By way of background, here’s a conversation the Oracle had with Danny Hillis when I told him a successful businessman turned do-gooder whom we both knew made me uncomfortable.
Danny: “That’s because he’s a missionary.”
The Oracle (before she was one): “But, Danny, I’m a missionary.”
Danny: “No you’re not. Missionaries want to convert people. You’re an evangel. You’re just bringing the good news.”
Aha! So now you’ll understand why the Oracle spent the last week wondering what’s happened to Rick Warren. Remember him? Ten years ago, he was the face of the new kind of evangelism sweeping America, a convivial marriage between Christianity and capitalism. No fire and brimstone; no telling people what they could and couldn’t do. Not so much preaching the Gospel as selling Brand Jesus: “Be Nice and Prosper.”
Which made perfect sense because, really, who could be nicer than Jesus? Jesus invented niceness. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.“ “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “The meek will inherit the earth.” I don’t know if it was actually Jesus who said all those things because 1) I’m a Jew and 2) I prefer science-based narratives; and 3) Oracles don’t do research. Still, I completely applaud those values. I applaud Brand Jesus for preaching those values. And though I heard Rick Warren speak once and didn’t like him, I applaud the people I imagine make up his congregation who embrace – nay, embody – those values. I say “Imagine” as opposed to “know” because I haven’t actually researched the demographics (see above re: Oracles and research), but I see them as a bunch of genial white people whose distinguishing characteristic, aside from being white, is being Middle Class.
That’s the epiphany at the heart of this week’s Oracle: Rick Warren and the Middle Class vanished at the same time. Without a middle class there’s no one to embrace his middle class values. Brand Jesus doesn’t sell in a Broke America. Instead, Evangelicals have rallied around Rick Santorum.
For those of you not sure which Rick is which, here’s a quick rundown.
Rick Warren, Hawaiian shirts. Rick Santorum, sweater vests.
Rick Warren, laissez-faire. Santorum, legislated morality
Rick Warren, evangel. Santorum, missionary.
Of course Santorum’s unlikely to win the nomination, even with his recent surge. Of the two more likely contenders, neither Newt nor Mitt fits the missionary profile. Newt’s too grandiose; if anything he wants to be Pope. (C’mon, why do you think he converted to Catholicism? For love of Callista? Get real.) And although Mitt actually was a missionary, he wasn’t very good at it: during his 30-month tour of duty in France, he only converted ten people (as per “The Real Romney” whose authors are not Oracles and presumably do do research).
Still, both Newt and Romney are playing to Santorum’s so-called-evangelical-but-really-missionary base. Both toe the no abortion/no birth control/no same sex marriage legislated morality line. Worse, both trumpet their belief – shared with Santorum – in American Exceptionalism. According to this doctrine, America is a beacon of light in a dark world. Specially chosen by God to lead the way. With a moral obligation to remake the world in its own image. In other words: America, missionary. Yikes.
Meanwhile, guess who is turning out to be an evangel? That’s right, Obama! According to the NY Times (1/28/12), the President “rallied House Democrats…with an address that inched toward a ‘morning in America’ tone’.” Okay, he also emphasized collective responsibility which is maybe a little earlier in the morning than most Americans want to get up, but the larger vision is all about reinvigorating the middle class. That’s what the Chrysler Superbowl ad was all about. Detroit, long the symbol of America’s lost manufacturing dominance, the symbol of a lost middle-class, becomes a symbol of a newly muscular, resilient, competitive America with a Rosie-the-Riveter middle-class determined – and able – to get the job done.
No wonder the Republicans are frothing at the mouth: Instead of making a major donation to Obama’s campaign so it could hire some branding people and create an ad campaign, Chrysler did it for them. America the Comeback (Middle-Aged) Kid! Take that Citizens United!
And yes, I know that it’s going to be hard for Obama to win over the people he’s disappointed. After all his last campaign was evangelical too – Hope! Change! A post-partisan America. Believe me, no one knows more than an Oracle the pain of seeing your vision come up against reality. But this election isn’t about a President, it’s about re-defining America.
Brand America #1: the Come-Back (Middle-Aged) Kid
Brand America #2: American Exceptionalism:
Brand America #1. God helps those who help themselves.
Brand America #2: God helps those who help themselves to more than their fair share
Brand America #1: Internal nation building
Brand America #2: Nuke Iran
That’s why I think Obama has a chance. Because in this one respect at least, I believe America’s like me.
Brand America #1 sounds like good news.
Brand America #2 makes me uncomfortable.