There is therefore a need for an explanation that goes beyond the conventional one. When the history of this period is written, the 2008 campaign will almost certainly be seen as a watershed event in cultural history, above and beyond any connection it had to American politics, when a worldwide movement congealed to display its enthusiasm for Barack Obama. This perspective will also require a reassessment of the place of Obama. To be sure, the campaign will continue in one respect to be regarded as being all about Obama. This has been Obama’s perception, and understandably so. Only the most rare of persons, after being the object for over a year of such unrelenting adulation, could have resisted the temptation to think that the world revolved around him. Barack Obama is clearly not that person. His speeches and remarks are filled with references to himself in a ratio that surpasses anything yet seen in the history of the American presidency. But in another respect, the 2008 campaign was about something much larger than Barack Obama. The character of the event will not be grasped until the focus begins to shift from Barack Obama to the yearning for Barack Obama. It is in the thoughts and actions of those who adored him that the most interesting and important dimension of the campaign took place.
The rise of the Religion of Humanity is what best describes this event. This strange term designates an actual sect, now defunct, that enjoyed a considerable following and prestige in intellectual circles in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill was a prominent convert, pronouncing the “culte de l’humanité [to be] capable of fully supplying the place for a religion, or rather (to say the truth) of being a religion.” In America, where the religion wore the respectable label of the “Church of Humanity,” the acolytes included the well-known journalist David Croly and his son Herbert, the founder and longtime editor of the New Republic. If it were not for the Religion of Humanity, Americans today might not have the pleasure of reading Jonathan Chait on “The Rise of Republican Nihilism” or E.J. Dionne “In Praise of Harry Reid.”
Mill and Croly were both intellectual disciples of the French social philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Though rarely studied in America today, Comte bequeathed an enormous legacy. He was the first to simplify and popularize the idea of a progressive movement of history, which he described as proceeding through three great epochs: the age of theological thinking, the age of metaphysical thinking, and the age of scientific or “Positivistic” thinking. (“Positivism,” referring to the scientific mindset and approach, was one of Comte’s many linguistic inventions.) The inevitable march of humanity (still with a small h) through these stages, albeit at different rates in different places, was the great story of history. Variations among nations and groups might continue, but they paled in significance next to the common destiny of humanity. Those who continued to view the world in terms of nations and their conflicts—Comte called them “retrogrades”—were caught in old thinking, unable to grasp the new global order being formed by the forces generated by Positivism.
Comte argued that it was time to expand man’s scientific knowledge of the physical world to the social realm. A new science of society, “sociology” (Comte’s term), was the latest and highest of all the sciences. Possession of knowledge of the laws of social movement was what ideally bestowed the title to rule. Comte and his circle were never much impressed by democracy and favored instead one system or another of governance by experts. (Saint-Simon, for whom Comte worked for many years, once proposed running society with “Councils of Newton.”)
But there was an important twist to Comte’s praise of science. In contrast to many who thought that the scientific method and scientific values were sufficient to bind society together, Comte insisted that people had to believe. As faith in the transcendent was no longer -possible in the Positivist age, he called for “replacing God with Humanity.” The aim of this religion without God was to build a global community that assured the betterment of man’s lot. Postulating this objective as an ideal is what Comte meant by Humanity (now with a capital H).