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The Messianic Temptation
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The Messianic Temptation

From Obama to Trump, the left and right have treated their leaders with quasi-religious devotion.

Barack Obama with Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama during a rally held in Manchester, New Hampshire, on December 9, 2007. (Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage)


So back in the Obama years, I had great fun with the idea that Barack Obama was the messiah. 

No really, this was a thing, and some cynics suspected he encouraged it. The New York Times reported that Obama’s volunteers were instructed at “Camp Obama” not to discuss issues when proselytizing for their leader, but instead to “testify” about how they “came to Obama” the same way Christians testify about how they came to Jesus. Michelle Obama played into it too, promising that her husband would mend America’s “broken souls.” And of course, Obama himself leaned into the Messianic hype. “We are the hope of the future. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” he proclaimed at the conclusion of the Democratic primary. “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” 

The admittedly ironic website “Is Barack Obama the Messiah?” is still up, and it’s still a fun compendium. Some people, uncomfortable with the—duh—formally religious connotation of the word “messiah” opted instead to call him a “lightworker” or “secular redeemer.” Oprah fell back on simply calling him The One, while Deepak Chopra dubbed him a “quantum leap in American consciousness.” Ezra Klein wrote

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.

And Eve Konstantine, the leadership guru, assured us that “Barack Obama is our collective representation of our purest hopes, our highest visions and our deepest knowings. … He’s our product out of the all-knowing quantum field of intelligence.” 

Spoiler alert: Barack Obama was not, in fact, the messiah. That is unless there’s some passage in the Book of Revelation or Torah that says something about the messiah getting a deal with Netflix. Nor do I think he represented a “quantum leap in American consciousness.” At least not in a good way, given how many trends in American consciousness since 2012 have not been super-terrific. And in fairness, this fanaticism largely wore off by his second term. In 2013, Barbara Walters confessed as much, more in sorrow than in anger. “We thought that he was going to be—I shouldn’t say this at Christmastime, but—the next messiah,” she said. “And the whole Obamacare, or whatever you want to call it, the Affordable Health Act, it just hasn’t worked for him, and he’s stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.”

I always loved that because the very idea that the proof Barack Obama wasn’t Christ (the Anglicized term for the Greek Khristós (Χριστός), i.e. “messiah”) came in the form of the Affordable Care Act being underwhelming. 

At the time, I was convinced this was all a profound indictment of progressivism. In truth, I still do. But my theory of the case was a bit off. 

I believed that progressivism is a “political religion” as delineated (and later partially rejected) by the philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin, you may recall, coined the phrase “immanentize the eschaton,” which refers to the desire to make what is reserved for the hereafter (eschaton) real or manifest (immanent) in the here and now. Progressive-secular ideologies—from technocracy through totalitarianism—often end up being efforts to create a heaven on earth. 

One of my favorite Voegelin quotes is when he throws shade at Marxists and other philosophical materialists, for whom he said, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.” What I take him to mean by this is that while secular ideologies may banish God from the public realm, man’s religious instinct will make material things into new, false, gods. When Moses was off talking to the Big Guy, the Israelites subbed in a golden calf. In the modern world, they switch to science or technology. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” 

My theory of the case held that believing Christians and other traditional believers are partially immune to such heresies precisely because they don’t have holes in their souls to be filled up by secular idols. The space for God is filled by God. I still believe that. 

What I failed to fully account for is that the religious can fall for false idols and false prophets, too. After all, that’s the moral of the golden calf in the first place. 

Will Herberg famously argued that:

Man is homo religiosus, by “nature” religious. He is always striving to find a larger whole transcending the self in which to ground the meaning and security of existence; he is always searching for some god and some way of salvation from the fears, futilities, and frustrations of life.

I still think that’s right. But I think things are more complicated as well. 

I recently wrote that I’ve changed my mind on horseshoe theory, the view that the “extremes” of right and left ultimately converge into something called “totalitarianism.” I long resisted the idea because, as I’ve argued (at book length), “extreme” conservatism in the Anglo-American tradition is not illiberal. So when the earnest political scientist explaining totalitarian theory draws a circle on the blackboard showing that “Communism” and “Nazism” eventually meet, he’s right. But he misses the point that Anglo-American conservatism (sigh, rightly understood) never converges with totalitarianism as it gets more extreme because “extreme” Anglo-American conservatism is anti-statist. Communism and Nazism without statism is cosplay. 

For most of my life, the more “conservative” you got on a host of issues, but especially economics, the more libertarian you became. The idea that becoming more free-market-oriented got you closer to being more communist seemed absurd to me. It still does. Again, the same holds true for lots of conservative positions. For instance, no matter how pro-gun rights you get, you’re not going to meet the gun-grabbers in common cause. 

