Obama and the Paradoxes of Progressive Christianity: An Interview with James Kloppenberg

By | April 30, 2014

(Sid Hastings/Washington University in St. Louis)

(Sid Hastings/Washington University in St. Louis)

On March 27-29, scholars gathered in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics for the conference “Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century.” At the pinnacle of the three-day event, James T. Kloppenberg delivered the keynote lecture, entitled “Barack Obama and the Paradoxes of Progressive Christianity.”

Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University. His lecture drew on his 2011 book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. An intellectual historian of the United States and Europe, Kloppenberg’s current projects include two forthcoming books, Tragic Irony: The Rise of Democracy in European and American Thought and The American Democratic Tradition: Roger Williams to Barack Obama.

During his visit, Kloppenberg sat down with R&P Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley for an interview. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: How did you decide to write Reading Obama, a project analyzing the president’s own writings and speeches and archives? 

JK: I was in England teaching at the University of Cambridge as the Pitt Professor of American History. Part of holding that professorship is accepting invitations to visit universities to give talks. I was working on a big history of democratic theory in Europe and America. I had a couple of talks in place that I would propose to people, then I would say, “Well I know there’s a lot of interest in the new president. Would you like a paper on eighteenth-century democratic theory, or would you like me to talk about Obama?” And almost everybody asked me to talk about Obama. When I was coming back to the U.S. for a symposium on the presidential election, knowing I would be giving talks on Obama, I reread Dreams from My Father on the way here and read The Audacity of Hope on the way back. I was impressed by how good those books were, so I began looking around to find what analyses had been done of his writings. I found almost nothing. The assumption was that Dreams from My Father was just something you would do if you had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, which is what they call the editor of the review, and that The Audacity of Hope was a campaign book of the sort that every politician writes. I’ve read a fair number of those campaign books. The Audacity of Hope is very different. The depth of analysis, the self-awareness that was present, the understanding of the issues of American history—in the way that academic historians understand American history—all of that struck me as extraordinary. I began looking more into Obama’s intellectual formation, and by the time I got back to the U.S. at the end of my year in Cambridge, I was committed to doing something more than just a version of the talk I had given a number of times. At that point I began interviewing the people who had taught Obama, the people who had worked with him, the people who had known him at different stages in his life, and this picture of him as this deeply thoughtful moderate who saw all sides of all issues began to fall into place. I kept hearing the same thing from people who had known him in many different situations and many different stages of his life. At that point, I thought, I’ve got something to say that I haven’t seen in anything else that’s been written about him.

R&P: It sounds like, from the updated introduction, that even after the book came out, you heard from so many people that said, “Yes, you got him. This is it.”

JK: That was very satisfying. The comment that a couple of people have made—again, I must be inoculated against cynicism—was that, “Of course the people who come to you are going to say, ‘You got him right.’ What are they going to say?” But I don’t think that’s true. These were people who were going out of their way to contact me to let me know, and they didn’t have to do that. If they thought it was wrong…

R&P: They could let you know that too.

JK: That’s right. I haven’t heard from a single person that this portrait doesn’t fit the person they know. And that’s true of people who disagree with everything he stands for as well as people who are on his side, people on the far left and people on the far right. Some of them are frustrated by the fact that he is so moderate, and so cerebral, that he is so inclined to think about all sides. I refer to one of the people who was in his Senate office, who said, “It drove us crazy that he always wanted to know every side of every question before he would take a position. We would just say, ‘Barack, decide!’ And he would say, ‘Well, I don’t quite have enough information yet.’” That’s not the way most politicians operate; they know the answer before they get the question. And he was the opposite.

R&P: One of the things that I thought was striking was, as you note, Obama calls himself a Christian and a skeptic. What does he mean by that?

