Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Brief: Pre-Primary

--Jim Wallis’ defense of Barack Obama’s faith last week likely won’t do much to convince those perpetuating anti-Muslim and racist smears against the candidate. For the most part, Wallis lays out the standard (and obvious) facts: Obama doesn’t support Louis Farrakhan, isn’t Muslim, and isn’t a black separatist or nationalist. Yet there is a key point that he additionally emphasizes:

“And one Sunday, as Obama has related to me and written in his book The Audacity of Hope, the young community organizer walked down the aisle and gave his life to Christ in a very personal and very real Christian conversion experience.”

Again, this isn’t new information; as Obama writes in Audacity, “…kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me.” What’s noteworthy, then? Since starting the magazine Sojourners in 1971, Wallis’ primary target audience has been the evangelical community. Central to the evangelical movement is the concept of conversionism, where one commits to change one’s life or is “born again” as a response to the witness of Jesus. So when Wallis relays Obama’s own conversion, the subtext is, in effect, “Look, fellow evangelicals! This man made a decision for Christ!* For crying out loud, he’s like us!” For evangelicals who may be on the fence about whether or not to vote for Obama, the fact that they share a core religious experience with him could be quite significant with regard to how they cast their vote.

Regardless, it’s sad that posts like Wallis’ are even necessary in the first place.

--One of my burgeoning favorites, Georgetown professor of history Michael Kazin, argues that political rhetoric is indeed crucial to Presidential success. As he writes, both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan relied on persuasive and inspiring rhetoric to capitalize politically against their “discredited and dispirited” incumbent opponents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. In comparison:

“Obama may never have the opportunity to match the achievements of Roosevelt or Reagan. His performance on unscripted occasions is less impressive than when he stands before a crowd of supporters, teleprompter rolling. But he has already accomplished a remarkable feat: marshaling his eloquence to persuade millions of Americans that he has both the character and the intelligence to nudge the country toward a more democratic future. Neither Clinton nor John McCain displays that talent.”

Clinton no doubt recognizes this reality, and her pointed criticism on Saturday—“His entire campaign is based on one speech he gave at an anti-war rally in 2002”—represented another attempt to deflate Obama’s rhetorical advantage.

--Gulp. Hope we get it right.

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