Rethinking Obama: Volume 22

Cover of Rethinking Obama

Table of contents

(20 chapters)
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List of Contributors

Pages vii-viii
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I am honored to present Volume 22 of Political Power and Social Theory (PPST). This volume is a landmark, in that it is among the first volumes of PPST to be dedicated to a single topic. With the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election in sight, this special volume on the meaning of Barack Obama's presidency from a critical social science perspective is especially timely. For the first part of the volume, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Louise Seamster have put together a diverse collection of essays on the politics of race in the age of Obama. For the second part (the Scholarly Controversy section familiar to PPST readers), Philip S. Gorski offers provocative reflections on Obama and civil religion in the United States, with critical commentary from Joseph Gerteis, Andrew R. Murphy, and Michael Young and Christopher Pieper.

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In this special section of Political Power and Social Theory, we present the work of scholars from various disciplines documenting and analyzing the Obama phenomenon. The work in this section, including both theoretical and empirical analysis, is an early step in the much-needed academic discussion on Obama and racial politics in the contemporary United States. We offer this compendium as a call-to-arms to progressives and leftists, encouraging the revival of radical critique of Obama's discourse and policies instead of the fulsome praise or confused silence that has so far greeted Obama from the left.

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A devastating racial logic remains at play in the moment of a “post-civil rights” Black presidency. Barack Obama's ascent has amplified a national mythology of racial progress in the US multiculturalist age. This mythology has fundamentally undermined both the credibility and critical traction of existing scholarly-activist languages of racism, antiracism, white supremacy, and institutionalized racial dominance. Thus, the discourse of national-racial vindication that animates Obama's ascendance can and must be radically opposed with creative historical narrations. These narrations must attempt to explain how and why systems of racial dominance and state-condoned, state-sanctioned racist violence remain central to the shaping of our present tense. The chapter approaches this problematic by examining how the historical social logics of racial chattel slavery cannot be historically compartmentalized and temporally isolated into a discrete “past,” because they are genocidal in their structuring and are thus central to the constitution of our existing social and cultural systems. The apparatus of the North American racial chattel institution must be theorized in its present tense articulations because its logics of power, domination, and violence have never really left us. The essay offers a schematic elaboration of this reconceptualization of racial genocide focusing on how the slavery's abolition in the latter-19th century provides the political, cultural, and legal basis for slavery's “reform” into the apparatuses of policing, criminalization, widespread and state-sanctioned antiblack bodily violence, and ultimately massive imprisonment. This examination allows for an elaboration of how slavery's genocidal social logics permeate the present tense social formation, particularly at the site of massive racial criminalization and imprisonment.

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This chapter explores how discourse about Barack Obama's community organizing background underscores his new Black politics. Whereas new Black politics is associated with a minimization of race, centrist and neoliberal policies, and an unwillingness to “speak truth to power,” Obama has been characterized as “different” due to his community organizing experience. As I show, Obama's community organizing background is invoked by him and others in ways that amplify an opposition to Black racial solidarity associated with the tradition of old Black politics. The first section examines how Obama's community organizing is depicted as a quest for racial acceptance from old guard Black activists but translates into a story of his political maturation. The second section considers how Obama's relationship with his (now) former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright is symbolized as a struggle between old and new Black politics and thus serves as a commentary on the presumed ineffectiveness of racial solidarity for addressing the plight of working-class Blacks.

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Numerous commentators have suggested that Barack Obama represents a new “post-racial” politics in the United States, distinct from a pre-existing contentious form that originated with the civil rights era. Drawing on secondary historical data, Mr. Obama's presidential campaign speeches, and county-level electoral returns from Indiana and North Carolina, I argue in contrast to such claims that post-racial politics comprise the latest in a line of successive attempts by the Democratic Party to articulate the New Deal voting bloc, in which the white suburban middle class is the primary constituency while African Americans are of secondary importance. By addressing the question of “Obama and the Politics of Race” in this way, this chapter seeks to integrate political parties into the study of racial ideologies. Specifically, it suggests that the latter may originate and subsequently develop in the context of partisan struggle.

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With its preference for small government and fiscal responsibility, the Tea Party movement claims to be conservative. Yet, their tactics and rhetoric belie this claim. The shrill attacks against Blacks, illegal immigrants, and gay rights are all consistent with conservatism, but suggesting that the president is a socialist bent on ruining the country, is beyond politics. This chapter shows that Richard Hofstadter's thesis about the “paranoid style” of American politics helps characterize the Tea Party's pseudo-conservatism. Through a comprehensive analysis of qualitative interviews, content analysis and public opinion data, we find that Tea Party sympathizers are not mainstream conservatives, but rather, they hold a strong sense of out-group anxiety and a concern over the social and demographic changes in America.

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This essay tackles the Obama “phenomenon,” from his candidacy to his election, as a manifestation of the new “color-blind racism” that has characterized U.S. racial politics in the post-civil rights era. Rather than symbolizing the “end of race,” or indeed a “miracle,” Obama's election is a predictable result of contemporary U.S. electoral politics. In fact, Obama is a middle-of-the-road Democrat whose policies since taking office have been almost perfectly in line with his predecessors, especially in terms of his failure to improve the lot of blacks and other minorities. In this essay, I review the concept of color-blind racism and its application to the Obama phenomenon. I also revisit some of my past predictions for Obama's presidency and evaluate their accuracy halfway through his term. Finally, I offer suggestions for constructing a genuine social movement to push Obama and future politicians to provide real, progressive “change we can believe in.”

