TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Race, Religion, and Political Economy: A New Compact?


Over the past week or so, Senator Barack Obama has delivered two major speeches that will not only shape his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination but also have the potential to transform American politics.

The first was the widely publicized and debated speech on race, delivered on March 18 in Philadelphia. The second was given on March 27 in Manhattan and focused on the economy. Neither can be simply dismissed as a piece of electoral rhetoric. Each belies the accusation that the junior Senator from Illinois is all about style and lacks any substance. Together, they sketch the contours of an Obama Presidency that could change America and its perception in the world.

Even though rival politicians and hostile pundits have tried to paint him as a soft left liberal, Obama escapes easy categorization. His project is neither a return to President Clinton’s centrism nor to President Carter’s pragmatism. Instead, Obama turns to religion in order to outline a new vision that transcends partisan division and special interest and reconfigures the current political and economic system according to the overarching principles of equality, justice, and solidarity.

The aim is to overcome the growing social and cultural divide and to reverse the increasing concentration and centralization of political and economic power—a vision that blends some of the best traditions in liberalism and conservatism. Liberal because he insists on the separation of power and the restoration of checks and balances in relation to executive power. Conservative because he favors self-help, local autonomy, and personal empowerment over paternalism, bureaucracy, and big government. Obama’s ambition is to propose a new compact between the state, the market, and civil society and needs to be understood as such.


Both speeches begin with a critique of the dominant ideologies and existing approaches. In the speech on race, Obama unmasks mutual accusations of racism and revenge between different communities as mirror images that instrumentalize real, legitimate grievances in order to fuel cynicism and conflict. Rather than simply weighing up past and present wrongs, he emphasizes the need to recognize the sources of injustice and to take a hard look at the dysfunctions of each and every group—absent fathers and broken families in the case of some black communities, supremacist mentality and ignorance in the case of some white communities, a culture of dependency in some immigrant communities.

The point is to warn Americans not to indulge in a sense of victimhood, whilst at the same time acknowledging the reality of anger and resentment on all sides. Thus, he calls on all communities to focus on what he terms the deep causes of legalized discrimination—”the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow”—and the real culprits of economic exploitation—”a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.” To recognize the origins of injustice is a precondition for genuine mutual understanding and the overcoming of the “racial stalemate” that is paralyzing America.

The speech on the economy develops his critique of the prevailing economic model in a number of directions. First, he makes the point that the past success of the American economy has relied on a balance between state and market and on a sense of “shared prosperity” that is in the interest of individuals and society as a whole. Second, the loss of this balance and this sense was neither an accident nor an inevitability but instead the outcome of deliberate decisions in politics and business alike. Here, Obama’s remarks are worth quoting because he blames not just Reagan and the Bush dynasty but also Clinton:

Under Republican and Democratic Administrations, we failed to guard against practices that all too often rewarded financial manipulation instead of productivity and sound business practices. We let the special interests put their thumbs on the economic scales. The result has been a distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth; a market that favors Wall Street over Main Street, but ends up hurting both.

The excessive and undue power of finance over all other sectors of the economy is confirmed by a number of leading economists, including Professor Joseph Stiglitz who in his book The Roaring Nineties admits that the Clinton Administration (of which he was part) gave in to the pressure from big financial interest.

What is significant about Obama is that his critique is not limited to the free market but extends to big government as well. The state, instead of adapting regulation to the realities of the late 20th and early 21st century, dismantled the regulatory framework and thereby failed in its duty to protect the most vulnerable—low-incomes groups and first-time buyers. Rather than empowering the poor to change their lot and enabling business to innovate, government at all levels encouraged dependency on welfare and promoted short-term gain ahead of long-term growth. As such, Clinton’s welfare reforms and his fixation with finance were of a piece. In consequence, individual and communal responsibility was weakened in favor of social atomization and the erosion of the family, especially among many black communities.

In both speeches, Obama’s target is a certain kind of fatalism according to which the past determines the future because the present is devoid of change. The notion of change is of course at the heart of Obama’s campaign motto (“Change We Can Believe In—Yes. We. Can.”); as such, it has drawn much criticism and derision, and rightly so. (On this, Obama risks coming dangerously close to the mantra of change and modernization so closely associated with Clinton and Blair.) But a more careful reading of his speeches and his book—The Audacity of Hope—reveals that change does not refer to the old liberal idea of eschewing all established traditions in the name of boundless progress. Obama prefers the idea of perfection and transformation in line with the ideal of hope. In itself, this is already indicative of the strong religious dimension that underpins and informs Obama’s project (and to which I return below). The constant reference to hope is grounded in the belief in a different future based on real alternatives outlined in both speeches.


Indeed, his critique of the status quo turns into a positive argument. On race, he appeals to the long-standing American tradition of popular mobilization and civic action that has tried to “to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” For particular communities, this means not just insisting on equality and justice in all spheres of life but also tying “particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans” and taking full responsibility for individual and communal well-being, above all by defending the family. Here, Obama acknowledges the importance of the conservative notion of self-help based on the belief in individual agency and communal solidarity, not a culture of dependency on the central state.

At this juncture, Obama also recognizes— albeit implicitly—the limits of a purely secular model and emphasizes the enduring significance of religious principles: “what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.” The argument he puts forwards is that racism and ethnic divisions can only be defeated and overcome by appealing to the principle of universal brotherhood that derives from religion.

Similarly, the speech on the economy seeks to refute and surpass the binary logic that has governed national debates on the balance between the state and the free market since Hamilton and Jefferson. In its history, the United States has always struggled to balance “self-interest and community; markets and democracy; the concentration of wealth and power, and the necessity of transparency and opportunity for each and every citizen.” But, says Obama, the American experience is also that of rising standards of living for an overwhelming majority as well as unparalleled innovation and opportunity. That is why “we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism.”

