A Review of The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Abridged) by Barack Obama
A Halt in Normalcy
Due to the halt in normalcy that the Nashville Flood of 2010 brought these last two days, I listened to the audiobook version of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It was only upon the completion of the book that I realized it was a much-loathed abridged version. However, after rescanning audible.com, I realized that there was not an unabridged version of the audiobook available, and that somehow made me feel less cheated. I also discovered upon further investigation, that only one chapter, “The World Beyond Our Borders,” seems to have been left out of the abridged version. So I feel even less cheated, or at the very least, more secure in my assumption that I missed little of the content in full version of the book. Besides, the audiobook version is enhanced over the written form because Obama performs the narration himself. So I’m happy.
As the title of my review indicates, I believe you should probably read this book. And I believe that you should probably read The Audacity of Hope for at least three reasons: understanding, respect, and challenge. Reason number one: understanding. Barack Obama is our president, and the power and authority that he possesses greatly influence the lives of all Americans; we should understand his thinking if we can. And I might add, a book seems to allow him to explain himself in a more well-rounded way than a speech or a debate. Reason number two: respect. Despite your opinion about the politics of Barack Obama, he is a real person just like you and me. This book will, I believe, help readers to more readily respect him as a person, even if they disagree with his brand of politics. I grew up hating Bill Clinton, in fact villainizing him, because he was a Democrat. That’s a poor reason to despise someone. We should try to separate personal attacks from political opinions when possible. That is what I would appreciate if I were in the fishbowl-public-eye like President Obama. Reason number three: challenge. This text, whether you agree, disagree, or partially agree with its opinions, will cause you to think deeply about political issues in America. Obama’s candor makes The Audacity of Hope easy to read, but it is still challenging to think about. Obama will make your political opinions sharper. For all these reasons and more, I say you should read The Audacity of Hope.
I’m honestly not really sure that I have the patience or the time to fully review all of the contents of this book. So like usual, I’m going to highlight a few topics that have me arguing with myself, and I hope to involve you in that discussion.
Much of Obama’s dream about how politics should be approached in America are quite admirable. He talks about “different politics,” politics that are less partisan, less composed of concrete idealism, and more understanding of each side’s point of view. To quote him, “A government that truly represents these Americans, that truly serves these Americans, will require a different kind of politics. That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived. It won’t be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf. It will have to be constructed from the best of our traditions, and will have to account for the darker aspects of our past” (00:32:00). The description of “prepackaged politics” is what especially rings true to me in this quote. I have ideas, especially regarding moral issues such as abortion (i.e. murder), upon which I will not bend. There is no grey on this issue. Murder is wrong; abortion is wrong. However, despite my strong opinion on this issue, I agree with Obama that much of the debate within politics is less certain. It is less black and white and more complex. And I appreciate that Obama realizes this complexity.
I posted a link to an article about a year ago that highlighted the idea that Barack Obama might be our first postmodern president. I agree with many of the thoughts expressed in that article, and after listening to The Audacity of Hope, I’m more convinced that Obama sees truth through a very postmodern lens. For instance, he highlights the different manners in which people interpret the Constitution. As he explains, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia argues that the Constitution has a single meaning, and only a single meaning, and that it should be interpreted based on the original intent of the authors. While other Supreme Court justices, such as Breyer, argue that the Constitution is a “living document,” and that the founders taught us mainly “how to think, not what to think.” This second view, the one that Obama takes, is extremely postmodern. It maximizes the reader’s role in determining the meaning of the document, and minimizes the writer’s role in determining the meaning of the document. This postmodernistic interpretational method is essentially relativism in disguise. To quote Obama, we should view our democracy “not as a house to be built, but a conversation to be had” (1:57:00). While this sounds amazing, and quite Rob Bell-esque I might add, it’s anti-logical and self-defeating. If everything has multiple meanings, then how can anything have actual meaning? It sucks when what you said is reinterpreted to mean something totally different from what you originally meant, and then you are denigrated for saying something that is quite the opposite of what you actually said, but were determined to have said by others who reinterpreted your words. Even Obama bemoans an article that he wrote for Time Magazine that was later taken out of context and reinterpreted by Peggy Noonan. And yet Obama’s own precepts of epistemology preclude this as a valid complaint if everything has various meanings.
