Barack Obama and Catholic counter-revolution
Part 2 – specific comparisons
Part 1 of this article compared, in broad terms, the position of black Americans with that of English Catholics. The purpose of this Part is to highlight aspects of Barack Obama’s life which illustrate that comparison. Those aspects were described by him in “The Audacity of Hope” and “Dreams From My Father” (the editions used as sources for this article were published, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, by BBC Audiobooks Ltd. by arrangement with Canongate Books Ltd.).
The task of Catholic laity is to Catholicise society; in England, the desire and effort to do so is not recognisable in many of them. The Achilles heels of invoking ‘respect’ and ‘charity’ are discreet silence and cowardly seizure on the element of truth in an error. They have particularly calamitous results in politics, by thwarting necessary action. All action depends on the power to take action, and no amount of a respectful and charitable manner makes the slightest difference if power is used wrongly.
How is power gained, and how should it be used?
English Catholics have (primarily by default) been taught to ignore those questions, and consequently ‘blend in’ diffidently and complacently with the dominant secularism instead of working, in ‘concrete’ direct ways, to defeat it. Our adversaries are now so much in control that political ‘doors’ are very likely to be closed to U.K. Catholics who openly aim to establish Catholic principles in law and culture. For a long time, black Americans were in such a position, but, whereas that has improved, Catholic influence on British society has not. A report dated 15th November 2014, contained in “The Catholic Universe,” attributed the following considerable under-statement to Cardinal Vincent Nichols: “the English [bishops’] temperament… has been fashioned in a culture in which the Catholic Church is not a dominant minority or not even a hugely strong influence in the culture. We, from our earliest days, learn how to live in a situation that doesn’t naturally give support to all the desires that we have.” There is scant evidence of any desires which are counter-culturally Catholic.
Unlike English Catholics, sedated by limp leadership, Black Americans cared enough to rouse themselves. Barack Obama followed their example, but his first attempts to make a difference were not successful.
In 1983, he decided that beneficial change in U.S. society would not come “from the top,” but “from a mobilized grass roots,” and adopted an ambition to organise black people at that level for that purpose. He wrote to civil rights organisations, elected black officials, local Councils, and tenants’ rights groups. None replied. He was not discouraged, but found “more conventional work,” during which the ‘organising’ idea began to recede and then revived. He resigned from his “conventional” job, and resumed looking for an ‘organising’ one. Most of his letters were not answered, and he made no progress (such experience awaits any British Catholic counter-revolutionary). When on the brink of admitting defeat, he found a job assisting an experienced organiser named ‘Marty,’ who made some comments which raise interesting comparisons with today’s situation in Britain.
Marty said that building real power required “some sort of institutional base,” such as trades unions, but the unions were too weak and the churches were the only prospect, because “that’s where the people are and that’s where the values are.” In today’s Britain, trades unions (despite being much weaker than generations ago) are much stronger forces to be reckoned-with than are numerically-decimated ecclesial organisations whose “values” tend to be expressed in lowest-common-denominator terms which, far from maximising ‘appeal,’ are so tepid and vague that they have no measurable mobilising impact.
Barack Obama’s initial wish to “organise black folks” became a broader altruism, fuelling effort for change at - and through – all levels of American society. This has its counterpart in Vatican II’s declaration that the laity must work (note, work – not merely think ‘yes, it would be nice’) to inculturate God’s law in the life of “the Earthly city,”1 by Catholicising society’s mentality, customs, laws, and structures2.
He believed in the socially–formative, and –normative, importance of the law, especially in defending the powerless. The ‘civil rights’ campaign which became so strong during his infancy was a prime example. He said that moral arguments had not been enough, because the relevant laws had to be changed, and that the ‘internalizing’ effect of anti-discrimination laws during thirty years had deterred white people from expressing antipathy towards members of other races when interacting with them. That is what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when teaching that fear of legally-prescribed punishment can habituate people in virtuous restraint3. Barack Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s comment that that even though laws may not change opinions they can restrain wrongful actions. Unfortunately, law can also inculturate wrongful opinions and compel wrongful actions.
Black Americans and British Catholics have had similar experiences of hard times, subsequently relieved by law, but there is a difference. Obama pointed out that the price of social acceptance for a minority tends to be “assimilation” into the majority; visible non-conformity to the dominant surrounding culture incurs negative attitudes4. Black Americans, however, have suffered because of what they are, whereas British Catholics have suffered because of behaviour inspired by what they believe. People cannot hide their skin-colour, but they can hide, dilute, or renounce their beliefs, especially to gain tolerance, acceptance, and advancement in an unsympathetic society.