JK: I think we have an understanding in twenty-first century America of what Christianity is that seems to be extremely thin. I grew up in a conservative Catholic family, and I have spent a fair amount of time reading in the literature of Christianity. I’m persuaded by Christian theologians who argue it has been from the very beginning a deeply contested tradition. The attempts to establish a particular theology as the single authentic Christian version strike me as unconvincing. The tradition comes into being through this set of texts that are internally inconsistent. There are all sorts of contestations within the Scriptures of Christianity. I think of the tradition of Christian skepticism as a very old tradition, a tradition of people who are as aware of and concerned with their doubt as they are committed to their faith. I think that’s the kind of Christianity that Obama found at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church of Christ, and I think that’s what appealed to him. Last night I quoted a comment that Jeremiah Wright made to Obama’s biographer, David Remnick. Wright said to him, “He came to Trinity not just looking for a social gospel but looking for a church that didn’t put other people down.” That sense of Christians as people on a quest, and that quest taking them in different directions, and different people choosing different worlds for themselves is something that I think appealed to Obama and is consistent with the way you would expect from the son of cultural anthropologist to think. He understands that the different cultures in human history have had different orientations toward values. He finally found in Jeremiah Wright’s church a way of thinking that made sense to him, and he uses that phrase, “I felt the spirit of God beckoning to me” with reference to his experience in Trinity Church.” I think it’s pretty powerful. It’s the sort of conversion story that you get in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and I think it’s similar to the experience that Obama himself had.

R&P: This faith and doubt—is that part of the paradox of progressive Christianity, the phrase from your keynote last night? Is that tension part of the paradox?

JK: I think so. It prevents you ever from resting easy in your faith, and to some people that doesn’t sound like religious faith at all, because to them, religious faith is a rock. Nothing changes. That’s true for many people, but is it true for everyone? In most religious traditions there are always people who are asking questions, people who want to unsettle what other people take to be dogma. And it does seems to me as though that is a part of the Christian tradition that, although it has not received very much attention in the United States in recent decades, is older than most forms of dogmatic Christianity. And I think there has been a conversation about what Christianity means from the very outset, and I think that notion of a conversation that continues is the conception of the Christian tradition that Obama himself embraces.

R&P: You convey that Obama’s conception of Christianity can be unusual, or even incoherent, for large swaths of the American public. I wonder why that is and how do you think that affects the public perception of his faith, which is so contested?

JK: Right. Well, for a lot of people, what religion means is certainty. There are absolute truths, and you live your life based on trying to adhere to those absolute truths. And that is certainly one tradition that is present in the history of Christianity. But I would contend that that’s not the only tradition in the history of Christianity; there have been people who are committed to opposing that conception of Christianity. In fact, I think that much of the scholarly work on the early history of Christianity for more than a century has focused on those contestations. Scholars have pointed out how long it took, and how much of a struggle it was, to establish these Scriptures, these four books of the New Testament, as the authentic books of the New Testament, and how we are to understand what the Scriptures are and what they mean. In part, this I think is an understandable development from the historical study of the Bible that begins in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and gathers momentum up to our own day. For us historians it becomes a lot harder to argue that this is other than a contested tradition from the very beginning and easier for us to accept that it remains contested to our own day. But many people see their religious faith in an altogether a different way: they think of the sacred Scriptures as having a fixed meaning, given by God, and their obligation is to align themselves with that truth. The idea that truth itself could be fluid is a very foreign concept to millions of people in the United States, and elsewhere, who consider themselves to be Christian. Between those two poles, there are of course infinite numbers of stopping places, so different people put themselves in different locations. But, it does seem to me that Obama, through some of the things he has said and written about Christianity, occupies a position closer to the skeptical than to the absolutist end of that spectrum.

R&P: In your lecture, you juxtaposed President Obama and Pope Francis. How do those two figures relate for you?

JK: The framework that I offered last night comes from the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a copy of which Pope Francis gave the president yesterday.

R&P: Good timing.