Additionally, Obama is very sensitive in attempting to understand the individual views of different people upon every issue. He sees, (and I’m not attempting to put words in his mouth here), the good and the bad of each person’s opinion. While there is nothing wrong with empathizing in this way, it sometimes ignores the larger issue of actual truth, actual facts. If there is a right and a wrong, then the question is not about my opinion, or your opinion, but about the facts of the situation. Personally speaking, I want to strike a balance between recognizing truth and understanding different viewpoints. Postmodernity can’t strike this balance. As I stated above, not everything in politics is tidy, and I like that Obama recognizes this fact, but I think that many times he may ignore the actual truth, in order to understand how someone else feels.
I appreciate much of what Barack Obama says about the intersection of faith and politics. He is right, I believe, when he says that, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers” (4:20:00). Personally speaking, it’s frustrating for me to hear the old chant of the religious right that “America is a Christian nation.” Do the chanters of such a statement even understand what they mean by “Christian nation?” I mean what is a Christian nation? Is it a nation composed of a majority of Christians? That’s not America. Is it a nation based on Christian principles? That’s only partially true of America. Is it a nation where the Bible is held by all to be the only standard of truth? That’s not true of America either. So I agree with Obama that we are not a Christian nation. In fact I recognize, as does Obama, that the phrase “separation of church and state,” is a good thing. It’s a principle that Baptists (my own upbringing) helped fight for hundreds of years ago. It’s a needed understanding of the intersection of faith and government, so that the beliefs of others, including my own, are not infringed upon by the government.
The hairy-ness of this separation clause comes in to play when we try to apply it to policy making. How do we make policies that allow religious liberty for everyone without somehow assenting to a common religious / faith-based view that trumps all others?
Obama sees the public sphere as one in which faith is included, but not used as the sole foundation for which to determine policy. As he explains, people of faith need to translate their moral arguments into universal arguments so that they can be discussed by everyone, even those who do not share your personal brand of faith. In this way faith is involved in our discussions, but those of differing faiths, or no faith at all, can still enter into the political discussion and argue on a level playing field. The idea being discussed has been reworded into non-faith language and is now accessible to everyone. This makes a certain amount of sense to me, but I’m not sure it can truly happen without assigning religion a secondary status and removing it from the conversation altogether (which is the very thing Obama is striving to avoid).
The logic of Obama’s argument is this: I cannot expect another person, who disagrees with me that the Bible is true, to accept my opinion about war if I base my argument solely on my biblical arguments. I need to translate the principles of my argument into non-Christian terms, so that others can then enter into the discussion about the fitness of my argument. In this way I have argued for the truth of the Bible, without using the Bible as my source of morality.
My problem with this stance is that it forces a false dichotomy between faith and science. Obama argues that faith and science play by different sets of rules. Faith is unprovable, while science, he argues, is provable. But this is simply not true. Evolution is theory. Gravity is a theory. Electricity is a theory. These theories seem to explain truth, but they are not completely provable. Science is based on set of presuppositions. Without science’s presuppositions, it cannot operate. Religion too is based on a set of presuppositions. Obama wants to take all religious language and translate it into scientific / logical language when it is used in the public sphere because he “believes” science to be provable and religion to be unprovable. In this way he reveals that his trust is actually placed more in science than it is in religion. Despite his attempts to accept both as equally valid, he places science / logic (with its own unprovable presuppositions) as his framework for truth, and in turn places religion in a secondary place of importance. His faith becomes more of a fairytale faith. Unprovable. What’s good for you is good for you. And what’s good for me is good for me. But we shouldn’t try to prove each other right or wrong. We can’t because this is all just “religious talk.”
Since everyone is going to disagree on the presuppositions that are the most tenable in the public sphere, what is the foundation upon which we should decide policy? My argument is that it has to be the Constitution. The Constitution, imperfect as it is, must be the foundation of our policy decisions. Anything beyond what the Constitution describes must be written into law based upon the opinions of the people. The will of the people will determine new policy, and the people are free to use religious or non-religious reasoning in their argumentation for or against policy. This seems to make sense to me. I could be off my rocker, but it seems to make sense. Ultimately, this will mean that our government is faulted because its policies will often be anti-biblical. But isn’t this already the case? Obama’s assumptions about truth necessarily give religion a secondary status within public debate, and I believe assigning religion that secondary standing cuts through the heart of its power.
I Could Go On
I could go on with further ideas about Barack Obama and his book The Audacity of Hope. I still haven’t touched his ideas about the economy, healthcare, or race. And he has some good ideas about these subjects. But it’s now 3:00AM in the morning and “I must be lonely,” and I’m making pop song references, so I’m going to stop. If you are so inclined to read this book, I’d appreciate your personal feedback. My opinions may be idiotic, and your musings (provided they are kindly expressed) may help me to think less idiotically. At the very least, I’m sure my thinking could use some refining that your thinking might encourage.