Barack Obama wrote that “things have gotten better,” but that “Better isn’t good enough.” For him and his supporters, legal change serves a continuing effort to remove disadvantage. Typical British Catholics, however, seem to think that freedom to go to Mass, be a priest, and run schools (which produce few noticeably-committed Catholics) are all that we need. As Barack Obama said his maternal grandparents had done, they have decided to cut their losses and settle for hanging on. For such Catholics, ‘better’ is good enough, because mere ‘tolerance’ was the aim. ‘Catholicise society? Too difficult. Just avoid unpopularity, talk in terms which everyone can accept, and live and let live.’
Barack Obama understood the temptation to surrender. He understood because he had heard it among black Americans, and because he felt disillusioned by his own experience. Despite believing that his efforts had little if any effect on events, because stronger powers than his were at work, after six years as a member of the Illinois State legislature he decided to seek nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Without significant personal resources or help from those of the Party, he had to spend much time seeking donations. His extensive travelling around the State for meetings was ‘rewarded’ sometimes by finding audiences of two or three. He discovered that most people were interested only in basic, every-day practicalities of life, not in politics or intellectual questions; that their hopes were very modest; and that beliefs held by people of different races, religions, and classes were very similar. In other ‘advanced’ countries, also (not least, Britain), every-day practicalities seem to monopolise attention, and ‘casualties’ include not only intellectual politics but also religion. Apart from the understandable pressure of short-term material needs, is seems probable that people do not recognise a substantive connection between religious precepts and how they, or other people, should live.
The results seem to be that most people are so similar in their behaviour and their interests and attitudes to the future that the (supposedly-)religious among them are not recognisably different from the non-religious, and are devoid of evident desire that the non-religious would embrace their faith. In such spiritual sloth5 are further parallels with Barack Obama’s family. He wrote that his maternal grandfather was an life-assurance salesman who was unable to convince himself that people needed what he was selling, and was afraid of rejection, and that consequently the work went badly and the earnings from it paid fewer and fewer of the family’s bills. The apparently-endemic languid attitude to religion renders credible the thought that most relatively-religious people are satisfied by being able to pay their monetary bills, and have no real interest in spiritual insurance or debts – least of all other people’s. Analogously with Obama’s grandparents in Hawaii, any religious ambitions seem to have drained away, regular mundane daily doings give ‘shape’ to life, and material acquisitions such as new curtains or domestic appliances are the main ‘excitements’.
How different was Barack Obama’s life. His youthful listless drift and tendency to belief in ‘luck’ (for which his mother had reproached him) were replaced by an altruistic sense of purpose, and by the “effort” which she said he lacked. It was tested by disillusionment arising from his, and others’, experience, but was strong enough to become what he called “a chronic restlessness.” While a community organiser in poor areas of Chicago, he was told by a Catholic deacon that “You ain’t never satisfied. You want everything to happen fast. You wanna lighten up a little.”
Paradoxically, however, he wrote that by nature he is “not somebody who gets real worked up about things.” He rejected “a polarized electorate” and advocated “a broad majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill.” It was evident also in his analysis of “values.” So he has been described as conciliatory, naturally inclined to look for common ground and compromise (he seemed, however, willing to concede only extremely limited exemptions from his insistence that employers, including Catholic ones, must provide medical insurance which includes artificial contraception and abortifacients). Politicians often compromise; so do clerics, by means of discreet silence and equivocal comments. Contributing to a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2016, Lord (Dr. David) Owen said “If you don’t want to compromise, don’t go into politics.” It looks also as though counter-cultural intransigence is not wanted in the Church, either; according to the above-mentioned “Catholic Universe” report in November 2014, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that Pope Francis prefers to work with English bishops because of their conciliatory temperament.
Barack Obama’s temperament co-existed with recognition that what matters is who holds the power and how it is used. For example, at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, he gave a speech supporting Senator John Kerry’s nomination as the Party’s candidate in the next Presidential election. A political opponent named Zell Miller had wished Obama good luck in his new job as a U.S. Senator, and described the Convention speech as one of the best which he had ever heard. Senator Kerry was defeated by George W Bush. “In other words,” wrote Obama, “My guy had lost. Zell Miller’s guy had won. That was the hard, cold political reality. Everything else was just sentiment”. Power is what counts in practice.
