At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Back in 2008, then Senator Barack Hussein Obama and his supporters on both the left and the right assured us that in the event of his election to the presidency,America would enter a new post-racial millennium. The utopian dreams of yesterday would become the reality of tomorrow if only Americans would vote for Obama today.

Some of us at the time called this nonsense out for what we knew it was. 

In 2012, there isn’t anyone who any longer believes it.

On Friday, March 23, the President couldn’t resist remarking upon the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  Martin is black.  Although the man who shot him is Hispanic, according to the conventional media narrative, George Zimmerman is “white,” or a “white Hispanic.”  Thus, what appears to have been a tragedy—the confrontation that terminated in Martin’s death at least seems to have been avoidable—has been spun by the agents of the “Racism Industrial Complex” (RIC) into a racial incident.

As in the case of General Motors, Obama is “the captain” of this industry too.

Obama called for “all of us” to engage in “soul searching” so as to determine “how something…like this” could “happen.”  We must look at “the laws” and “the specifics of the incident,” of course, but also “the context for what happened (emphasis added) [.]”  By “context,” Obama clearly wasn’t talking about the immediate context of events within which Zimmerman and Martin encountered one another, for such events constitute “the specifics of the incident.” No, “the context” to which Obama referred was the larger racial narrative that has become the bread and butter for, well, people like Obama.  “If I had a son,” Obama insisted, “he’d look like Trayvon” (emphasis added).

So, as it turns out, Obama agrees with his old friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. after all.  Gates is the Harvard University professor who in 2009 was arrested at his home when he was mistaken by the police of being an intruder.  He shouted at the arresting officer that it was due to the fact that “I’m a black man in America!” that the police set their sights on him.  As with respect to the Trayvon Martin case, hardly any of the facts of the Gates affair were known when Obama sided with Gates by claiming that theCambridgepolice “acted stupidly.” 

Obama did not have to weigh in on either of these two cases.  Furthermore, he should not have done so.  They are local events that are best left to local authorities to straighten out.  But he couldn’t help himself.  Why?  The question is rhetorical.  Obama couldn’t resist the impulse to speak to the Martin and Gates incidences for the same reason that he is the last person to whom we should turn for guidance toward a post-racial society: Obama is a racialist through and through. 

More specifically, Obama is a black racialist.

Obama asserts that his son would look like Trayvon Martin. He just as easily—and truthfully—could have said that had he a son, his son would have looked like George Zimmerman, for Zimmerman, as his photo readily attests, isn’t much lighter, if he is lighter at all, than Obama.  But he would rather latch his political and ideological fortunes to this case by identifying with the black youth whose fate is now at the center of national controversy.

This is what we should expect from a man who, in spite of his biracial parentage, has spent his life laboring to forge for himself an explicitly racial identity.  Judged not just by our standards, but those of the world, both present and past, there are few people who have had it as well as Obama has had it.  For this, he has his mother and her family—not his African father who abandoned him when he was but two years-old—to thank.  Yet Obama chooses to regard himself as black.  As his memoir, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, makes abundantly clear, from the time he was an adolescent, Obama had been on a quest to achieve racial “authenticity.”  He wanted to become “authentically” black.

His understanding of what this authenticity entails we can, if we would only summon the will to do so, piece together from what we now know of him. Obama is a hard leftist who, as such, endorses the conventional political narrative of unrelenting White Oppression and perpetual Black Suffering.  To be authentically black, then, in Obama’s eyes, is to have experienced “racist” oppression.  Yet it is also to be “down with the struggle” for liberation from this subjugation.  And since this “struggle” consists of demands for race-based preferential treatment policies of one sort or another, an “authentic” black person is one who must join the chorus of the enraged “oppressed” in pushing for more of the same.  One who is “authentically” black must never fail to express racial solidarity with his fellow blacks.

This understanding of Obama coincides neatly with his choice of alliances, including and especially that of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, the man who is an enthusiastic proponent of “Black Liberation Theology” and a good friend of none other than Louis Farakkhan.

