Nearer, My God
The deity in the White House.
Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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).
If God is not supposed to be detached and impartial, neither is the American president. He may be a man of the world, and sometimes he is, but he is first and foremost our national leader, elected to protect the American people and to ruthlessly deal with their enemies. He is not expected to be impartial as between our interests and the interests of others; or between our allies' interests, and those of their enemies. Outreach to the Muslim world is all very well, but the words "Muslim world" are themselves a misnomer. Lebanon is not Iran, which is not Saudi Arabia, which is not Indonesia. There is a difference between a dispute between Jordan and Israel, and one between Israel and Hamas or Iran, and the president is expected to know it, and act accordingly.
The famously bellicose Theodore Roosevelt helped make an impartial peace in 1905 between Japan and Russia, but this involved no vital American interests. He did not say "children, stop fighting," nor did cousin Franklin, years later, when Germany threatened the West. "We actually do not want our president to 'stand above the country,' " notes Peter Wehner, correctly. "And we do not believe it is particularly sophisticated to disparage as chauvinistic and provincial those who speak up for her."
But some of us do. "Another Arab analyst . . . said that Obama didn't sound like a U.S. president at all but more like an enlightened regional leader," an NBC correspondent told Chris Matthews, with an air of approval. To which Matthews answered, "You make me happy. That's what we have to do in the world."
For almost four decades, the left and the media (do we repeat ourselves?) have waited for a president who sounds above it all, and they are in heaven now that the Word is made Flesh. And what flesh it is. Does it hurt that Obama is graceful and slender, when most of these pundits are sucking in paunches; that he's glowing and tan while they are washed out and pallid; that he looks as if he's on an permanent photo shoot for a Ralph Lauren ad or the Burberry catalogue? This is a God with chiseled pectoral muscles and a Portuguese Water Dog, wearing "moral authority" like an Armani jacket, while wholly at home in Men's Vogue.
And the Democrats have their slogans in place for the 2012 election: Obama: Like God, Only Better! Like God, Only Cuter! Like God, Only Cool!
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.