JK: Very nice for me. There are multiple themes in that long text, but two of the principal themes are economic justice and the Catholic Church’s commitment to religious tolerance and to the value of interaction between different religions and between Catholicism in particular and agnostics and atheists. That open-mindedness is something that has not been as much in evidence in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so I think it’s clear, so far at least, that a serious commitment to religious freedom and toleration across religious denominations is one of the things that Francis seems to want to make a signature of his papacy. When you add that to the pope’s commitment to economic equality, you have two themes that resonate with Barack Obama’s writings. My guess is that they would have had a lot to talk about on those two questions. Of course, the American press wants them to talk only about contraception, abortion, and gay marriage, and those are going to continue to be differences unless this pope changes his views in that domain too. There is no sign that he will, but those are not the only issues that define the Catholic tradition—even if they are the only issues that the American press seems to want to talk about. One of the great things about this conference at the Danforth Center is that it contains so many different inquiries into the many different dimensions of American religious history and the different ways in which they intersect with American politics. It’s not a simple story. And part of the problem with journalists is that they have copy to get out every 12 hours or every hour or, in the Internet age, every 5 minutes. There’s just not time to write about the deep complications, the subtleties and nuances, of these issues. So you take the simplest, hot-button, yes-or-no issue and you focus attention on that. Economic justice is not a yes-or-no issue. There are questions about what can be done if you share a commitment to addressing the injustice of the current situation, and my guess is that’s part of what those two men talked about in Rome. What do we do if we agree that the current situation is antithetical to Christian principles? How do we move it in the direction of something that would see more commitment to equity and less commitment to satisfying the greed of the least ethical persons in the world?

R&P: You talked openly about the fact you’re an active member of a Catholic parish. As you said, “I have a dog in this fight. I’m hardly a disinterested observer.” As a Catholic and as an intellectual historian, what is the most striking to you about Pope Francis’s election and his tenure so far?

JK: Well, to me the symbols are nice: the choice to live in the guesthouse and drive the Renault, that’s nice. Those are not as important to me as they seem to be to a lot of people. I think the exhortation is immensely important because it is a public statement, issued by the head of the Catholic Church, that the Catholic understanding of Christianity places it not just at a distance, but in opposition to, the idea of unregulated capitalism. That has, as I said last night, been true for over a century, but it has received so little attention for the last several decades. That has made it easy for people to claim that the Catholic Church is a very comfortable partner with the Republican Party in the United States, and with conservative parties elsewhere in the world, because of its stand on several social issues. What I tried to suggest last night is that there is a deep tension within the Catholic Church, between this aggressive economic position and its social conservatism, and there’s no way for me to resolve that tension. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to call for a reconsideration of those issues of sexual morality, just as the Church’s own commissions have called for reconsideration of those issues at different moments since the papacy of Paul VI. It’s not as though there is no chance that this could change. The people who staffed those commissions recommended that the Church should change its position on contraception, abortion, and celibacy. To me, that is very important.

R&P: And that’s overlooked a lot. We don’t hear about that.

JK: Absolutely. I mentioned last night that the decision of Paul VI to reject those recommendations troubled a lot of Catholics. Several people came up to me afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that the Catholic Church had ever studied those issues or suppressed those recommendations. ” It’s kept pretty quiet. It’s not surprising that it’s kept quiet because the members of those commissions were so clearly opposing what has remained the official stance of the Church. But those of us who are aware of that internal debate, those of us who understand those arguments, many of us also understand the reasons for the opposition, and we understand the theological grounding for a challenge to official Catholic doctrine on sexual morality. This pope seems firmly committed to changing the conversation. He seems to be saying, “We’re going to disagree on these questions, but let’s not spend all of our time talking about these issues of sexual morality on which we disagree. Let’s talk about some of the issues on which we might be able to agree.” I do think he and Obama are very much on the same page in terms of the problem of economic injustice; the question is, what do we do about that problem? The pope has a limited range of options, alas, when it comes to regulating the excesses of contemporary capitalism. Barack Obama has a very limited range of options himself, as he’s been discovering with every passing month, and so I think perhaps when they met, they were talking about strategy and how, using the bully pulpits that the two of them have, there are ways that they can at least call to people’s attention the problematic quality of defenses of this economic system, from a Christian perspective. And that in itself is an important change from the last 35 years, when conservative Americans have been arguing that not only are they right about social conservatism, and about issues of sexual morality in particular, but that there’s a consistency between their defense of the free market and their social conservatism. Unsettling that confident assertion is, I think, part of what this pope can accomplish.