Republicans think that they can beat Obama this election season just by focusing on his failed policies.  Maybe they can.  However, I am doubtful.  Politics, as anyone who is at all familiar with it should know, is a contest of narratives or stories.  John McCain tried to focus solely on “the issues” when he contended with Obama in 2008.  It didn’t work.  This time around, I suspect that this approach will fail once more. 

Republicans have got to re-present Obama to America.  His decisions and actions as President must be contextualized within the narrative of Obama’s life that they will weave, a narrative, much like that which he composed in Dreams, united by the theme of race.   

Not only will this narrative increase Republicans’ chances of defeating Obama in November.  It is, more importantly, a true story.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  A week or two after that, my grandmother passed away. 

Considered in themselves, each of these events is entirely distinct from the other.  But, interestingly, reflection upon the loss of my beloved grandmother has deepened my reflection upon the loss that Mercer relays in her book, the loss of her beloved homeland.  Although the death of which Mercer’s compelling Cannibal is an account has occurred sometime ago, the fact of the matter is that it is a death that its author mourns, the death of a country—her country, her world.

Regrettably—shamefully—it is only now, in the light of my own mourning, that this insight has taken hold of me. 

But with it has come others.

Death is deprivation.  The reason that death, whether the death of a person, a country, a marriage, or an era, causes the living as much pain as it does is that death robs them of something that they valued.  When that something was the object of love, death is at its most merciless.  However, death’s sting is felt even by those who lose, not their beloved, but simply something to which they have grown habituated.

Now, change is an approximation to death.  Not every change is for the worst, of course, but every change, like death, inescapably entails loss.  In depriving us of what is, change plunges us head long toward what is not yet and what may never be—i.e. toward what is not.  Western philosophy itself entered the world struggling and wrestling with the phenomenon of change, for both those, like Heraclitus, who believed that there was nothing but change, as well as those, like Parmenides, who denied that change is real, recognized that change extinguishes identity.

Change is something that we have no option but to endure.  Some of us are generally less averse to it than others, and none of us avoid all types of changes all of the time. Still, in addition to the fact that most of us view death—the Change of all changes—as the most dreadful of phenomena, there are other considerations that disclose that to all of us at most times, change is not unlike any other exhibition of untamed nature in that we feel the need to either flee from or domesticate it. 

One such consideration is the obvious fact that we are all “creatures of habit,” as we say.  There is a very good reason for why there isn’t one of us to whom this saying doesn’t apply: habit is steady, reliable, and familiar. 

When we appeal to “human nature,” we see ourselves as appealing to that which is universal, that which is independent of the particularities of history and culture.  “Human nature” is supposed to be intractable, immutable, and, thus, permanent.  As such, invocations of “human nature” can, and undoubtedly do, have the effect of soothing the soul, for the concept of “human nature,” with its semblance of permanence, serves as a sort of fortress within which the change-weary soul seeks refuge.

Habit has been called “second nature” because, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows all too well, habit not infrequently feels as incorrigible as nature itself. The effortlessness with which our habits sustain us and the immense difficulty that we experience in trying to free ourselves from them render us forgetful of the fact that they are acquisitions, products of choice.  It is not for nothing that the philosopher Blaise Pascal once subverted the standard conception of the relationship between nature and habit by suggesting that perhaps nature was just “first habit.”

Of course, habit doesn’t literally arrest change.  But it does abate it.  Habit simulates permanence insofar as it prevents change from tearing our lives asunder.

The counterpart to habit in politics is custom or tradition.  Like habit, tradition does not preclude change, but it supplies us with the resources to accommodate ourselves to it. Tradition manages to preserve the integrity of our institutions by insuring that the changes that affect them occur slowly and steadily.  In this respect, tradition is analogous to language, for although language is always suffering changes, those changes are incremental and, hence, readily absorbable. The identity of a language is not impaired by the changes that it experiences.  Neither is the identity of a tradition undercut by the changes that it undergoes.

Given that in our personal lives we cling to habit to manage the relentless march of change, and given the equally vital role vis-à-vis change that tradition plays in the life of our politics, those visionaries among us who never tire of speaking of change as if it is an unqualified good can’t but strike us as the most bizarre of creatures.  Yet at the same time, if we really think about it, we must also judge them the most pitiful of men and women.

