Why I Am Supporting Barack Obama for President
At the rate the Democratic nomination for U.S. president is going, my vote in the KY primary (20 May) may actually count for something. So, although mostly I try to keep the political discussions on this blog (which is mostly about the intersection of faith and social justice, including politics) away from discussions about particular candidates, I think the time calls for an exception. I am neither an ordained minister (though seminary trained), nor currently employed by any faith-based organization, so I don’t think this is a violation of my objections to religious leaders personally endorsing candidates–others are free to disagree.
A year ago, the Democratic field contained several candidates whose commitments to progressive social justice policies and to peacemaking in the world were very compatible with how I see the demands of the gospel.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), now having to fend off corporate Dem. primary challengers for re-election to his own Cleveland seat, never had a chance and I knew it. The U.S. public is simply not that far to the left–except on healthcare where his universal, single-payer, plan actually has majority support. But I supported Kucinich campaign because he continued to draw the issues sharply: he not only opposed the Iraq war/occupation from the beginning, but voted against it, consistently voted against funding it, has had since invasion a plan to replace U.S. troops quickly with UN peacekeepers while doing reconstruction (and, had this plan been done quickly, we might have avoided the insurgence), proposed a Dept. of Peace that would work for alternatives to military action abroad and nonviolent solutions in homes, neighborhoods, etc. domestically.
Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), who has been a hostage negotiator, a UN ambassador, and who helped solve several international crises even when governor, whose approach to the environment and energy is far reaching.
Fmr. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), the most improved candidate in 4 years: who repented for his vote for the war, proposed an excellent plan for exiting Iraq and, more than any other candidate, focused on ending poverty domestically and globally.
Those fine candidates are all gone. The only remaining progressive choice is Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), who, like most politicians, has both progressive and cautious elements. He opposed the war from the beginning, but has sometimes voted to continue funding it because of a desire to “support the troops” in harm’s way–and only began a different voting strategy when no amount of Congressional pressure could get this admin. to bring the troops home. His healthcare plan is not as good as I’d like it to be, frankly. But he is committed to human rights abroad, defending the Constitution at home, and ending, in his words, “not just the war, but the mindset which got us into this war”–a mindset of reckless aggression as the best way to fight terrorism. Since John Edwards’ pushed the agenda, Obama has also become bolder in his championing of the poor.
But I have not come to support Obama just out of a process of elimination. From the moment I first heard him speak (at the Democratic National Convention in ’04), I said to anyone who would listen, “That man will probably be our first black president. He is the future of the Democratic Party and has a great chance to heal the nation.” I was thrilled when his campaign took off and glad that Edwards kept pushing him to ignore his more cautious side and keep moving, step-by-step, in a more progressive direction.
Some readers will know that I believe strongly that no Christian can be a nationalist. Our allegiance is primarily to the Reign of God. As Revelation puts it, we come “from out of every tribe and nation.” The “politics of Jesus” is the formation of a new, trans-national people, scattered among the nations of the earth, who lare ight and salt and leaven–who bear witness to the work of God in the world to heal and transform the earth.
Loyalty to particular nation states–like other earthly loyalties and identities of race/ethnicity, gender, language group, region, culture, etc.–are strictly secondary. It is important that I reinforce this before making my next point.
However, I have never believed that my ultimate allegiance to God in Christ and to God’s Reign, means that I have to be indifferent to my earthly homeland. Christians my love and bear allegiance to our nations–but never in any way that puts national loyalty first or thinks that God has chosen our nation to be superior to others, etc. At my most critical of this nation, I was an internal critic–like Bonhoeffer for Germany or Oscar Romero criticizing El Salvador or Desmond Tutu crying over South Africa. Prophetic faith criticizes the nation and hopes to reform it. Prophetic social criticism is a work of love.
But that love for my nation took a major hit in November ’04–when the U.S. returned George W. Bush to the White House. I know conservative U.S. readers will disagree, but I saw (and I think people around the world saw) the ’04 election (in which, unlike in ’00, Bush narrowly won the popular vote, whatever happened in Ohio) as a validation of Bush’s policies and actions, including: a strategy of preemptive war, ignoring or flaunting international law and undermining international institutions of peace and security (we used to call other nations which did this “rogue” nations), the torture at Abu Ghraib, and at Guantanemo Bay, “extraordinary rendition,” imprisonment without trial and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, spying on own citizens without warrant, etc., etc.
