In a WSJ column written before Obama delivered his acceptance speech to the Democratic convention, Peggy Noonan wondered if the event might end up looking like the Nuremberg rally. She explained everything that could go wrong (but didn't):
Everyone can define what can go wrong, and no one can quite define what "great move" would look like. It has every possibility of looking like a Nuremberg rally; it has too many variables to guarantee a good tv picture; the set, the Athenian columns, looks hokey; big crowds can get in the way of subtle oratory. My own added thought is that speeches are delicate; they're words in the air, and when you've got a ceiling the words can sort of go up to that ceiling and come back down again. But words said into an open air stadium…can just get lost in echoes, and misheard phrases. People working the technical end of the event are talking about poor coordination, unclear planning, and a Democratic National Committee that just doesn't seem capable of decisive and sophisticated thinking. So: this all does seem very much a gamble.
But the open-air, stadium rally is nothing new. Billy Graham, for example, mastered the form and, far from being a great gamble, the stadium rally is a tested format for conversion and galvanization of tens of thousands of true believers who leave with a commission to bring a message of transformation to the wider world. That Obama would opt for a massive open-air rally—something like a Promise Keepers or Million Man rally—should not come as a big surprise given that his politics have long been tied to the Christian mega-church form.
Can I get an 'Amen?' Can I get a 'yes we can.'
It's no accident that political conventions can look and sound like religious revivals complete with personal testimony, themes of brokenness, transformation and repristination. The influence of the Christian revival on the American political campaign is nothing new, but because of his own experiences with the black church, Obama probably recognizes the significance of that influence more explicitly than do others in the modern Democratic Party.
Historian Garry Wills has written about American religious movements and the influence of religion on American political culture since colonial times. As Wills points out, historians have seen the connection between political campaigns, conventions, religious revivals and national gatherings of benevolent associations dating back to the early 19th century during the period known as the Second Great Awakening. Daniel Walker Howe writes about this connection in Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s (pp 124-125):
The hullabaloo surrounding political the campaigns of the era—the torchlight parades, the tent pitched outside town, the urgent call for a commitment—was borrowed by political campaigners from the revival preachers. Far from being irrelevant distractions or mere recreation, the evangelical techniques of mass persuasion that we associate with the campaigns of 1840 and after actually provide a clue to the moral meaning of antebellum politics. Even the practice of holding national conventions was borrowed by the parties from the cause-oriented benevolent associations. Anti-Masonry, which held the first presidential nominating convention in 1831, was both an evangelical reform movement (a “blessed spirit” to its supporters) and a political part.
Wills also notes that one of the leading figures of the 19th century revivalist movement, the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, wrote, in 1835, about the shared methods of the political campaign and the religious revival:
What do the politicians do? They get up meetings, circulate handbills and pamphlets, blaze away in the newspapers, send their ships about the streets on wheels with flags and sailors, send coaches all over town, with handbills, to bring people up to the polls, all to gain attention to their cause and elect their candidate. All these are their "measures," and for their end they are wisely calculated. The object is to get up an excitement, and bring the people out. They know that unless there can be an excitement it is in vain to push their end. I do not mean to say that their measures are pious, or right, but only that they are wise, in the sense that they are the appropriate application of means to the end.
Even though revivals can be something of a circus (the jabbering in tongues, the flailing on the ground, the blind regaining sight and the lame dancing jigs), Finney, who was a master of the form, did not view the wildly popular revivals as mere showcases for 'miracles.' He saw them as meticulously orchestrated events designed to convert and galvanize believers to the cause. This is where the methods of evangelical revival intersect with the methods of American political campaigns.
I find it hard to believe that Obama doesn't see it the same way. Since the beginning of his campaign, Obama has suffused his rhetoric with religious themes. While his religious references have often been overt and direct, the themes of brokenness, struggle, transcendent transformation (change) and the coming of a better time are also presented as secular phenomena that implicitly reverberate with Christian themes. I don't mean to suggest that there is anything disingenuous about all of this. Given his religious beliefs, the fit is natural for Obama.
We should remember, too, that Obama came to religion as a skeptic and an intellectual, so he remains cautious in his approach. He is aware of the tension between a private life committed to religious beliefs and the public commitment to secular governance. This awareness also reflects a healthy internal tension between the restraint of the reasoning head and the spontaneity of the evangelical heart. We see evidence of this healthy tension when Obama exhorts his supporters to see Republicans as opponents rather than as agents of evil who must be destroyed. But there is also no mistaking the evangelical influence on his personal and political narratives of brokenness, struggle and transcendent change. Why, then, should we be surprised that the venue for his acceptance speech might remind us of a religious revival?
I realize that many Christian conservatives are inclined to see fascist undertones in an Obama rally while ignoring the similarities to a classic evangelical revival. Their bias is not surprising given that Republican operatives and conservative evangelical leaders have, for the past 30 years, relentlessly pounded into their heads the notion that Christian liberalism is oxymoronic. After 30 years of hearing that message, many conservatives just can't believe Obama is a Christian or that his church is a Christian church.
But another point of disjunction is that many white evangelicals have focused entirely on the personal dimension of salvation, while black evangelicals have emphasized the collective salvation of entire peoples. It is, perhaps, not surprising, that white evangelicals with spiritual roots in the Southern tradition would be especially unlikely to appreciate and embrace the dimension of Christian salvation that addresses the collective salvation of oppressed and suffering peoples (although they seem to heartily embrace the notion of a God who deals with people collectively when they talk about whole cities being destroyed because of sinful homosexuals and liberals).
The question of individual versus collective salvation aside, that Christians awaiting the rapture, the final judgment and a new creation could consider Obama a non-Christian and an elitist has more to do with the way political ideology biases judgment than it has to do with anything fundamentally elitist or un-Christian about Obama's rhetoric or politics. Perhaps what is most unnerving to the Christian right is that Obama's politics are so fundamentally Christian without being fundamentalist or Republican. That isn't supposed to be possible, so they have been told.