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April 27, 2009


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John Robertson

That's cause you're not religious. Obama believes God gave the ability to him, so he's grateful.


Good point. I wonder what Rowland Manthorpe makes of this?


God knows. Probably some silly-arse rubbish he's made up without thinking about it.

Something like: "this just shows how hubristic confidence is - how confidence always becomes overconfidence".

What a tool.


I'm not sure what Rowland (a 'philosopher of confidence', which is why I asked) means here. So let me explain my question a bit more. I think John makes an excellent point and raises an interesting question about the distinction between confidence and arrogance. Obama believes (we hypothesise) that his gift for speaking is just that - a gift - and as such, he can hardly claim credit for it. This enables him to make a startling assertion of his own talent without appearing (to himself, to Reid) arrogant. You don't have to be a Christian to think about yourself this way - a non-religious way of articulating the same sentiment might be to describe one's talent as a genetic inheritance (it doesn't sound as good but that's because we haven't spent thousands of years developing a non-religious rhetoric of selfhood). The self-reflexive, distancing nature of Obama's confidence is his most striking feature.


Sorry - missed this. And, let's be honest, didn't really put a lot of thought into my first reply. The shock of being called to philosophise was just too much...

You're right, it is an excellent point. I may well post myself about it in greater length, but here are my initial thoughts:

1. We make a conceptual distinction between faith in God and faith in oneself. But Obama seems to jump over that distinction. His assertion takes his spiritual faith and applies it to himself. It seems to suggest that he and his gifts - and he sure has a few - are living proof of God's munificence.

2. This understanding is very far removed from the traditional "God's will be done" understanding of faith. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that it totally reverses that argument. In this conception, man is God's instrument - and, in a circular argument, whatever man does is by that token Godly.

3. My understanding of Obama's personal beliefs is pretty sketchy, but he's basically an evangelical ( I think): and evangelical religions tend to prioritise personal experience over rules and catechisms. It's above all about strength of feeling. Obama's confidence, in this sense, is the surest indication of Godliness. He is certain about something; therefore it must be true.

4. Obama's foreign policy is a good example of this. He is much nicer than Bush personally (that ironic distancing you refer to, and which we Europeans find so pleasing) and he has a far more nuanced understanding of world affairs. But he doesn't really deviate from the script at all. So far as he's concerned, America is the chosen nation, and its mission - to bring freedom to the nations of the world - is a sanctified one.

5. Seems to me, therefore, that rather than being humble, Obama's religion is actually much closer to the sort of humanist-Christianity John Gray inveigh against so brilliantly. He's their superior in so many ways, but in the end he comes from the same mould as Bush and Blair. When I hear him saying "I have a gift", I feel a premonition of Iraqs to come.

Personally, for all the rhetoric, I see Obama as an areligious figure. He's a creature of the will.

I guess what I'm saying is that, rather than being humble, Obama is actually so unbelievably arrogant that we find it almost impossible to appreciate.


Thanks for your thoughtful contribution, Rowland. I'm afraid I disagree with all of it. Obama isn't suggesting that "he and his gifts" are "living proof of God's munificence". He's not making the case for God being anything. He's simply trying to explain why he's such a good speaker. God's munificence is assumed. As for Obama's take on American exceptionalism, I'd say it's substantively very different from Bush's: see http://tinyurl.com/c3yhak. Obama doesn't employ any of Bush's rhetoric about bringing freedom to the nations of the world. In fact he's specifically laid out goals in Afghanistan, for instance, that disavow any such ambition in favour the more limited goal of stopping it from being a terrorist haven.

You end up, via these misconceptions, asserting that Bush and Obama are essentially the same. I can't even believe you believe this - you're too smart. Everything we know about their personalities, management style, etc, suggests they're very different. One of the things that distinguishes Obama most clearly from Bush is his appetite for empirical data, his willingness to adapt his positions according to the facts, and his hunger to hear and absorb other people's opinions. The opposite of Bush, in other words. Bush and his people didn't want to be part of the 'reality-based community'. They acted in the way you suggest - on strength of feeling above all. 'Just look inside: the answer is there'. Obama looks out. That's the difference. I see Obama's "I have a gift" statement as consistent with that. It's his way of saying, it's not all about me.

Regardless of the religious question, I think the distinction between Bush's confidence and Obama's confidence is absolutely fundamental, indeed archetypal. You could write a book about it.

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