Another Great Awakening

Faithless campus radicals find salvation in politics

No wonder that in America, officially agnostic to the competing theological claims of various sects, citizens should treat the civil duties of democracy with the reverent awe and sincere fervor traditionally reserved for religion.

Yet for the last decade or so, Americans’ faith in the electoral exercises had eroded and their attendance at the polls dwindled, especially among the younger generations uninspired by the civil superstitions of their fathers. Political apathy had so afflicted the nation that, leading up to the 2004 election, many commentators speculated, in apocalyptic tones, that depressed voter-turnout and a dying faith in democracy would become permanent features of our commonwealth.

A week after election day this year, the non-believers have been proven wrong. Barack Obama, the prophetic voice of hope crying in the partisan political wilderness, has reinvigorated Americans’ interest and engagement in the electoral process and especially inspired the once-lukewarm faith of the youth. And, like many converts, these youth—especially at Harvard—have expressed their new-found creed with an excess of zeal.

While the full force of hope and change operated on the psychological and emotional levels, indeed, visible proofs of faith have also abounded. The ubiquitous Obama campaign buttons—attached to fleeces, tattered satchels, and even professors’ tweed jackets—and t-shirts with the Senator’s stylized silhouette served as frequent external reminders of the campus’s conversion. But these, it turns out, were rather modest autos de fé.

For, as the television networks called the election for Obama when the California polls closed at 11 p.m., self-restraint seemed, to his disciples at Harvard, as impossible as it was inappropriate—for the much-awaited rapture had arrived.

Sprinting from freshman dorms and House common rooms—faster and with greater urgency than St. John from the empty sepulcher—they descended upon the John Harvard statue to celebrate with their coreligionists and offer thanksgiving for this political redemption. The revival at the statue was only one of many throughout campus—from the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Holyoke to the portico of the Spee Club. But, for a twenty-minute interlude, all fell silent and none stirred abroad as the President-elect delivered his final campaign sermon.

Accounts of election-night reactions in the next days’ papers confirmed the widespread jubilation.

The Crimson reported that “screams, cheers, and chants of ‘Yes We Can’ echoed around the freshmen dorms” for “more than two hours after CNN announced the results of the presidential election.” A video on the campus daily’s website depicted the Harvard University Band leading scores of tone-deaf revelers in an exultant rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” preceding a chorus of “U-S-A” which typically one would expect to hear at a Republican Party rally in Flyover Country. With the election of Obama, otherwise only tepidly-patriotic liberals could not contain their affection for America.

But the scene in the Yard was not the only hyperbolic outpouring of sentiment that evening.

Kameron A. Collins ’09, who had gathered with some 200 other members of the Black Students Association at the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub to watch the election-night returns, shared with the Crimson his great-grandmother’s joy at Obama’s victory. “With a black man in the White House,” Mr. Collins’s family concluded that the nonagenarian now “could die happy”: as he explained, “there’s nothing else she could need or want to see.” One could hardly consider it a compliment to think an election—no matter how historic or symbolically meaningful—the only thing worth living for.

While the absurdities and excesses of Obama supporters’ joyous effusion may prove an amusing object of contempt for the many not similarly thrilled by last Tuesday’s outcome, the new President’s pseudo-religious following among the youth may prove a dangerous precedent.

Reasonable and realistic observers long have warned enthusiasts of whatever candidate or party not to expect government and other political institutions to be capable of solving every problem. More important than ingrained assumptions and ideologies about government’s proper role, however, are the inherent limits of politics.

For most of Western history, political issues, while central and fiercely debated and disputed even on the field of battle, ranked second in dignity and priority to higher concerns. To a pious Christian, politics cannot provide a final solution because it only is concerned with this world, which is always passing away. But to American youth, immersed in a self-consciously and radically secular culture, especially at a place like Harvard, the precepts and promises of religion have diminished appeal. Limiting their perspectives to this world, youth understandably can see politics—once shorn of the ostensible cynicism of the older generations—as the catholicon of their age.

The ease of crafting metaphors between Obama’s campaign and a messianic cult presents a distinct cause of concern. His youthful adherents have set their expectations too high for not only his presidency but also the salvific effects of any politician or political system. Without a religion of their own, their faith is in Obama and the political process—with potentially disastrous effects for the size, scope, and sanctity of our government.

This generation will learn eventually, like every one that came before, that politicians are men as well and, along with political systems comprised of men, are subject to flaws, weaknesses, and limits of their own. Accordingly, we ought not invest all our hope in vehicles inevitably incapable of requiting it.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.