I have felt since November ’04 like a person who has lost his country and I seriously considered moving to Canada or New Zealand (personal finances made this impossible). I worried deeply that while I grew up in an America that was becoming better (ending segregation, etc.), my daughters were growing up in a nation that was increasingly alien to its stated values. I worried that my children were being taught that power came without responsibility, that the rich and powerful were above the law, that might makes right.
Barack Obama’s campaign, even though not as progressive as Kucinich’s or, on poverty, not even as progressive as Edwards’ (but improving all the time) helped give me my country back. Only part of it is his policies–another part he embodies:
I want to live in an America where the son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother can be president. I want to know that 40+ years after the end of legal segregation, white folks, even in the South will vote for a black president.
I think the nations of the world will respond differently to America, if our leader has Muslim relatives, ties to Kenya and Indonesia. No, I’m not saying that radical terrorists would cease their enmity–they would not. But ordinary people, including those terrorists try to recruit, will see an American president who doesn’t seem isolated from the rest of the world (as Americans so often are), but connected to it in visible and tangible ways.
I watch Obama break down lines of left and right, blue state and red state. I watch him stick to his liberal principles on abortion and gay rights–and yet still make connections with conservative evangelicals who disagree with him on both issues by coming and talking to them about their common faith and common ground in wanting to stop the AIDS epidemic and global warming, and justice in Darfur. I watch Obama get past the usual divisions on issues like gun control by explaining that guns have one kind of meaning for rural hunters and a very different one for those facing urban violence–and that we have to find a way to protect the legitimate rights of hunters and rural, small town values, while also addressing the gun plague in our cities. That’s “bi-partisanship” without simply compromise–but a re-framing of issues and a listening to the legitimate concerns of all. (I saw the same thing when he unveiled his environmental platform not before a friendly audience of environmentalists, but before Detroit automakers and workers!)
I’ve watched him engage the young, usually so politically apathetic, bringing them into the process, getting them excited–not just about the election, but about finding ways to serve their country and the world beyond military service–or just “going shopping” as Bush asked of us. (Obama talks about lowering tuition costs at universities–but in return for service–working at homeless shelters or teaching in underserved communities, or practicing rural medicine, etc.) I have watched him create the most diverse coalition around–yes, Hillary Clinton does better among women, especially white women, but only by about 6%. Yes, she does better among the working class Dems, but not by much. Yes, she does better among Latinos, but by decreasing amounts. And Obama is winning the votes of white males, especially rural and Southern white men, who since 1980 have left the Democratic Party in droves for the GOP.
I am tired of electoral strategies that try for 50% +1 victories which end in defeat or such narrow electoral victory that there is gridlock and no mandate for change. Clinton represents that kind of politics. On Tues. night, she won the states Democrats always win: California, New York, New Jersey, Massachussetts. Great–but that’s not going to win a general election and certainly not with enough of a mandate for change. By contrast, Obama has won (and by large margins) in red states and swing states. And across the map from the Northeast (CT, DE) to the Southwest (Colorado, Utah, possibly New Mexico) to the Midwest (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota) to the Old South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama) and even to Alaska.
I believe that Obama can help Democrats and Independents (and moderate Republicans) create a new working majority that can get the big changes we need. And I love the way he insists that change is not all top down, but must involve the work and social action of the people–it’s his background as a community organizers which is also how he runs his campaign. His speeches are not about him (Clinton, “I will work hard for you,” or Edwards, “I will fight for you,”) but about US, “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” “Together, we can heal this nation; together, we can change the world.” “Yes, we can.”
I would love to vote for a woman president, and I hope Obama might choose a woman running mate (e.g. Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ) or Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), although I would understand if his need to beef up his foreign policy creds would push him more toward a Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), or a Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), or even a retired Gen. like Anthony Zinni (who opposed the Iraq invasion). And, although I have my criticisms of the Clintons, I do not share the irrational Hillary hatred of many–but it is out there. Nominating a candidate with as high negatives as Clinton carries makes little sense. It would pit the one Democrat who could lose in November against the one Republican (McCain) who carries enough clout with independents to win.
The bottom line is that I believe Obama is the president we need at this time. He won’t be perfect or a savior–no politician is. But with progressive social movements to keep pushing him–and with his visionary ability to reach beyond narrow constituencies, I think electing Obama can give us back the promise of a moral America.
I don’t want to be a Christian nationalist. But I would like to be a Christian who is not deeply ashamed of my country. An Obama presidency, I believe, offers that opportunity.
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