by Bill Benzon
There can be little doubt that President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was an extraordinary performance and a powerful statement about the state of race relations in the United States of America. But it is also a bit puzzling, for that statement took the form of a sermon. As such, it was religious discourse and not secular political discourse.
That’s what I want to talk about, not to reach any specific conclusions, but to raise questions, to call for a conversation about and an examination of the role of religious discourse in civic life.
Rather than develop those questions directly, I want to place Obama’s eulogy on the table to a moment and consider a recent conversation between Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, and John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. That will establish the context in which I offer a few remarks about Obama’s performance. Then I want to place in evidence a statement that Robert Mann made about Laudato Si’, the recent and quite remarkable encyclical by Pope Francis.
The ‘Cult’ of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Loury and McWhorter had this conversation at Bloggingheads.tv on July 21, 2015. After opening pleasantries and some remarks about Obama, they move on to discuss the ascendancy of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a commentator on race relations in America. Starting at somewhat after nine minutes in McWhorter argues that Coates has become somewhat like the priest of a religion:
There is now what a Martian anthropologist would call a religion. Which is that one is to understand the role of racism in America’s past and present.
And Coates has reached a point, and this is not anything that I ever predicted, where he is the priest of it. Because, and this is the crucial point, James Baldwin […] his point was often that race IS America, that the race problem is the essence of America and where it needs to go. And people read that and they quoted it but it wasn’t something that ordinary white readers really felt at the time.
Whereas today, really, that is something that whites feel such that Coates is revered. He is not considered somebody where you actually assess whether what he’s saying is true, you’re only supposed to criticize him in the gentlest of terms. He’s a priest of a religion.
Loury finds these remarks interesting, but hasn’t quite thought about things in this way. So he muses:
I have remarked here […] about the rise of Al Sharpton, I think is very interesting. I think a political scientist would probably analyze this is terms of Obama’s ascendency and how the shake-out from that has kinda’ reconfigured the whole public racial discourse and conversation. I think […] that the new era that we’re in there’s kind of an anachronistic character to the racial claim-making based on civil rights and black’s subordinated and discriminated status, and that the ground has shifted so much, you know in that the Latino, the Asian, that the character of discrimination, the exclusion, is completely different than it had been 50 years ago.
And that a lot of the white response which is solicitous of these claims, is more patronizing that it is real political compromise. That is to say, it’s more of exactly what you’re putting your finger on here about religion. It’s more of signaling a moral position, more or displaying a sentiment, than it is of politics and power, you know of coalitions. […]
So, you know, I just didn’t take [Coates’ reparations article] seriously. And yet it became this thing. So reading I decided what I was dealing with, and I don’t think this is unrelated to your religion point, is a kind of cultural expressiveness, OK. Because the language is angry, OK. It takes no prisoners, OK. I mean I actually went back, pardon me, and read James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind” piece in the original New Yorker magazine circa 1961, OK. I just went back and read it. […] Baldwin rips the friggin’ page apart with these blistering sentences! […] Ta-Nehisi Coates is no James Baldwin. […]
Though I’ve read a bit of Coates here and there, I’ve not read the reparations article, nor his current book, Between the World and Me. But in find their remarks about him, and about how (progressive white) people are taking his work, to be credible and potentially quite interesting. And I want to underline their emphasis on how people are taking his work and how they are regarding and treating Coates. Of course Loury and McWhorter do not mean that he is literally the priest of a religion much less that he intends his work to be taken as scripture. Their observations rather focus on how a large segment of his audience is according him a certain kind of deference. This audience doesn’t treat it as ordinary political or social commentary.
The religiosity thus hangs there in a liminal zone, a public space somewhere beyond Coates’ intention. It is protected speech, not in the Constitutional sense of the First Amendment, but in the informal sense of an implicit social contract that seems recently to have evolved around race relations in the United States. We now have this “conversation on race” that is mostly just that at this point, a conversation, a public expression of attitudes and beliefs, a point that both Loury and McWhorter make throughout their discussion.
What I’m thinking is that this quasi-religious discourse may be a necessary prelude to effective action. Why necessary? Well, that gets complicated beyond what I’m ready to hazard in this post. But as Loury remarks near the end (about 49 minutes in), there’s a Freudian dimension to racism that stands in the way of public discourse, though artists – such as James Baldwin, or the somewhat later and rather different Ishmael Reed, or the earlier William Faulkner – have explored it in depth and at great length. And that may well be a factor driving the quasi-religious nature of this discourse. Perhaps this quasi-religious expressive discourse allows us to become more comfortable with a certain kind of racial discourse. Once that has been achieved, then we’ll be ready to roll up our sleeves and act.
I leave that as an issue to be explored.
And that liminal zone, I suggest, is where we are to place Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Like Coates’s writing, Obama’s eulogy is protected speech, not in the constitutional sense, though of course it is also that. It is protected in the sense that it is insulated from both political critique and political action. Coates’ insulation exists in virtue of informal understandings.