As Michael Oakeshott once said: “Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.” 

Utopia’s champions, whether they are conventional leftists, libertarians of a certain sort, or neoconservatives, dream big dreams, dreams that they would love to impose upon the world and that have all too often proven to be nightmares for those who were supposed to be their beneficiaries.  They are foolish, narcissistic, and, more frequently than not, destructive people.    

Yet what makes these visionaries pitiful hasn’t anything to do with any of this.  That they dream, and what they dream, are irrelevant.  Even the ruinous consequences of their magisterial designs aren’t to the point here. 

The tragic character of the visionary derives from the fact that he doesn’t know love.  He is, as Oakeshott describes the person who lusts for change, a “stranger” to “love and affection.” 

The visionary regards the present as nothing but a device—a “mere means,” to quote Immanuel Kant—to be conscripted into the service of an uncertain future.  Love tends to better the beloved, but it also delights in the beloved for what it is.  Once it insists upon transforming the beloved into what the latter is not it murders both the beloved as well as itself. For the visionary, the present offers nothing in which to delight; it is to be subjugated and exploited, not loved.  For the visionary, the grass is always greener in the pasture of the future.

These reflections on death and change have confirmed for me with new force my sympathy for political conservatism.  Unlike the leftist, the libertarian, and the neoconservative—with which he is all too frequently confused—the conservative knows that the greatest of life’s satisfactions are to be found in the present, however challenging the present may be.  If he is to achieve meaning in his life, it is going to be by way of his current relationships and attachments, for it is only these that can be said to exist: the past is no more and the future is not yet.

 Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 






Imagine that you discovered the following facts about a stranger.

First, for roughly two decades, he not only attended a church, but donated thousands and thousands of dollars to it. 

Second, this stranger’s church is presided over by a pastor who the stranger regards as his “spiritual mentor,” the person who he credits with leading him to salvation.  It is this pastor who married him to his wife and baptized his children.

Third, this pastor is an unapologetic, unabashed supporter of a racially themed theology.  From this perspective, unless God is a being who aids whites in their campaign to subvert all things black, he is nothing but the worst of ideological fictions by which blacks have sought to manipulate whites into conceding to their own dispossession.  On at least one occasion, during a particularly fiery sermon, he boiled this theology down into one succinct exclamatory line: “God DAMN ‘Black America!” 

Fourth, the stranger’s beloved pastor once granted a “lifetime achievement award” to a man who has repeatedly derided Christianity as “the Black Man’s religion” and a “slave morality.”  This same person believes, or at least claims to believe, that the black race is the creation of an evil white scientist. He further believes that all blacks are “devils.” 

Fifth, the stranger has authored a memoir that he himself characterizes as “a story of race.”  Even though he is biracial—half black and half white—and even though he was raised by his black family after his white father abandoned him at the age of two, the stranger identifies himself as white only.  In it, the stranger relays the hardships that blacks inflicted upon him throughout his life.  The stranger is biracial, but he admits that by the time he was 13 or so, from the fear of appearing that he was trying to “ingratiate” himself to blacks, he quit referring to his Negroid ancestry. 

The stranger’s memoir is chockfull of one indignity after the other that he claims to have suffered at the hands of blacks—including those blacks in his immediate family, like his grandparents, who sacrificed all to make for him a life that was as materially comfortable as it was emotionally supportive.  For instance, once, upon being harassed by an unusually aggressive white panhandler while waiting for the bus that she would regularly ride to work, the stranger’s grandmother indicated a fearfulness that she had never exhibited prior to this episode.  This fear, the stranger wasted no time in concluding, stemmed not from any danger posed by this specific panhandler.  The fear, he remains convinced, stemmed from his black grandmother’s bigotry toward whites.

Yet it isn’t just his irrational, racist old grandmother who hurt him so.  His black high school friends dished out their share of pain as well.  After he took his friends to an overwhelmingly white party, the stranger’s one black friend made an expression of empathy with him.  The young black man explained to the stranger that he now has a better appreciation for the self-consciousness that the stranger experiences being a minority amongst a mostly black population.  This, the stranger says, induced in him a nearly irresistible urge to punch his black friend in the face. 

