I got a letter, a signed letter, from Senator Barack Obama the other day¯me and several million other Americans. He’s running for president, you see, and he wants my support in helping him change the political landscape. What concerns people, it seems, is not the "magnitude of our problems" but the "smallness of our politics." Americans are "hungry for a different kind of politics," and Obama’s campaign is "about answering that call." He really means this. We can tell because he underlined that sentence.
What does this new, bigger, dream-filled politics look like? It looks strangely like the old, small, dreamless politics that Obama wants to replace. Big, ambitious politics means doing "something about the high cost of health care," ending our "addiction to oil," bringing "our brave men and women" home from Iraq. Senator Obama also has the unprecedented notion that the two political parties can work together. As it turns out, big, ambitious politics is just Democratic politics, and answering the call to renewal starts with helping Democrats wrest power from those small-minded Republican oil-addicted war mongers.
Only yesterday, Democrats accused Republicans of being far too ambitious in trying to extend democracy to the Middle East¯but leave that to the side. Also leave to the side the strange self-delusion of a senator who boldly advances an agenda for a new American politics by repeating Democratic obsessions that were already moldy a decade ago. The letter is advertising copy, after all.
What is not advertising copy is the prioritization of health care in Obama’s agenda. What accounts for the passion this issue generates? The political reasons for putting that at the top of the list are obvious: Health-care costs hit many people very directly, and by prioritizing health Obama demonstrates his compassion.
The obsession with health care, however, goes deeper, and expresses an outlook best described in theological terms. In his bracing little book on Secularization , Edward Norman, former chancellor of York Minster, describes the conflict between Christianity and what he calls Secular Humanism by contrasting their attitudes toward suffering. Christianity "was founded in an act of expiatory pain, has regarded human suffering as not only inseparable from the nature of life on earth, as a matter of observable fact, but also as a necessary condition in spiritual formation." Christians seek, of course, to alleviate suffering, but God, not human suffering, is the center of the moral universe.
Secular Humanism, by contrast, does not believe in sin and cannot see how any good could emerge from human suffering. Humanity is perfectible, and if we will only work together we will be able to remove "anything that can be represented as an affront or an impediment to the painless existence of men and women." Morality is reduced to "the palliation of whatever humans themselves regard as the cause of their suffering or deprivation." Having given up the worship of God, Secular Humanists "worship the human body itself." Is it any wonder then that politicians, as well as the media, "routinely accord priority to items of health-care policy, critiques of the state of hospital waiting lists, apparent scandals relating to medical practices"?
This is a box outside of which Senator Obama cannot think, and this is why his agenda looks so thoroughly Clintonesque. Here’s a suggestion: If he wants to transform American politics, perhaps his next fund-raising letter should say something along the lines of "Pain may be good for you."
I’ll be checking the mailbox.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible .