"It’s the economy, stupid!” Or is it?

This slogan from the 1992 Clinton campaign no doubt seems more relevant than ever after the financial meltdown. And there is, of course, a sense in which the dynamics of the global economy are fundamental to the current presidential race. But if economics is changing the political map, the competing narratives of the presidential candidates are being written at quite a different level, one with theological resonances. I am not referring here to the role of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which remain important to many voters, or to the comments of Barack Obama’s long-time pastor, which became so controversial earlier this year. Those are all political issues on which various religious communities have taken positions, not theological questions proper.

I am speaking, rather, of the debate about soteriology that has been taking place just below the surface through at least the last three election cycles, and that gained renewed impetus with the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for vice president. Soteriology is the part of theology that deals with the question of how one is saved. As such, it was the principal locus of debate between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, with the Reformers arguing that justification is by faith alone and Catholics claiming that faith opens us up to the emergence of new “supernatural” capacities we must cultivate if we are to come to know God and become capable of authentic beatitude. Protestantism is unusual in regarding salvation as a free gift. Among the world’s spiritual traditions only a few forms of Mahayana Buddhism (certain Pure Land schools) and of Hindu bhakti devotionalism argue anything even comparable. The rest of us, while gratefully acknowledging the assistance of God, usually regard spiritual excellence as something that depends on our own actions. Some Protestants call this “works righteousness.”

What does this have to do with the election? Both presidential candidates are, after all, Protestants (though vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden is Catholic), and as much as the candidates have been “talking religion,” they certainly haven’t been debating soteriology. Still, the Republicans have chosen a vice-presidential candidate who is not merely a fundamentalist but someone whose achievements and personal “merits” (to use an Evangelical term) are very much open to question and who presents a public face not of conquering virtue but of brokenness and struggle. Equally intriguing, John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention emphasized not his heroism as a prisoner of war, but rather the fact that the North Vietnamese broke him. Indeed, McCain actually called attention to the fact that prior to his capture by the North Vietnamese, he had been living a less than serious life, and claimed he was “saved” by his country.

In the political argot of the current electoral cycle, elitism is a substitute for “works righteousness” and brokenness for Evangelical piety. Think of it this way: In the present period, the sharpest political contradiction in the United States has been between cosmopolitan urban centers, which are linked more strongly to the global market, and the hinterlands, where many people feel they are being “left behind.” In the past two general elections, location in a major city was the best predictor of a Democratic voting pattern, location in a rural area of a Republican voting pattern. I would argue that living with a reasonable degree of affluence and security in a major city means that one has succeeded in the global market—or in some other civilization-building arena. This success, in turn, creates the basis in experience for a spirituality of self-cultivation. It is a spirituality that is confident of humanity’s ability to find rational meaning in the world as well as in our capacity for excellence, both secular and religious. This is true even of Protestants in the cosmopolitan cities and suburbs, who tend to be liberal (stressing their usefulness to society as a mark of their election by God). The urban poor, meanwhile, attribute their poverty not primarily to personal brokenness but to structural injustice. They embrace a liberationist narrative that finds grace primarily in the struggle for a justice that makes human flourishing possible. From the standpoint of Evangelical piety, it is just another type of works righteousness.

In contrast, living in the hinterlands increasingly means that, no matter what your resources or skills, you are often outside the network of capital flows and information exchanges that drive the global economy. You are also at a distance from the principal civilizational centers, and thus in perpetual danger of being left behind, whether by cosmopolitan economic and cultural elites or by someone in Bangalore or Shanghai who can do what you do better and cheaper and faster. This, in turn, creates a basis in experience for an Evangelical spirituality that stresses human brokenness and emphasizes the role of faith and grace in salvation.

The Republican Party does not really represent or respond to the interests of all those being “left behind” by the global market, but only of those business sectors that are threatened by globalization. (Campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that information and technology sectors support the Democrats; the extractive sector and low-wage, low-technology manufacturing support the Republicans.) But the Republican Party has built its political base among Evangelicals by presenting the Democrats, who actually offer more to those being left behind, as spiritually foreign and even dangerous. When Republicans charge Barack Obama with being “elitist,” what they really mean is that he is not only excellent-intellectually, morally, and spiritually—but “works righteous.” That is why Democrats—think of Bill Clinton or John Kerry—are held to impossibly high standards: in Evangelical theology a single sin, because it is an affront to the sovereignty of God, is sufficient to warrant condemnation and thus to undermine the candidate’s claim to spiritual legitimacy. Republicans, on the other hand, who not only acknowledge their brokenness but advertise it, are saved—and legitimized—by faith.

In this context, the spiritual case of Barack Obama presents a puzzle, and an especially galling one, to Republicans. Obama’s life story shouts acquired virtue. After graduating from Columbia University, he devoted his life to the cause of empowering the poor by working as a community organizer, and he still managed to become a prominent attorney and a U.S. senator. He was, in other words, good enough to spend much of his youth pursuing something other than personal success and still succeed brilliantly.

Sarah Palin’s life story, on the other hand, must seem uncannily familiar to struggling families in the hinterlands. There is no Ivy League pedigree here, but rather a string of community colleges and state schools. Her career path was marked neither by selfless devotion nor by extraordinary achievement, but by a very ordinary effort to survive and support her family. Odd strokes of luck, which are read in the Evangelical vernacular as “blessings” from God, not excellence, have brought her to her current prominence. In other words, her lack of ordinary qualifications is seen as evidence of her anointed status—of God’s intervention.

How should the Democrats respond to this soteriological narrative? Partly it is just a question of organization, at which Barack Obama excels. Partly it is a question of offering those left behind real worldly hope that can restore their confidence in their own potential for excellence, secular and spiritual. What sets Obama apart from Gore and Kerry is his commitment and his ability to do this, precisely because his theology is liberationist rather than merely liberal and because, as an organizer, he knows how to find excellence in hidden places. To be sure, this means something different on the level of global economic policy than it did on the streets of Chicago’s South Side two decades ago. Obama will have to generate economic-policy proposals that speak to those for whom education is not the most obvious road forward. Unlike Bill Clinton, he must be frank in confronting the fact that a couple of years at a community college are not going to do the same thing for a displaced textile, steel, or auto worker that the University of Chicago or MIT do for the elite. Nothing angers the “left behind” like telling them they could catch up if only they studied a little harder. They know better than that and so should the rest of us.

So this election is about the economy. But all economies are ultimately economies of salvation. Work is not just or even primarily about survival or consumption; it is also about our contribution to the world and whether it has some larger spiritual meaning on which we can rely to help us grow toward God. Can we be excellent? Does it matter, especially in some ultimate sense? Is salvation simply God’s free gift, a “blessing” like the odd strokes of luck that took Sarah Palin from a community college to the governorship of Alaska and the Republican vice-presidential nomination? Or is it a beatitude for which we struggle and prepare? If you look just beneath the surface of our political debates, you will find these two competing notions of salvation at work.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: View Contents

Anthony Mansueto is dean of communications and humanities at the Spring Creek Campus of Collin College in Plano, Texas. In January 2009, he will become associate professor of global studies at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

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