Briefly Noted: James W. Ceaser, “The Roots of Obama Worship”

James W. Ceaser, “The Roots of Obama Worship”

James Ceaser has written credible and thoughtful articles before. In fact, I think it’s from him that I learned the Electoral College was designed so that not one popular vote was cast for the President.

The article I’ve linked to above – which I am not too fond of – argues that “Obama Worship” stems from a “Religion of Humanity” that can actually literally be traced back in our culture. When discussing the “Religion of Humanity” and its founder, Ceaser is at his strongest. A look at the founder, Auguste Comte:

Mill and Croly were both intellectual disciples of the French social philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Though rarely studied in America today, Comte bequeathed an enormous legacy. He was the first to simplify and popularize the idea of a progressive movement of history, which he described as proceeding through three great epochs: the age of theological thinking, the age of metaphysical thinking, and the age of scientific or “Positivistic” thinking. (“Positivism,” referring to the scientific mindset and approach, was one of Comte’s many linguistic inventions.) The inevitable march of humanity (still with a small h) through these stages, albeit at different rates in different places, was the great story of history. Variations among nations and groups might continue, but they paled in significance next to the common destiny of humanity. Those who continued to view the world in terms of nations and their conflicts—Comte called them “retrogrades”—were caught in old thinking, unable to grasp the new global order being formed by the forces generated by Positivism.

Comte argued that it was time to expand man’s scientific knowledge of the physical world to the social realm. A new science of society, “sociology” (Comte’s term), was the latest and highest of all the sciences. Possession of knowledge of the laws of social movement was what ideally bestowed the title to rule. Comte and his circle were never much impressed by democracy and favored instead one system or another of governance by experts. (Saint-Simon, for whom Comte worked for many years, once proposed running society with “Councils of Newton.”)

But there was an important twist to Comte’s praise of science. In contrast to many who thought that the scientific method and scientific values were sufficient to bind society together, Comte insisted that people had to believe. As faith in the transcendent was no longer -possible in the Positivist age, he called for “replacing God with Humanity.” The aim of this religion without God was to build a global community that assured the betterment of man’s lot.

So far, nothing shocking here. There are liberals and progressives like this in every age – you could say the Presocratics are New Age. And it isn’t shocking that some important elements of popular or elite culture are influenced directly by this stuff:

The rise of the Religion of Humanity is what best describes this event. This strange term designates an actual sect, now defunct, that enjoyed a considerable following and prestige in intellectual circles in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill was a prominent convert, pronouncing the “culte de l’humanité [to be] capable of fully supplying the place for a religion, or rather (to say the truth) of being a religion.” In America, where the religion wore the respectable label of the “Church of Humanity,” the acolytes included the well-known journalist David Croly and his son Herbert, the founder and longtime editor of the New Republic. If it were not for the Religion of Humanity, Americans today might not have the pleasure of reading Jonathan Chait on “The Rise of Republican Nihilism” or E.J. Dionne “In Praise of Harry Reid.”

Alright, cute. I’m not The New Republic’s biggest fan, although they’ve done some credible and necessary work before – the expose of Ron Paul’s bigotry should be required reading for everyone in the United States, especially Republicans and libertarians.

But what I’ve quoted above is about all in the article that one can learn from. For then Ceaser takes a pretty simple proposition – that Obama ran a messianic-themed campaign, with himself as the center – and implies strongly that what’s happening is a lot more menacing. On some issues, of course, he’s exactly correct:

The conflicting demands of the Religion of Humanity and the presidency of the United States have become most apparent in the administration’s approach to dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism. The Religion of Humanity, by its own reckoning, admits to facing challenges from two quarters: from those who have not yet fully entered the age of Positivism, which includes the terrorists, and from those who are part of the advanced world but who refuse to embrace it, which includes the likes of George W. Bush. In the present situation, these two groups are understood to have a symbiotic relationship. The existence of the terrorists is regrettable, not only because of the physical threat that they pose, but also because, by doing so, they risk strengthening the hand of those in the West who reject the Religion of Humanity. Supporters of the Religion of Humanity therefore believe they have good reason to deny or minimize the danger of terrorism in order to save the world from the even greater danger of the triumph of the retrograde forces. This is the dogmatic basis of political correctness, and Obama and his team have gone to considerable lengths by their policies and by their use of language to hide reality. But reality has a way of asserting itself, and it is becoming clearer by the day that being the leader of Humanity is incompatible with being the president of the United States.

You won’t get any complaints from me on this score. The administration does not take security seriously enough in my opinion; they did come into office thinking that these issues weren’t so important, and acted that way for the longest time. And there are lots of people who should know better that agreed with the administration’s initial priorities. However, I wouldn’t use a lot of “Religion of Humanity” language to make that case. I wouldn’t even say that President Bush represented some fundamental threat to deeply held progressive beliefs that are basically cultish. The sneering hatred for the former President is only dogmatic as much as laziness is dogmatic.

It’s Ceaser’s consistent attempts to tie this “Religion of Humanity” language exactly to what is happening today that make his article read like a satire, but I’m not sure who the joke is on. Consider these two passages:

Barack Obama’s coming served as the galvanizing force to carry the day for the cause of progress. Although Obama never conceived himself as playing a universal role when he launched his presidential bid, he awakened at some point in the campaign to the realization that he was no longer running merely for president of the United States. He was being selected for the much grander “office” of leader of a new world community. His credentials for this position were impeccable. Humanity as a concept formally includes everyone, but it is especially favorable to those who have previously been excluded from full recognition. (The old aristocrats, in Comte’s description, were hardly part of Humanity.)

Having decided as a young man to identify himself as African-American, Obama was in the category of the dispossessed, a member of a race against which some of the greatest crimes in history were perpetrated. This fact immediately commended him to Western intellectuals at the same time that it enabled him to be the plausible representative of the teeming masses of the Third World. No one from a privileged race could ever have fulfilled this role. Just as important was the fact that Obama is not purely African-American, but a product of amalgamation, what the French approvingly call métissage and Harry Reid describes less felicitously as being “light skinned.” Obama is postracial or, as he himself put it, a “mutt.” This look, favored among international fashion models, represents physically the common denominator of humanity. Religiously, too, Obama, though a Christian, has ties through his father to Islam, a fact he proclaims on some of his overseas trips. He was the embodiment of all men. Finally, while holding these biological qualities of both the dispossessed and of humanity, Obama is a member of the clerisy of the Religion of Humanity, having been credentialed at Columbia, Harvard, and Chicago and stamped as one holding progressive views.

Professor Ceaser, what on earth are you babbling about? You sound like a New World Order conspiracy theorist, and I don’t even want to touch the stuff on race. A quick glance at nearly any conservative blog’s comments will reveal exactly why your comments above are very, very problematic. When people put forward things like this online, it’s usually accompanied by “9/11 was an inside job” and “global warming is about global government.” Regarding the latter, you write:

There is one point, however, on which Comte’s idea of the Religion of Humanity, was inadequate. Social improvement, however admirable, was too elevated a goal to mobilize people and sustain their devotion. The contemporary movement has gone beyond the original to discover a new and firmer basis for promoting solidarity in the great cause of confronting climate change. Here is a project that can unite people in waging the moral equivalent of war against a common threat. The liturgy has been vastly strengthened by allowing the ecological soldiers to glimpse the moment of their glorious triumph, when, in candidate Obama’s words, “the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” This moment marked the dividing time between the pre- and post-Obama eras. The cause is also perfect in its “positivity,” since the threat can only be properly gauged by the disinterested research of the “best science,” the practitioners of which must be granted a central role in planning strategy. Although the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change ended in disappointment (even with Obama’s last minute intervention), the cause has lost none of its appeal. It is the subtext of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, which represents the next “flashpoint” in the evolutionary development of Humanity.

Oh yeah, that paragraph isn’t going to empower the Glenn Becks of the world. I realize you’ll tell me to look at the “Religion of Humanity” argument as you sketched it before in the piece, and not take the hyperbole literally at all. After all, you did mention that after the “theological” age, there’s a “metaphysical” and “positivist” age, and you’re not terribly subtle about making allusions in these paragraphs to “metaphysics” or “positivism.”

But here’s what I’m going to say: You’re not writing for conservatives that, for the most part, can tell the difference between their crackpot fantasies and reality. Your piece is going to be lapped up by every nut that thinks that liberals are wrong about everything, that free markets and people going to work alone could save a place like Gary, Indiana or North Philadelphia, and that the UN is planning to take over Michigan. Believe me: I’ve seen some of the next generation of conservatives and their parents. You cannot underestimate the amount of actual fear of anything different that I’ve seen, and I am seeing among people my age some very ugly attitudes about race (obviously there are conservatives who are seriously good people and cannot be empowered enough. But I’d be lying if I said they were the most vocal right now). I do not want to mention names, but believe me, outside of UVA and Stanford racism is alive and well and still nasty, nasty stuff. I love this country, but I would be crazy to ignore cases like this:

The most striking impression I get is the pervasive, suffocating role race plays in everyday life. The fear and paranoia from black residents can be overwhelming. But even to someone generally skeptical about claims of racial discrimination (as I am), it’s utterly convincing. When people in the area talk about why they don’t trust law enforcement, you hear the same cops named over and over again. You hear about many of the same incidents, then learn that the officers involved never really stop policing; they just move from one department to another. It takes me just a few hours in Prentiss to find another woman who says she too was on the receiving end of a violent, forced-entry drug raid. Though the police didn’t find the meth lab they were looking for, they nevertheless jailed her brother for months (he couldn’t afford bond) before releasing him without explanation. The Monticello County Sheriff’s Department, where the man was jailed, claims he was bound over to circuit court for trial. But eight months later, he has yet to be charged or tried.

And it’s not just civilians who make such accusations. One black officer warns me not to trust what I hear from white cops in the area. “The badge and the gun don’t mean anything,” the officer says. “It doesn’t mean they found what they say they found.”

Mississippi has tried to make amends for its past, but some areas of the state still lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to race. Jefferson Davis County is one of them. “Jackson’s a pretty modern city,” says Andre de Gruy, the earnest, eloquent young lawyer who heads up the state’s legal aid program for death row inmates. De Gruy, a white man in his 30s, works with two other lawyers in a modest office overlooking the dig where the state’s new Supreme Court will be built. “In the northwest, you have the Memphis suburbs,” he continues. “The Gulf Coast development down around the casinos is comparatively enlightened too.” He pauses. “But just about everywhere else, this is still Mississippi.”

Another defense attorney is blunter. “We don’t lynch black people outside of Mississippi courthouses anymore,” he says. “But we still lynch them on the inside.”

Now I realize the article above is from 2006. But my point is that 2006 did look like 1950 for some people, and I’m not ready to say that 2010 is any different with certainty. I’m not saying liberals are right about everything. What I am saying is that you could have made the case against what the Obama campaign stood for much more easily. You could have hit them hard for being intellectually lazy and just feeding off of Bush hatred to get power: is it really worth destroying one person’s name to get power? (In case you’re wondering what Bush did right that isn’t debatable: The Africa record) You could have hit them for having these liberal fantasies and not knowing about Comte; you could have talked about the good work done by Mill in advancing democracy, and talked about how progressive ideas have a good and a bad side, not just a bad one. You could have hit them for their lack of balance and cultishness not by going after the administration or the campaign, but by talking about the relation between progressivism, education and mass media: if progressives feel everyone has to be educated, does that force them to rely on mass media more than giving the best education possible? Finally, you could have hit all of us for creating a messianic sort of politics. I’ve critiqued that on a more basic level in “Why do we need a party?,” but two words suffice if you don’t believe the Right has its Messiah too, complete with a reactionary bent that makes postpartisanship look like the most brilliant idea since the wheel: Sarah Palin. You’re only looking at liberal elites and what they “think.” Those of us that really know how to think should be the ones you’re talking to and bouncing ideas off of before writing.


  1. Allan Bloom says much better in his Introduction to Closing what Caesar attempts here, I think. btw, I wonder what that lefty (Dale?) would think of this write-up.

  2. first, i hope your allergies improve and that you can get back to your dissertation. second, a good post. but if you take parts of the article to be a little bit less about obama and a little but more about the movement–worldwide–that helped propel him to his heights, you might be a tiny bit more sympathetic. all obama has to do is stand down a little bit from that movement to become an effective president…..

  3. I think the results of the elections later today will sadly prove you right…

    The recent terrorism panic has probably boosted the republicans pull even more.

    We shall see.

  4. It seems to me that Obama tried to be seen as treading the middle way, where George Bush was clearly played the simple thinking quick draw leader. Obama presented in a Godlike manner to the people, but in a more subtle way than leaders before him. Whatever he turned out to be, he certainly played the game very differently.


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