year, while McCain donated 26% of his income (plus all his book proceeds). I would be curious to hear your thoughts on how to reconcile this with Obama's calls for others to be compelled to relinquish their personal funds to help the poor. Or are you more interested in the net gain for the poor regardless of the motives behind it?

Not trying to be controversial, but genuinely curious :).

Mark Love said...


Didn't know about that. I am concerned about the net gain, but that is definitely disappointing to know about Obama.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response Mark. That has definitely been one question that has troubled me.

I am very impressed with Obama's rhetoric on helping the poor and I interested in a lot of ideas that Obama has put forward, particularly universal health care and improvements in education. But I am skeptical that the power of great wealth he hopes to accumulate through taxation policy...and he intends to raise billions of dollars through direct taxation policies... could also be put toward less altruistic goals.

As Christians, I don't think we are being neglectful of our duties to the poor by greeting such grand calls to help the poor with great skepticism when we ready ourselves to relinquish great control over our wealth to any leader. We must at least ask where this sudden concern for the poor has come from when it appears at least on his last tax return, that concern did not appear to be so pressing.

Thanks for writing on this topic Mark. Great analysis.