The alternative, as he sees it, is to reframe the market according to a “higher principle than the invisible hand”—”shared prosperity.” The state must avoid two extremes—serving as the agent of the unbridled free market and expanding to a centralizing bureaucratic behemoth. Thus, the state should, first, address the current economic turmoil (especially the crisis in the housing market), second, provide a stable regulatory framework, and, third, extend opportunity to all sectors of society. The speech on the economy offers a number of interesting concrete policies: a $10 billion Foreclosure Prevention Fund (which will have to be increased), a 10% mortgage interest tax credit to facilitate homeownership for low- and middle-income families, income tax cuts for the poorest (including working families and retirees), as well as a number of principles that should govern a new regulatory framework. The overriding aim of Obama’s policies is to promote long-term investment and sustained growth rather than quick profits and speculative bubbles.

Just as the foundational ideal of a civic union can help heal the racial divide, so the fundamental principles of solidarity and shared prosperity can mitigate the worst excesses of the free market and the bureaucratic state.

Of course, Obama could and should have gone much further. On the question of race, he would have to offer more ideas and practices that can bring together divided and segregated communities which live in mutual ignorance and fear. On his ideal of perfecting the American union, he would have to explain how grass-roots mobilization and a change of leadership in Washington can work together to transform the U.S. political system beyond a single Presidency. On the economy, he should consider asset-based welfare and decentralization as more effective means of empowering communities and localities. In short, the challenge that Obama faces as candidate and even more as a possible future President is how to achieve systemic change in line with America’s best traditions.


One of the most remarkable—and perhaps most questionable—aspects of Obama’s project is his appeal to religion. His books and speeches are littered with reference to hope, faith, and charity, and his call for unity and brotherhood has strong religious resonance. Not unlike his conception of politics and economics, Obama’s understanding of religion tends to be post-secular and post-liberal. He is trying to chart a middle course that seeks to avoid both secular liberalism and religious fundamentalism. Both his background and his politics are structured by the religious civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s and not by the feminism and the secular human rights discourse of the post-1968 era. As such, his positioning marks a move away from the secular agenda of the Democrats—an agenda that both Clintons embraced and advocated (as detailed in Mark Stricherz’s fascinating book, published in 2007, Why the Democrats are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party).

This fundamental difference between Clinton and Obama was clearly visible in their public spat about Martin Luther King in January. Clinton views the King legacy through the secular prism of race. Her remarks insinuated that Obama would “own” that legacy because he is black. Her focus on race was also evinced by the insinuation that King could not have achieved what he did without the support of a white politician, President Johnson. By contrast, Obama insisted on the unifying force of religion to overcome the divisions between “North and South, rich and poor, Jew and gentile.” So what distinguishes Obama from Clinton is not race but rather the role of religion. Obama tends to view religious faith on its own terms, whereas Clinton subordinates religion to the service of power.

Moreover, Obama’s turn to religion is synonymous with a reframing of America’s problems and the attempt to provide an overarching account of how to make religiously inspired ideals real. This is a refreshing alternative to the fundamentalism that characterizes much of the Christian Right and the empty rhetoric of Mitt Romney, whose speech on religion in November 2007 was rightly criticized for a total lack of substance and vision.

What is problematic, though, is that Obama’s language is still trapped in an idiom that is residually liberal. He speaks of religions in general and not of each faith in particular, thus neglecting important specificities and differences between various world religions and within each religious tradition. His is a language of values more than of virtues, and it is not clear whether Obama represents much else than the progressive evangelicalism of Jim Wallis, president of sojourners and author of The Great Awakening. Wallis, who is a friend of Obama’s, argues that there is a new generation of religious believers who are more interested in how to remedy poverty and global warming than how to address the question of women bishops, homosexual priests, or gay marriage. This spiritually-rooted movement, says Wallis, is America’s best hope for bringing about a change in politics.

The problem with this sort of perspective is that it tends to view faith predominantly as an agent for social and political change and thus risks loosing the depth and richness of religion. Nor is it certain that this appeal resonates with conservatives who reject both economic neo-liberalism and evangelical fundamentalism. In short, the question is whether Obama’s language can transcend the old ideological divide in religion of conservatives vs. progressives and instead offer a politics that encompasses not just progressive evangelicals but also those who hold to a more traditional form of religion.

This matters both electorally and culturally. In terms of electoral arithmetic, Obama needs to build a broad yet coherent coalition that can once more attract blue collar workers and Catholics who abandoned the Democratic Party after its secular turn in 1968 and thereby condemned it to heavy defeats in presidential elections. (Perhaps Senator Bob Casey’s endorsement is more significant than simply in relation of the forthcoming primary in Pennsylvania on April 22).

Culturally, the question is whether Obama is prepared to revise his pro-abortion stance and to challenge the divisive politics of pro-choice vs. pro-life. What the United States (and other countries) needs is a national debate on fundamental issues, such as how to protect and preserve human life and how to provide the conditions for genuine human fulfillment.


With these two speeches, Obama has further raised the bar by promising a new compact based on a new understanding of race, religion, and political economy; his success will be judged not just by whether he clinches the nomination and goes on to win the presidential election, but by whether he remains true to his vision and ambition. If Obama can live up to his promise of changing the terms of debate, setting a non-partisan agenda and translating it into a transformative politics, then there is genuine hope for the beginning of systemic change that America and the rest of the West so desperately needs.

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