Obama’s insulation exists in virtue of the explicit construction of his act as religious ritual. From beginning to end it is a sermon, with the long middle portion devoted more to the black church and the nation than to Pinckney, as would be the case in an ordinary eulogy. Obama is giving a lay sermon, which is not uncommon in many Protestant churches. Or rather I should say, the President of the United States is giving a sermon. For Obama is not present there as a private individual; he is there as head of state.
And so he is speaking as head of state, as the President of the United States. It is the President who, in the middle of this sermon, says:
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
By “our nation's original sin”, I assume Obama meant slavery, and of course the phrase “original sin” has deep Biblical resonance. But what kind of a political statement is this, if it is political at all? After all, original sin does not go away. It is a condition of mortal existence, one with which Christians must struggle, but not one they can ever eliminate. There is no way to extirpate or vanquish original sin. Only in the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ will that sin be vanquished.
Surely the President is not calling for the Apocalypse. Slavery of course has been abolished, but racial injustice remains. Of that he says “[…] this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.” Necessarily incomplete – well, yes, of course. And what of it?
He didn’t offer any suggestions, nor would this have been the time and place to do so. That is, it was not political speech, though it will have resonance in the political arena. It exists in that same quasi-religious arena where we find the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is expressive speech.
But it is also a marker placed in the historical record by Barack Hussein Obama in his capacity as President and Chief Executive of the United Stated of America. Perhaps it is neither political discourse nor religious discourse, but something else, something new aching to be born?
Meanwhile, what will he say about race relations in the next State of the Union address? That too is a ritual event. But that ritual is directly political in nature.
Laudato Si’ as a Political Document
A bit over a week before the funeral for Clementa Pinckney the Roman Catholic Church issued an important document: Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of The Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, aka Laudato Si’. It is remarkable in its scope. Writing in The Monthly for July 1, Robert Manne contrasts the Pope’s approach to the environment to Al Gore’s:
Where Al Gore and Pope Francis part company is over the relation of the climate crisis to contemporary industrial civilisation.
For Gore the fundaments of this civilisation are unquestioned. For Pope Francis the climate crisis is only the most extreme expression of a destructive tendency that has become increasingly dominant through the course of industrialisation. Judaeo-Christian thought “demythologised” nature, breaking with an earlier worldview that regarded nature as “divine”. But as the industrial age advanced, by ceasing to regard the Earth, our common home, with the proper “awe and wonder”, humans have come to behave as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits to our immediate needs.” “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the past two hundred years.” The vision of the encyclical is not straightforwardly anti-modernist, although I have no doubt that it will be mischaracterised in this way. The advances in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications are welcomed. “Who,” Francis exclaims at one point in the encyclical, “can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” But for him, in the end, the treatment of the Earth as a resource to be mastered and exploited; the limitless appetite for consumption that has accelerated during the past 200 years of the industrial age and has culminated in our “throwaway culture”; and the most extreme consequence of the contemporary crisis of post-industrial society, the climate emergency – are inseparable phenomena, part of a general and profound civilisational malaise. “Doomsday predictions,” the encyclical claims, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe.” […]
In the contemporary world there exist not “two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but … one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The most important connection between the twin social and environmental crises is expressed in these words. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” The human family is disfigured by radical inequality. This inequality should arouse our “indignation”. It rarely does.
If we are to rethink our relation to nature in the course of dealing with the environment, then, as Manne realizes, that amounts to rethinking our understanding of the world and our position in it. And THAT, Manne, argues, is a political act.
That is to say, the political extends far beyond the civic sphere to encompass everything we can touch. It is the nature of the cosmos itself that is in political play – but then, that’s what American cultural politics, with its focus on evolution, abortion, and gender roles, has been telling us.
It’s all in play. There is nothing that isn’t political. But if politics is all, then is it anything at all?
We’re entering a strange world. At this point I’d be inclined to consult the French philosopher, Bruno Latour, who’s been arguing for thirty years that the distinction the modern world has established between Man and Nature cannot hold. More recently in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence he has argued that each mode of discourse has its own ‘felicity conditions’, its own conditions of truth. That is an insight we need if we are to make sense of these odd discourses we’ve glimpsed: the quasi-cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the sermon on race delivered by the President of the United States, and the papal encyclical that asks us to rethink the world from top to bottom.
These discourses do not fit into our received categories and institutions. They challenge us to remake ourselves and thereby to embark on a journey to a new world.
I have written four posts about Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-1.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 2: Performing Black, Three Discussions: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-2.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 3: The Technics of Grace: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-3.html
• Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 4: To Redeem a Nation: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/obamas-eulogy-for-clementa-pinckney-4.html
On Laudato Si’ I recommend Charles Cameron’s Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si' here at 3QD. I have written extensively about Bruno Latour at New Savanna. I would also recommend my 3QD review of Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects as Morton owes a debt to Latour. On Freudian socio-cultural dynamics, see my various posts on projection and section three of Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.