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Obama the Theocrat? Critics Look for a Label That Will Stick

5 years ago
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We recently noted the irony that Barack Obama's secular faithful were growing uneasy with his extensive use of religious language (and faith-based policies).

Now, in an odder twist, it appears some on the right are also angry at Obama's religious rhetoric, to the point that Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator titled a recent post, "Obama the Theocrat."

If that charge has a familiar ring, it's because it is the same one many on the left tossed at George W. Bush and his ilk for years, most notably in books like Kevin Phillips' "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century" and Damon Linker's "The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege." (There are many others, as reviewed here by Ross Douthat.)

So what's behind the theocracy epithet against Obama? More or less the same thing that liberals worried about with Bush -- that the president is harnessing a vision of faith to government policies. For conservatives, the problem is that it is religion hooked to the wrong government policies, like health care reform rather than an inspiration to go to war in Iraq. As Ed Morrissey put it in a February 2008 post that may have started the Obama-as-Theocrat meme, "This is the religion of statism distilled to its essence."Rather than arguing against Judeo-Christian injunctions to care for the poor, critics of Obama's coming theocracy frame the problem in terms of government -- and the president -- usurping divine prerogatives over life and death. And that would be death, as in "death panels," according to the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, who titled his post on Obama's ambitions, "God and Obama to Co-Chair Death Panel."

Goldfarb, Lawler and others (including Erick Erickson at RedState) were reacting to a statement from Obama during an Aug. 19 conference call with some 1,000 rabbis to drum up religious support for health care reform. Obama's call with Jewish leaders preceded his "altar call" in the same vein later in the day with progressive religious leaders and some 140,000 listeners.

In the call with the rabbis, Obama reportedly evoked the upcoming High Holidays (albeit a month early) and the prayers of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when he said, "We are God's partners in matters of life and death."

That phrasing has turned out to be Exhibit A in the argument that Obama is a "theocrat" bent on enforcing his religious vision on America, even if it happens to be that bleeding-heart stuff from the Beatitudes.

(Exhibit B in this argument might be that, according to NRO's Andy McCarthy, both Obama and the real theocrat leaders in Iran often go tieless. Indeed, "plain dress" has often been associated with theocratic types -- like the ever-dangerous Quakers.)

So is Obama using the language of theocracy, and usurping, or fulfilling, God's role?

From a Christian perspective, the reference to being "God's partners in matters of life and death" is fairly unremarkable, and hardly blasphemous. Indeed, it echoes Christ's call (as per the Hebrew Bible) to care for the least among us, and for his followers to help "build up the Kingdom of God," not in the sense of creating paradise on earth, but witnessing to the faith and promoting life and justice. Or, in the words of the 16th century Spanish mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.
From the Jewish perspective, the phrase does not seem especially problematic either. A rabbi who was in on the call (but preferred to remain anonymous) said that universal health care is, in fact, a matter of life and death, and so the president's phrasing was "an uncontroversial and perfectly true comment."

On the other hand, the "theocrat" label may be better seen as another round in the longstanding political battle to tag Obama with a derogatory label that will stick.

"Liberal" hasn't worked as well as Obama's opponents would like, so the effort has gone around the horn, from accusations that he is the anti-Christ or that he fancies himself the Messiah, to more standard and secular charges that he is, for example, a socialist. Last April, Saul Anuzis, who lost a bid to became the GOP party chairman, conceded that Republicans had gained little traction with the "socialist" tag. "Rhetorically, Republicans are having a very hard time finding something that raises the consciousness of the average voter," Anuzis said, according to The New York Times. So Anuzis argued for calling Obama's policies "economic fascism."

"We've so overused the word 'socialism' that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," Anuzis said. "Fascism -- everybody still thinks that's a bad thing."

Maybe so. But they aren't associating it with Obama. Yet. Perhaps they will if it turns out Obama's just not very good at theocracy.

Lawler, for one, thinks Obama isn't actually a very capable theocrat: "While he was aiming for a theocratic-style impression, I think, he came across as a bumbling, lying demagogue."

Given enough time, maybe that'll work.

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