A good example arose in regard to abortion. While he was a member of the Illinois State legislature there was a Republican Party Bill to ban partial-birth abortion. According to his account of the matter, Barack Obama argued in favour of an amendment to include a ‘mother’s health’ exception to the proposed prohibition, but the amendment was defeated in a vote which reflected the different Party policies. Afterwards, Mr. Obama told a Republican that the absence of the amendment would result in the courts deciding that the ban was in breach of the U.S. Constitution. The Republican replied that the judges would do what they wanted to do anyway; he added that “It’s all politics, and right now we’ve got the votes.”
In democracies, power depends on votes. People can talk as much as they wish, but without voting-strength it remains only talk. Admittedly, a majority of votes does not always ensure that a particular consequence will follow. A law is ineffective if there is no willingness to enforce it, but without a law there is nothing to enforce; so law is necessary. Although Catholics are as able as anyone to recognise that, there is no sign that they are more inclined than most people to act accordingly. All but a handful, at least in England and Wales, seem to drift along passively, contented with what Archbishop Oscar Romero called “very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone”6 . It is the equivalent of praying ‘thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, but let us watch idly from the sidelines while our society defies it.’ The task of the Catholic laity, made clear by Vatican II and by the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” is not limited to spreading sentiment. That is indeed part of the task of “permeating with a Christian spirit the mentality and the customs, the laws and the structures of the community in which one lives”7 , but that is a means to another end. We should not be satisfied with lip-service respect8 for what is now known simply as ‘faith’ (a minimalist word). It must be given concrete form in the governance of the country. Sentiments and favourable attitudes will not withstand being undermined by governmental contradictions of them. Hearts have to be changed, but as a means to the greater end of changing also “the laws and the structures of the [country]”. In other words, it is the whole temporal order which must be renewed, and the task of the Catholic laity is, as Vatican II declared, to make the affairs of “the Earthly city” comply with God’s law9.
The divine law covers many things, of course. Taking part in impressing it on society is an individual decision, and the form of participation will vary between individuals according to their aptitudes, opportunities, and their judgment from time to time of whether priority should be given to causes or to symptoms. Events result from beliefs. Erroneous beliefs cause erroneous conduct. On that basis, therefore, arguing against error should be the priority. It should not, however, be an inadvertent or deliberate means of ignoring other action to obstruct grave sin.
Again, abortion provides an illustrative context. Regardless of what has been said against it, the practical situation has remained substantially unchanged. It came about because debate influenced the thinking of people who held the power to introduce change. Because the people who now hold such power do not use it in accordance with Catholic principle, abortion is freely available. It will remain so until the law forbids it. Arguing against abortion, and offering a practical alternative, is no substitute for changing the law, and the law will not be changed until anti-abortionists hold power and are willing to use that power accordingly. In pursuing the arduous task of seeking power, anti-abortionists can surprisingly take heart from Barack Obama.
That is “surprising” because legal abortion was acceptable to him. The fact that he approved of it is itself surprising, for two reasons. The first one is general: abortion is intrinsically so evil that approval of it should always cause surprise (but, of course, we know that many people do approve of it). The second reason is specific to Barack Obama: in the Preface to “Dreams From My Father” he wrote that “[m]y powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.” He made that comment with reference to the terrorists’ attacks in America on 11th September 2001. Somehow, he believed abortion to be ‘different’. According to a LifeSiteNews report10, he had a practice of issuing annual statements supporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The 2014 and 2016 statements commemorating that infamous decision declared, in standard pro-abortion style, that the Court had “affirmed a woman’s freedom to make her own choices about her body and her health.” The statements added a commitment to “protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care” and her “right to reproductive freedom,” because in the U.S. everyone deserves “the freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.” It did not add, ‘and to kill anyone, however innocent and defenceless, who is regarded as an obstacle thereto.’
Why, therefore, can anti-abortionists take heart from Barack Obama? A specific incident symbolises the reason very well. It seems to have occurred at an early stage of his effort to become a U.S. Senator. He had only basic practical campaigning-resources, was contending with an up-hill struggle to obtain funds from Party supporters, and held press conferences to which nobody came. Nothing could have illustrated his seemingly-poor prospects more clearly than the fact that when he and his handful of helpers “signed up for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade [we] were assigned the parade’s very last slot, so my ten volunteers and I found ourselves marching just a few paces ahead of the city’s sanitation trucks, waving to the few stragglers who remained on the route while workers swept up garbage and peeled green shamrock stickers off the lampposts.”
