The Magazine

Nearer, My God

The deity in the White House.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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When Gerard Baker a year ago wrote in the Times of London that Barack Obama had "Ventured Forth to Bring Light to the World," it was widely acknowledged to be a clever satire, but this past week we have broken new ground in divinity politics. Forget the comparisons to our Slain Prince (John F. Kennedy), to our Good Father (Franklin D. Roosevelt), and even to Abraham Lincoln, the closest thing to a martyred saint that Americans have in our secular lexicon. These are mere mortals. According to those who should know--Chris Matthews of MSNBC, and Evan Thomas of the New Improved Newsweek, which is the MSNBC of print media--Obama has had a promotion. No more a Messiah, who was, after all, partly human, Obama is the Real Deal, the Big Cheese, the Big Enchilada. He is Himself, without qualifications. Obama is God.

Obama being Obama, however, (and Newsweek being Newsweek), this is not quite your usual God. This is not the God of Battles, to whom Henry V prayed before Agincourt. This is not "Our fathers' God, to Thee / Author of Liberty / to Thee we sing." This is definitely not the God of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," as this God isn't given to trampling anything, and when it comes to the terrible swift sword, you can simply forget it. This God doesn't do swords, much less battles. This is a modern God, a media God, a God for Whole Foods, and the Politics & Prose bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue, a God who is into recycling. There is the God of the Old Testament, and the God of the New Testament, but this is the God of the Newsroom. Religious tradition tells us that God created man in His image, but the press has created this God in its image--diverse, multilateral, and nonconfrontational. He is cool, hip, urbane, and extremely un-Texan. He is all that the Fourth Estate values in life, and aspires to be in its own private dealings. He is all it holds dear.

The proximate cause of this special effusion was the speech Obama had delivered in Cairo on June 4 to the world's Muslims, and the one he would give to a far different audience on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, on June 6. "What I liked about [Obama's] speech .  .  . was that it showed a complete humility," Matthews said. Thomas agreed. He compared Obama's speech favorably to that given in France by Ronald Reagan in 1984 ("These are the Boys of Pointe du Hoc") on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. "For [Reagan's] first term, it was a clenched fist," he said. "We built up our military. .  .  . All this D-Day stuff was about war" (but D-Day itself was all about war). Obama, however, is above all this "stuff." "Obama's not doing that. .  .  . He's the teacher. He's going to say, 'now children, stop fighting and quarreling with each other.' "

"Reagan was all about America," Thomas continued. "Obama is 'we are above that now.' We're not just parochial, we're not just chauvinistic, we're not just provincial. .  .  . Obama's standing above the country, above the world. He's sort of God."

But the whole point of God, at least in the viewpoint of us human beings, is that He does not stand above or apart from the world. He inspires men to fight when attacked and for justice and freedom, sustains them in trouble, and consoles them in days of defeat. Indeed, the God of Our Fathers took sides and played favorites. He wiped out the Egyptians pursuing the Hebrews, to give just one example. He made a covenant with the Children of Israel; then He made a covenant with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which turned in 1776 into a covenant with the entire United States of America, as it expanded across the continent, and even to places beyond. The point was not that they were favored as such, but that they were obliged to promote some ideas and some values, among them the one that man had been made in God's image. Newsweek's God is not the one to whom Lincoln appealed, or the Founders invoked as the source of our liberties, or the one to whom Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt prayed on June 6, 1944, as they sent men out to be killed by and kill people who, if a "teacher" had said, "children, stop fighting," would pay no attention at all (or else kill the teacher).