The problem is that as the American right sheds its classical liberalism, it becomes more illiberal. And while there are important differences between right-wing and left-wing illiberalism, it’s still all illiberalism. If forced to choose between, say, right-wing industrial policy and left-wing industrial policy, I’ll choose right-wing industrial policy. But the point is I reject the choice. 

What I missed is that if progressivism acts as a political religion, the more illiberal so-called “conservatism” becomes, the more it looks like a political religion, too. 

Which brings me to Donald Trump. 

Many of the people who loved my mockery of the Cult of Obama now have their own Cult of Trump. And guess what? They don’t think mockery of the Trump cult is nearly as funny. 

Because the right still speaks in the explicit language of religion, it presents itself differently. The Cult of Obama used the new age lingo of people like Deepak Chopra precisely because they thought themselves “better” or more “enlightened” than what they saw as those sky god worshippers of flyover country clinging to their Bibles and guns. The Cult of Trump is more biblically literate, which is why they need to come up with analogies for Trump that are—at least superficially—consistent with traditional religion. Trump is King David! No, he’s King Cyrus! Such analogies are necessary precisely because the cultists are too biblically educated to call this lumpy thrice-married adulterer who can’t name a Bible verse the messiah, or even a good Christian (though many try). 

But whatever he is, they’re sure that “God gave us Trump.”

God also gave us rickets and banana slugs, though. That’s not really the mic-drop claim some people think it is. 

Tom Klingenstein, the chairman of the Claremont Institute, has a simultaneously pathetic, creepy, and hilarious video insisting that America in effect stands at the gates of Armageddon and needs a warrior like Trump to deliver salvation. 

“His policies are important, but not as important as the rest of him,” he insists. Klingenstein wants people to believe that Trump is a King David figure, a man sent by God to save the nation from the demons of the left. “The woke radicals have the moral arrogance of fanatics,” he proclaims. But “Trump, God bless him, knows we are all sinners.” 

I’d have a scintilla more respect for this cultish pabulum if it were true. But Trump, of course, has admitted he’s never done anything that would prompt him to ask God for forgiveness. Klingenstein claims Trump believes in American exceptionalism, a concept Trump has explicitly rejected. He wants us to believe that Trump is profoundly patriotic, but Trump’s disparaged those who died for this country as suckers and hid from the draft. And, again, he suggests that God gave us this unselfish hero-martyr to save America from the forces of darkness. If you’re going to attack the idea that Trump needs to be virtuous you can’t simultaneously argue that he is virtuous. Unless of course you’re going to bend notions of virtue to the man, instead of using notions of virtue as a measurement of the man. Klingenstein’s cultish lickspittlery is proof of Ralph Hodgson’s line that “some things have to be believed to be seen.”

I should have seen this coming. If you believe, as I do, that the wars of religion never really ended—that they just became wars by other means, with other terms—it should have been predictable that horseshoe theory in politics was going to be the shadow of horseshoe theory in religion. One facet of this is the convergence of left-wing and right-wing antisemitism (a topic worth exploring more later). Hatred of the Joooooz is always an early warning system for larger trends. One of the many things I learned from reading Julien Benda is that religion is often grafted onto secular passions in an attempt to divinize the Cause and demonize the Enemy. At the beginning of the 20th century, champions of eugenics, nationalism, socialism, etc., claimed that Jesus was, variously, the first eugenicist, the first nationalist, the first socialist. Now Jesus is MAGA

It’s all very depressing. And annoying. But it isn’t really new.

A New York Times correspondent covering the 1912 Progressive Party convention, described it as a “convention of fanatics.” Political speeches were interrupted by the singing of hymns and cries of “Amen!” “It was not a convention at all,” the Times reported. “It was an assemblage of religious enthusiasts. It was such a convention as Peter the Hermit held. It was a Methodist camp meeting done over into political terms.” The delegates sang “We Will Follow Jesus,” but with the name “Roosevelt” replacing Jesus. Roosevelt told the rapturous audience, “Our cause is based on the eternal principles of righteousness. … We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

The secular realm as we understand it is actually an invention of Christianity. As such, it was never as secular as people thought. Religion has always seeped through. Sometimes that is good and needed, sometimes it’s blasphemous, gross, or stupid—Jesus was no more MAGA than Obama was a messiah. 

I make this point as a counsel against despair. Despair is the gravest of sins in Christianity because it assumes that redemption is impossible. Despair in a democracy is also a grave secular sin, because it assumes that democracy is incapable of redemption, too. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.