R&P: On the economic arguments, you noted that the pope’s exhortation is really a return instead of a departure for the Church. Tell me more about that. Is it stepping away and changing the conversation, or is it really going back to its history?

JK: I think Rerum Novarum in 1891 was a fairly dramatic shift away from the position that the Catholic Church had taken on social issues. Leo XIII acknowledged, in that encyclical, that unregulated capitalism had shown itself to be deeply problematic, so it was necessary for state authorities to intervene in working conditions on the grounds of justice. It was not adequate simply to say, “There are laws of supply and demand, and those govern the economy.” It is within our power to regulate the operation of the economy so that the dispossessed have an opportunity to live lives of dignity. Every human person is sacred, and the system that we have excludes some people from opportunities that would enable them to live full, human lives. There were, from the perspective of a twenty-first century progressive, certainly limitations to the framework within which Rerum Novarum emerged. Because it is a scholastic framework, there’s a belief in objective truth, in unchanging natural law, and there’s a belief that the family is the central building block of society. Its reasoning for calling for a living wage was to make it possible for each family to have a kind of integrity, and the assumption was that the living wage was a family wage, that it would enable the male breadwinner to work outside the home and would enable the mother to stay home and raise the children. So it’s a deeply gendered conception of what economic justice consists of. It’s a conception of the family that very few progressive Catholics would accept in the decades since Vatican II, and certainly not in the twenty-first century, nor would I accept that conception of male and female roles. But we have to realize that social change doesn’t come all at once; it happens very slowly. And so Rerum Novarum can be understood to be simultaneously a reassertion of scholastic social philosophy and metaphysics and also a dramatic departure from the Church’s approach to questions of economics. I think it does have that standing. Now, what’s striking about this exhortation [Evangelii Gaudium] is that it’s coupled with a call for religious toleration, which was not part of the message of Rerum Novarum. I think that is the effect that Vatican II has had on the Catholic Church, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s almost impossible to exaggerate its significance.

R&P: You noted that our history is really a series of culture wars, to invoke our own conference title, “Beyond the Culture Wars.” So, for you, do you think the culture wars will stop any time soon?

JK: Probably not just not any time soon, but never. That’s the nature of popular government, that it generates disagreements. The problem—and this is the central dynamic of the book on democracy since the ancient world that I’m finishing—the problem is that democracy invites controversy. Once you open the door to the robust interaction of people with different points of view, different aspirations, different understandings, it’s impossible to achieve a kind of stability, because as soon as you allow people to say what they believe and to vote on that, you’re going to generate conflict. And so my commitment to democracy is not a commitment to it as a way of resolving problems; it’s a way of reasoning about problems, which is also a way of causing trouble.

From the very beginning of American history there is conflict—at least from the day that the Puritans arrived in New England. Those conflicts are theological, they are political, they are economic, they’re about gender, they’re about relations between whites and blacks, between whites and Native Americans. There are so many different dimensions to those conflicts. That, I think, is the heart of American democracy, these multi-dimensional conflicts that are forced into the public sphere through the institutions of representative government, from the town meeting, initially, then through the legislatures that develop in other colonies. Once those institutions are in place, and once they develop a kind of vibrancy, a kind of tensile strength, then independence from England becomes possible. Once the new nation tries to constitute itself, it already has a tradition of effective self-government that has been in place since the 1620s and 1630s. Those traditions are different in the New England colonies, the mid-Atlantic colonies, and the southern colonies, but they’re in place. It’s not as if the citizens of the United States have to make it up from scratch. They have experience, they have laws, they have traditions of self-government that operate in slightly different ways, but nevertheless, they have sturdy traditions of self-government.