This chapter is based on a chapter I added for the third edition of my book, Racism without Racists. Louise Seamster, a wonderful graduate student at Duke, helped me update some material, locate new sources, and rework some sections, as well as abridge some of the many footnotes (interested readers can consult the chapter). I kept the first person to maintain the more direct and engaged tone of the original piece and because the ideas (the good, the bad, and the ugly ones) in the chapter are mine, and thus, I wish to remain entirely responsible for them.

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In 1967, Robert N. Bellah famously argued that there existed an “American Civil Religion,” which was distinct from churchly religion and captured the “transcendental” dimension of the American project. In this chapter, I revisit the civil religion concept and reconstruct it along more Weberian lines. Specifically, I argue that the civil religion tradition is one of three competing traditions for thinking about the proper relationship between religion and politics in America; the other two are religious nationalism and liberal secularism. Whereas liberal secularism envisions a complete separation of the religious and political value spheres, and religious nationalism longs for their (re)unification, civil religion aims for a mediating position of partial separation and productive tension. Following Bellah, I argue that the two central strands of the civil religion tradition have been covenant theology and civic republicanism. The body of the chapter sketches out the development of the tradition across a series of national foundings and refoundings, focusing on the writings of leading civil theologians from John Winthrop and John Adams through Abraham Lincoln and John Dewey to Martin King and Barack Obama. The conclusion advances a normative argument for American civil religion – and against liberal secularism and religious nationalism. I contend that liberalism is highly inclusive but insufficiently solidaristic; that religious nationalism is highly solidaristic but insufficiently inclusive; and that only civil religion strikes a proper balance between individual autonomy and the common good.

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Philip S. Gorski's “Barack Obama and civil religion” seeks to revive and reform the concept of civil religion. This response addresses two sets of issues raised by the entwined analytic and normative claims in the chapter. The first concerns the definition of civil religion, including how the civil and religious spheres are connected within it and how civil religion differs conceptually from other related models. The second concerns whether a renewed commitment to civil religion will provide a platform for greater openness and pluralism, as Gorski claims.

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Philip S. Gorski's “Barack Obama and Civil Religion” offers a number of important contributions to the study of American culture generally, and American Civil Religion (ACR) more specifically. Gorski's appreciation of the deep diversity in contemporary American society is a welcome development in ACR analysis. I ask whether the term “civil religion” remains most adequate for describing the sort of cultural phenomenon that Gorski, following Bellah, attempts to capture, and offer some methodological and interpretive comments on the promise and challenge of studying ACR in the twenty-first century United States. I close with some more particular remarks on Barack Obama and the contours of ACR as sketched by Gorski.

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We should begin with making clear our limitations in responding to Gorski's article. We are not experts in the debates about American civil religion. Like most sociologists of religion we are familiar with Bellah's (1967) Daedalus article and its great influence. We have not followed closely the empirical work that sought to test whether a civil religion actually exists in America or elsewhere, and only casually followed the more theoretical debates surrounding the concept itself. We are actually better versed in Gorski's work and from that perspective we think his article on Obama and civil religion can be usefully read as a continuation of a line of reasoning he launched more than 10 years ago with his American Sociological Review article on historicizing secularization. In that article he claimed that it was probable that “Western society has become more secular without becoming less religious” and explained why (Gorski, 2000, p. 138). Barack Obama's invocation of an American civil religion and its popular reception by liberal Americans fits well with this line of reasoning. In the heady days of 2008, many liberal Americans seemed to have found (civil) religion with Obama – a surprising turn of events in need of explanation.

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In 1967, Robert N. Bellah famously argued that there existed an “American Civil Religion,” which was distinct from churchly religion and captured the “transcendental” dimension of the American project. In this chapter, I revisit the civil religion concept and reconstruct it along more Weberian lines. Specifically, I argue that the civil religion tradition is one of three competing traditions for thinking about the proper relationship between religion and politics in America; the other two are religious nationalism and liberal secularism. Whereas liberal secularism envisions a complete separation of the religious and political value spheres, and religious nationalism longs for their (re)unification, civil religion aims for a mediating position of partial separation and productive tension. Following Bellah, I argue that the two central strands of the civil religion tradition have been covenant theology and civic republicanism. The body of the chapter sketches out the development of the tradition across a series of national foundings and refoundings, focusing on the writings of leading civil theologians from John Winthrop and John Adams through Abraham Lincoln and John Dewey to Martin King and Barack Obama. The conclusion advances a normative argument for American civil religion – and against liberal secularism and religious nationalism. I contend that liberalism is highly inclusive but insufficiently solidaristic; that religious nationalism is highly solidaristic but insufficiently inclusive; and that only civil religion strikes a proper balance between individual autonomy and the common good.

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Cover of Rethinking Obama
DOI
10.1108/S0198-8719(2011)22
Publication date
2011-11-30
Book series
Political Power and Social Theory
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-85724-911-1
Book series ISSN
0198-8719