A President Who Wants to Be Anywhere but Here

President Obama begins his sixth vacation of 2010 amid pancaking poll numbers and growing evidence that a double-dip recession is in the making. Other presidents have liked to get out of the fishbowl world of Washington, D.C., whether it be for weekends at Camp David or extended stays on their own properties. Obama seems to take shorter vacations to far more places than his predecessors: 2010 began with him in Hawaii; he and Michelle visited Asheville, N.C. in April; the family visited Bar Harbor in July; there was the bachelor birthday jaunt to Chicago while Michelle was in Spain; Florida's Gulf coast family jaunt last week; and now Martha's Vineyard. This latest trip begins as many political analysts have spent the last days trying to explain the results of the Pew poll indicating that a growing member of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim

John Hinderaker at Powerline offers the following:

 ... we are seeing fallout from the Jeremiah Wright affair. I would never presume to pass judgment on Obama's spiritual life. But one thing I will say with confidence: Jeremiah Wright is no Christian. His ideology of hate disqualifies him. So many millions of Americans, learning that Wright was Obama's spiritual mentor, must have wondered where Obama himself was coming from. I think that is the main source of confusion, coupled with Obama's lack of connection to any identifiable Christian tradition.

Hinderaker may be correct about Obama's lack of connection to an identifiable Christian tradition in a different way from what many people have considered. With all the focus on Obama's stepfather having been a Muslim and his relatives in Africa, people may have missed the significance of his mother's family Unitarianism. As someone who strayed into Unitarianism back when I was young and thought I knew all the answers to the world's problems, I have been wondering about this. Being raised by Unitarians may have affected Obama's outlook on life far more than people realize. Unitarians tend to see themselves as spiritual travelers and believe that the personal journey is more important than adherence to any creed. In practice nowadays that often means that those attracted to the denomination contain a high proportion of the the perpetually unhappy, as epitomized in Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement,

There are three wants which can never be satisfied: that of the rich who wants something more; that of the sick, who wants something different; and that of the traveler, who says, "Anywhere but here."

Early Unitarian scholars such as Emerson's ancestors began with the biblical Christian roots and pared away parts that related to a Holy Trinity, which they rejected. Other scholars eliminated the idea that some are to be eternally damned. For some time now, however, Unitarian Universalism has been decidedly post-Christian. Indeed, in modern practice, Unitarians are often jokingly referred to by those who do believe in a divine authority as a collection of political activists who can't quite bring themselves to profess open atheism and who are thus hedging their bets by belonging to what they call a church.  

I noticed during my attendance at a Unitarian congregation that many of the older members were those of an often notably Marxist bent who sought a spiritual dimension in their lives that didn't necessarily involving believing in a Judeo-Christian God. That Deity, after all, tended to look askance at Lenin's need to break millions of skulls to cook up his Marxist omelet for the greater good of mankind. There were also younger members who became infused with new-age ideas but who couldn't quite bring themselves to join something quite as radical as a coven of witches, lest that cause one or more wills to be redrafted.   

As I became more familiar with all the members, it seemed to me that both the Marxists and the new-agers had helped Unitarianism devolve into a highly self-referential form of spirituality. Modern practitioners were taking the idea of syncretism not to mean the often intellectually challenging attempt to reconcile disparate beliefs, but rather as license to throw out any moral teaching in a faith that might cramps one's style.The idea that prolonged spiritual navel-gazing could be truly nourishing to the soul was one of the few things members seemed to have in common. The other ties that tended to bind members together were left-wing political causes and a shared belief in their own intellectual brilliance. Indeed, We are the ones we have been waiting for nicely sums up the attitude of the Unitarian congregation I attended. 

Unitarian churches often make a point of celebrating the holidays of all the major religions. I soon found the succession of Christmas tree, Buddhist New Year dragon, Jewish Seder, Druid maypole, Muslim Iftar, and Hindu Diwali festival all rather tawdry, as few of these events were ever conducted in the reverent spirit with which the rite or custom originally arose. It was more an excuse for self-congratulations than a search for genuine cross-cultural understanding. The much-vaunted expressed tolerance for all cultures meant little in practice other than a chance to wear colorful native dress and bring exotic foods to a potluck dinner. For all such outreach sessions, what wasn't tolerated was for anyone to stray too far off the political reservation. For all the expressions of self-congratulation being non-creedal and open-minded, the Unitarians I've met could be remarkably authoritarian when it came to dissent from left-wing political beliefs. 

Three decades ago, when he decided to move to the "we don't want nobody nobody sent" world of Chicago politics, newcomer Barack Obama needed to meet people who could help his career. Being seen among the large black congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ gave Obama both contacts and black street cred. Perhaps of equal importance, the United Church of Christ as a denomination promotes political activism on most of the same issues as Unitarians. While Jeremiah Wright's preaching style was certainly more emotional, and the name Jesus Christ was heard more often than it might be in any Unitarian church, the political meat that so often filled the sermons at Trinity UCC was substantially similar to Obama's grandparents' religious tradition.  

When Obama began his presidential bid, Wright's virulent black nationalism became a liability. When they left Trinity, the Obamas were going to look for a new church to attend. This has not happened. I suspect that with Obama no longer needing to belong to one particular church to make political connections, he may not personally feel any great need to belong to a church at all. Actual church attendance is not that important for someone from a background where spirituality was so often defined as being whatever one found to be spiritual, especially not when compared to people whose religions involve the practice of certain rites such as participating in communion. Unitarianism is noticeably lacking in rites other than the habitual one of members patting themselves on the back for sharing enlightened attitudes.   

So as American voters see supermarket tabloid stories about Obama's secret African past and highbrow pundits write about a president Americans don't seem to know, we are left with this: Obama seems to have been restless all his life. During the 2008 campaign he tried to turn that restlessness into a political asset. His supporters argued that his travels gave him insight into other people and how to get us all working together even as the media avoided the negative side of such restlessness -- that Obama had seldom stayed at one place or position long enough to show any accomplishments. His undergraduate degree was earned at two institutions, and transcripts have never been provided for either. His political résumé is that of any office but the one he is in; he has started a run for higher office within two years of winning election to every political office he has held. 

Now, as Obama approaches the half-century mark, this restlessness may be catching up with him in ways that go well beyond politics. Fashion designer Coco Chanel used to say that nature gives you the face you have at 20, but that at 50, you get the face you deserve. These days, as I look at the lines that have increasingly formed around the 49 -year-old President Obama's mouth, I see the see the marks of both supercilious disdain and perpetual discontent. He may be the most powerful man in the world, but like Emerson's never-satisfied traveler, Obama still seems to want to be anywhere but here.
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