How Barack Obama Can Move Beyond "Cult" & "Messiah" Charges

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If you don’t think rock-star adulation at a Barack Obama event is cause for concern, read this copious account: Barack Obama criticised over ‘cult-like’ rallies. In the article, a senior Obama advisor, speaking anonymously, expresses fear that some of the cult-like charges against Obama will stick during the campaign.

There are some important answers to this concern and I hope that some of Barack’s advisors like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs will find their way to this page. The first antidote to this charge is to face it head on.

And I mean head on. And sooner than later.

The article mentions Joe Klein’s reference to “mass messianism” and the dangers of going beyond hope.

Dr Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and stern critic of the current administration of George W.Bush, said: “What’s troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption.”

I am qualified to speak on this matter. My books Jesus and Jim Jones and Beyond Creed: From Religion to Spirituality carefully examine the deleterious aspects of messianism. So please read on.

In a nutshell, under the guise of promising massive social and personal change, messianism seeks the allegiance, loyalty and self-abnegation of the follower. The messiah figure literally devours his or her adherents.

Now I do not think Obama wishes to devour his followers and as I read between the lines of the Samantha Powers video with Charlie Rose, I suspect Obama himself is privately dismissive of the adulation he receives. (Her passing Iowa-heads reference.)

But anyone who has ever plied the waters of prominence and frequent public speaking is aware of the the tendency of some to become inappropriately worshipful.

A Simple Set of Ways Obama Can Address Inappropriate Adulation

Humor. I would hope that very soon Obama will address the cult of personality issue with humor.

Self-deprecation is evidently part of Barack’s personal discourse.

He needs to apply this to himself in his public speeches.

To wit: “I am not a messiah wannabe. I don’t want disciples. I don’t seek worship. I am not asking people to lose themselves in an amorphous sea of feel good excitement. I ask people to stand on their own two feet, to start taking responsibility, to work hand and hand with their neighbors to renew our life and our politics.”

Here are some useful principles:

No single person can set things right.

We are not talking about miracles.

We have pulled together before in our history.

Some specific caveats that help defuse the messianic aura:

Say something against “wishful thinking”. Such as: I am not in the wishful thinking business. I am in the let’s get the job done business.

Say, it’s not us against them. We are the establishment. We are all meant to be part of it.

Say, I am not about building a cult of personality. I’m about rebuilding a political party. I’m about setting a course. In the last analysis, the personalities who are going to make the changes we need are you, the voters.
Say, I am not talking pie in the sky. I’m talking steady, slow, intentional progress. Slow and sure, right here, in our neighborhoods, in our counties, in our states, and in Washington, DC.

Say, we are not in an adversarial situation. There is no enemy we are fighting. And we do not play the politics of fear. We need to connect with the better angels of our nature and to work together for reasonable, common sense change — that is the only change we can believe in.

Say, we are not out to drive a wedge between rich and poor. We recognize poverty for what it is. We eliminate it by extending opportunity to all and by ensuring a chance to every American. We can reach for the sky in this country. And I celebrate that. And we can give back too. And I celebrate that.

Say: We are a free people and we prize our liberty above all else. Our liberty is tested whenever anyone comes forward with easy answers and seductive promises — tbe classless society, a thousand year reich. To these we say No! We will build our house on the rock of of freedom, respect for the individual, and saying a firm no to tyranny.

Say: We are a constitutional people. We have a legal system crowned by a Supreme Court whose only obligation is to hold our Constitution high. In America, we do not claim to speak for anyone but ourselves, When we are lost at sea, we return to our Constitution where our freedom is enshrined and our rights are writ large. It never fails to set us on a proper course.

Say: We are not a people mired in violence. Violence arises from resentments that seem to have no recourse. We have a recourse. Violence arises from anger when love seems to have broken down. We have a recourse. We care for the whole. No one is an island unto themselves. We reach out and treat others as we wish to be treated. We have fought wars and had revolutions to win and sustain this freedom. For us violence is always the last resort.

Warning Signs of Incipient Messianism

Focusing attention on a single spiritual or poliical leader.

Modify the problem by sharing the stage with others and discouraging adulatory statements from supporters like, You are the ONE!

Underline the breadth of participation in the campaign effort.

Underline that contributors and volunteers are not passive, worshipful folk, but strong and determined individuals who are working to achieve real change.

Play down the ecstatic and miraculous.

Even anecdotal things. Play down “transcendent excitement”.

Go lightly on conspicuous success.

It might be an excellent move to accept a financial limit on campaigning, mainly to oppose the notion that this is a movement of “cult followers’. The decision to move to public financing would deflate such a prospect.

If this is not in the cards, the reasons had better be designed to protect against the “messianic” charges.

Bring humor and self-deprecation to bear around cult of personality things such as songs and displays of adulation. Even consider viral debunking video — he’s just a man sort of thing.

Underline generational realities.

We are not going to live forever. We build for future generations. The call is always the same. But the cast of characters always changes,

Underline freedom of people to both join and leave the campaign.

The most deleterious example of cultic behavior is the unwillingness to allow for “defections”.


Finally some caveats of interest to those who take the problem of “cult charges” seriously:

Absolutism of any sort is not a good idea.

Likewise anything that would engender a “suspension of disbelief”.

Balance universal regard with the need to discriminate carefully based on the values and behavior of those you are dealing with.

Have an honest understanding of accomplishments. Both in terms of scope and import.

Maintain reverence for and reference to texts such as the Constitution, Scripture, great literature — all sources we depend on because we are finite and limited and no one is able to encompass or manifest truth save partially and imperfectly.

Take pride in ownnership. It is a sign of normality to be happy with things one has. Cult leaders like Father Divine and Jim Jones made a lot of not owning anything.

Share power. At all levels this is something to both acknowledge and celebrate. Stress the actual and yet limited powers of office.

Much of the above may seem like “a bit much”, but if the Obama campaign sees charges of being a cult of personality as a problem, the considerations here, taken as a group, are a powerful antidote based on a careful analysis of cult and messianic behavior that has engaged me for more than 30 years.

Important further reading: On J. Krishnamurti, Jesus, Barack Obama and The Coming Assault

Send a Personal Email to Stephen C. Rose



Obama Blog


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