When the Constitution begins to operate, it enshrines that experience of managing conflict as the way in which Americans are going to engage in politics. The culture wars, I really do think, begin with Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams challenging John Winthrop, and they continue right through the debates over the Constitution. You could argue that the struggles between Federalists and Anti-federalists were a kind of a culture war. There was a deep disagreement between those committed to a more a decentralist approach and those who emphasized the role of the national government. Certainly the battles over slavery in the Antebellum period were a culture war about rival understandings of authority, hierarchy, and about white supremacy. The greatest tragedy of American history is the failure to secure the principles on which the Union ended up fighting the Civil War. Not until the civil rights movement did the understanding of race relations that undergirded the system of slavery come to be challenged effectively. But the civil rights movement itself ran directly into opposition grounded in that earlier conception of authority, and of white supremacy. And we have seen the consequences of that commitment to white supremacy continue in our own day. So, I would conclude that the culture wars are not going to end any time soon, that the central culture war between unchallenged authority and hierarchy and the incessant struggle to challenge authority and hierarchy on behalf of social and economic equality is the continuing culture war, a war that dates back to the proclamation of brotherhood at the beginning of Christianity and continues to our very own day.

R&P: To close out, I wondered if you could speak about your latest project, your new book that’s going to be coming out. 

JK: It’s a study of the culture of democracy, both the ideas of democracy and the institutions of democracy. The striking thing to me, as I worked on the book was how central the problem of civil war has been for those who advanced democratic ways of thinking and who tried to put in place democratic institutions. The book goes back to the ancient world to establish the origins of democratic ideas and practices, but it focuses much more on the period since the Renaissance. I examine the sixteenth-century wars of religion, then the seventeenth-century English civil war, the American and French Revolutions, and the continuing struggles for democracy on both sides of the Atlantic in the nineteenth century. The book culminates with a discussion of the American Civil War and its long-term consequences. In every instance, those civil wars had the effect of weakening, if not altogether destroying, what I call the “ethic of reciprocity.” By that I mean the willingness one must have in a democracy to lose to your worst enemy, the understanding that there will be give and take between opposing sides, the awareness that compromises are necessary in order to avoid civil war. When civil war occurs, it breaks down that ethic of reciprocity and replaces it with hatred that endures, hatred that makes compromise extremely difficult.

As a result of the sixteenth-century wars of religion, Europe developed into a collection of confessional states in which only a single religion was permitted to exist. Sociologist of religion José Casanova has pointed out that European languages don’t even have a word for “denomination.” It’s hard to think of American history if you can’t talk about the difference between denominations, but that history of confessional states in Europe means that in order for deconfessionalization to occur, pitched battles had to be fought between the official state religion and militant secularists, whereas in the American tradition we have long had a crazy quilt of many denominations, many religions, not always getting along nicely, but at least co-existing.

The American Revolution did not become a civil war primarily because there was a degree of confidence in the existing democratic institutions that were already in place. Those traditions were not in place in seventeenth-century England, or eighteenth-century France, and there was no way to moderate the conflicts that culminated in regicide and the restoration of monarchy in its aftermath. When the United States finally does have its civil war, which was absolutely necessary to abolish slavery, it did end the abomination of slavery, but it also perpetuated deep animosities between an unrepentant slaveholding sensibility and an anti-slavery sensibility. I think that the last century and a half of American history has been marked by a protracted struggle between the anti-slavery North, and its cultural dependencies stretching west, and the white supremacist Confederacy, and its cultural dependencies stretching west. I think that cultural divide lies beneath much of the political polarization of our own day. It is reflected in the split between blue states and red states, although of course there are many other issues involved as well. One of the reasons I’m as pessimistic as I am about the current state American politics is that I think that those divisions are as deep or as old as American history. So the idea that, somehow, we’re going to snap our fingers and resolve it, or some moderate politician is going to make it all vanish so that we can all get along with each other—that, I think, is a fantasy. It’s not going to happen. I’m deeply troubled, as a result of the work I’ve done on this book, about the future. I’m worried about the condition of the ethic of reciprocity in American democracy, and for that reason I am worried about the long-term health of the culture that lies beneath our institutions of self-government.


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