Does your experience in pro-life campaigning enable you to empathise with how he can be imagined reasonably to have felt in that ‘tail-end’ position? It could easily have been regarded as symbolic of very poor prospects. Does your honest assessment of the prospects for the pro-life campaign (in its several forms) lead you to a similarly-pessimistic conclusion? If so, take heart.
He had been the last in the line, but became President of his country11. He experienced several periods of time during which his fortitude was tested severely. Despite wavering, he did not give up. Perseverance was not the sole cause of his success, but without it he would not have been able to profit from other advantageous factors. He did, of course, have an existing ‘constituency’ to which to make his appeals for support and which (after the resources of his national Party organisation were, eventually, put at his disposal) ‘propelled’ him forward, whereas the extent to which the same is true of the pro-life campaign is debatable. Certainly the campaign seems very far more energetic and supported in the U.S. than in the U.K., but similarly lacking in substantive progress. Take heart, however, from the fact that it is possible for once-seemingly-fanciful objectives to be achieved. A recent example is legal status of ‘marriage’ for same-sex relationships. Before that, there was legal dismantlement of racially-based disadvantage. Soul-singer Sam Cooke had predicted that “change gonna come.” By the time of that record’s release in December 1964 there were strong grounds for belief that the prediction would come true. It had not always seemed likely, or even possible, but it occurred because (a) people who wanted it became increasingly vocal and visible in promoting it and (b) their witness emboldened sympathisers. Eventually their ‘time had come’.
On 16th October 2011 President Obama gave a speech at the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, DC. He said that the movement of which Dr. King was a part included “multitudes of men and women whose names never appear in the history books — those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized — all those men and women who through countless acts of quiet heroism helped bring about changes few thought were even possible.” He said that change has never been quick, simple, or uncontroversial; that it depends on persistence and determination. He said that after a crucial Supreme Court decision on ‘civil rights’ there were ten more years until necessary legislation by the Congress, but that during those ten years Dr. King continued campaigning until the legislation was passed. “His life, his story,” said the President, “tells us that change can come if you don’t give up” (an ‘echo’ of Marilyn vos Savant, American columnist, to whom has been attributed “Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”). Dr. King, added President Obama, “would not give up, no matter how long it took.”
For opponents of abortion, and other inculturated contradictions of Catholic moral principle, the ‘time’ is still awaited. It may, credibly, not come until the end of time, but it will come then. Meanwhile, we must face a fact with which Caroline Farrow, who writes and speaks in the U.K. for Catholic Voices, ended one of her articles: “Sometimes…it’s all about witnessing, not winning”12. Those of us who want to win, and who work for it, must resign ourselves also to agreeing with Blessed John Henry Newman’s opinion that “We can but desire in our day to keep alive the lamp of truth in the sepulchre of this world till a brighter era”13.
That would be a discouraging note on which to end this comparison of circumstances in America and in Britain. It would tend to spoil indications that anti-abortionists can (and, indeed, should) take heart from the ‘civil rights’ campaign in America and from the life of Barack Obama. Probably everybody prefers an uplifting ending to a discouraging one. So here are two uplifting points from Scripture. Firstly, writing to Timothy, St. Paul said that God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but one of (among other characteristics) power.14 We’ve got to work to give it practical effect. Secondly, Our Lord said “I am with you always, to the end of time”15. It’s good to remember that.
1 “Gaudium et Spes,” paragraph 43.
2 “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” paragraph 13.
3 “Summa Theologica,” 28, Qu. 92, a.1.1 & 2.4.
4 Although that is probably true, assimilation is not necessarily a safe solution. It did not protect Jews in Nazi Germany: “The total number of German Jews killed in the Holocaust has been estimated at 160,000. German Jews who survived were mostly in mixed marriages or were the children of such unions.” (“The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police,” by Frank McDonough; Coronet, 2016, Ch. 7, p.191, citing “Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question,” S. Gordon; Princeton University Press, 1984; p.119).
5 “Evangelii Gaudium,” paragraphs 81-83.
6 Quoted in “The Catholic Times,” 25th July 2010, p.13.
7 “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” paragraph 13.
8 Matt. 15:8.
9 “Gaudium et Spes,” paragraph 43.
10 (by Patrick B. Craine, 22nd January 2014.)
11 cf. ‘the last shall be first’ – Matt. 19:30 & 20:16; Lk. 13:30.
12 “The Catholic Universe,” 6th February 2015, p.6.
13 “How To Accomplish It,” section 11.
14 2 Tim.1:7.
15 Matt. 28:20.