Common Cause?: On History, Justice, Hope, Grace, and Materialism

Last week The Atlantic published a wide-ranging interview with Barack Obama upon the release of the first volume of his memoirs A Promised Land

The part of the interview that jumped out at me was Obama's observations about optimism, materialism, and religion when it comes to political progress. Here are the passages:

[T]emperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.

Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality…a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.
I both agree and disagree with this assessment. Well, I don't disagree as much as I have some reservations. 

First of all, I think it's incredibly insightful, from a theological perspective, for Obama to highlight in this conversation the impact of materialism upon our views of life and politics. That is to say, if you read the entire essay, Obama's political pragmatism and hope is rooted in his non-materialistic view of life and history. And, crucially, it's this non-materialist view that separates Obama from people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is an atheist, in how they differ on the question concerning the moral arc of the universe. Does it bend toward justice (Obama's view) or toward chaos (Coates' view)?

All this I heartedly agree with, how hope and a pragmatic politics is rooted in a non-materialistic view of reality. 

That said, where I disagree with Obama is with his optimism that "common cause" can be made between the materialists and the non-materialists in the fight for social change and justice. 

First of all, I don't think there's much left on the conservative, evangelical side of the equation to partner with when it comes to finding "a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these." Evangelicalism has become, to borrow from Revelation 18, "a dwelling place of demons and a haunt for every unclean spirit."

And second, to level a critique toward those on the left, I don't think the materialists (i.e., social justice warriors) can work with justice-minded and sympathetic non-materialists. I think this is the flaw in Obama's theology and argument. In contrast to materialists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Obama's non-materialistic view of history gives his politics both hope and grace, making him open to compromise and incremental change. These virtues are wholly absent in the materialistic pursuit of justice, precisely because materialism rules out both grace and hope. 

Simply put, Obama is correct, there are shared values between the materialists and the non-materialists. And those shared values lead us to think we can share "common cause." We want to. And we try. All the time. But that "common cause" is perpetually undermined as these values are embedded within two very different metaphysical worldviews. In the non-materialist worldview, grace and hope season hate toward political enemies and impatience with the lack of progress in our lifetimes. Non-materialists can play the long game, graciously and hopefully, because they believe in a long game. By contrast, materialists, since there is no long game and the winners write the history books, will be driven to hate those who oppose them and become violently impatient in the face of conversation, compromise, and incrementalism. Given the pressing urgency of the Revolution hope and grace are moral failures, each dampening the passions needed to change the world. 

And given the contrasting logics of these worldviews, how can a sustainable common cause be made? In summary, and here is where I'm more skeptical than Obama, more than "shared values" is necessary. There needs to be a shared metaphysics as well. 

And so, what's my proposed solution? Well, God, obviously. We need to convert the evangelicals as if they were pagans, because that is what they are, calling upon them to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And we also need to covert the social justice warriors, for non-materialism is the only sane and proper view of history. Politics, like all of life, only works with hope and grace. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply