A treat arrived this week for those with intersecting interests in faith, politics and literature: President Obama’s New York Review of Books interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson.
In what is less a straight-up interview than a conversation between fellow travelers, Obama prods Robinson on her recent essay on how fear colors conversations about faith.
Christianity is “profoundly counterintuitive,” Robinson told Obama. “It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”
The two, both from the United Church of Christ tradition, discussed the evolution of American democracy and religion and agreed that the gentler messages of Christianity are increasingly drowned out by belligerent rhetoric.
“How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you … with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Obama asked.
Robinson questioned how seriously those Christians take their faith. “I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously,” she said.
Robinson has a wide fan base. Although the United Church of Christ denomination of which she is a member leans liberal, but many conservative Christians praise her writing.
And Obama the interviewer is direct in ways that Obama the politician has not always been able to be. A few examples:
– Pointing out that reformed Christianity was once the “other” in Europe, he says, “Part of our system of government was based on us rejecting…an exclusive and tightly controlled sense of who is part of the community and who is not, in favor of a more expansive one.”
– Recalling that a sense of “nagging dissatisfaction” spurred Americans to go west, travel to the moon, and create the Internet, he warns that it can also put us in danger of taking what we have for granted. “Whenever I hear people saying that our problems would be solved without government, I always want to tell them you need to go to some other countries where there really is no government, where the roads are never repaired, where nobody has facilitated electricity going everywhere …or kids don’t have access to basic primary education. That’s the logical conclusion if, in fact, you think that government is the enemy.”
The Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a longtime friend of Robinson, said the interview was an important reminder of core tenets of American Christianity that have been crowded out by a culture of competitiveness and flashiness.
“The old-fashioned type of Christianity that founded this country was a culture of openness and love – we were called to love each other and expect the best from each other,” she said.
“This is his basic theology,” she said of Obama. “You could see in talking to her the president’s own theological grounding peek out.”
Michael Wear, a Washington consultant who ran religious outreach for Obama’s re-election campaign, said the interview is indicative of the president being “freed up” now that he is nearing the end of his presidency.
“This is the president I know,” he said. “These sort of remarks about how faith can be a wedge to divide us or something that can bring us together is at the very core of who he is.”
Robinson was a natural choice for Obama, who had hoped to use faith to help build bridges in an increasingly polarized environment, Wear said. “He’s frustrated with where the religious conversation is in this country,” he said. “Marilynne is very well-read and really a teacher of the faith. She has spent her life thinking about her faith and the way that it intersects with the world in a very intentional way.”
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior vice president for innovations in public programming at Union, said interviewing Robinson was a smart choice. “Her work is profound and provoking and deep, but boy, is it accessible,” he said. “Both of them have an understanding of the importance of shifting from fear to faith.
The interview, which is the first of two parts, drew fans on Twitter.
Others tweeted excerpts such as the president’s comment about the “huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life,” or Robinson’s assertion that “the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.”
As Obama heads into his final year in office, “I look forward to hearing more of these, dare I say, fireside chats,” Harkins said.
Wear said he would not be surprised if that happens. “I do think [Obama] is thinking about what type of cultural impact he can have while he still has the biggest bully pulpit in the land. He wants to poke and prod at conversations that he things our nation has been too hesitant to have.”
Even though Obama nods to his Christian faith regularly in both serious and light-hearted settings, a large number of Americans believe he is a Muslim. According to a September CNN/ORC poll, 29 percent of Americans say they think that Obama is a Muslim, including 43 percent of Republicans.
Obama has noted Robinson’s work before. During his eulogy in June for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the shootings in Charleston, S.C., he quoted Robinson’s work: “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
“That reservoir of goodness,” Obama reiterated. “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.” He then began singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.”