The stranger’s memoir is replete with other stories of black insensitivity and white suffering. 

Sixth, the stranger does not refuse to associate with all blacks. There are some blacks for whom he feels considerable affection.  But they are blacks who share his conviction that Black America is a bastion of racial oppression that needs to be “fundamentally transformed.”  A couple of these blacks are terrorists who have actually bombed black institutions.  Years later, they openly lamented not having detonated more black institutions.

Seventh, the stranger is friends with several high profile white academics who have routinely, tirelessly, written and spoken of the systemic and systematic abuses to which whites have been subjected by blacks.  In fact, he isn’t only friends with them; they were his own mentors during his time in college.  One of them has even gone so far as to say that he lives “to harass black people.” 

Now, suppose you know all of this about this stranger.  The stranger becomes the President of theUnited States.  If, per impossible, Rip Van Winkle-like, you were to fall into a long, deep sleep, upon awakening years later, what do you think you would discover about the manner in which President Stranger governed?  Consider the following scenarios.

In the first scenario, President Stranger does his best to encourage the elimination of all policies that dispense upon whites preferential treatment so as to insure a race-neutral legal system that treated all citizens impartially.

In the second scenario, President Stranger not only furthers the system in place, but expands it.  He promotes policies that disadvantage blacks at the cost of privileging whites; refers to blacks as “our enemies” while addressing white crowds; and appoints a white man to preside over his Department of Justice who orders his attorneys to prosecute only those potential civil rights violators who are black

Given what you know of the stranger, there is no doubt that it is the second scenario that will resonate most with you.  The first will have no resonance at all. 

The reason for this is obvious: it is by now clear to you that, at a bare minimum, the stranger is a white person who has no small measure of animosity toward blacks.

But if any fool can deduce this about this hypothetical stranger, why is it that when we switch the races around, we refuse to recognize that it is our own President who has—again, at a bare minimum—an animus toward whiteAmerica?

Think about it.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The question concerning the relationship between faith and politics is one that has arrested the attention of many an American.  But it is during election seasons, particularly presidential election seasons, that it assumes a larger than usual importance in the American consciousness.  It is during this time that candidates exhaust themselves explaining the respects in which their religious convictions inform their political convictions.

Religion and politics, though conceptually distinct activities, do indeed intersect in all manner of ways.  Such encounters are much more frequently than not contentious, and sometimes—as in the present case of President Barack Obama’s confrontation with the Catholic Church—they can be downright acrimonious.

In focusing on this episode, we are able to clearly discern the intimate nature of the connection between “religious liberty” and liberty generally, faith and culture, faith and politics, in American life.

The Obama Administration and the Catholic Church

A couple of weeks ago, while attending mass at my local parish, the priest read from a letter written by the Arch Bishop of our diocese.  The subject of the letter was the Health and Human Services Department’s requirement that Catholic institutions provide “free” contraceptives to their employees. 

My Bishop, along with Catholic clergy and laity around the country, insisted that Catholics could not and would not comply with such a law, for inasmuch as it both infringed upon Catholics’ “religious liberty” and coerced them to act in violation of their “consciences,” it was unjust.

Although President Obama later announced that Catholic institutions would be exempted from this demand, that only insurance companies would be legally compelled to comply with it, the truth of the matter is that health care insurers will have no economically viable option but to ultimately shift the costs of making these provisions onto the employer—i.e. the Catholic Church.  Obama, that is, isn’t making any concessions.  He is simply playing the proverbial shell game. 

Thus, the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis Obamacare has not in the least bit altered.

This episode speaks to a range of issues the breadth of which the chattering class, as far as I can determine, has yet to appreciate.  This controversy, as much as any, readily reveals the multiple ways in which faith and politics, the public and the private, relate to one another.   

An Issue of Liberty

Partisans on all sides of this issue tend to frame it in terms of a question of “religious liberty.”  I beg to differ.  Those who speak thus, like those who speak of “economic liberty,” “positive rights,” “negative rights,” and the like, speak confusedly.  What is at issue here is nothing more or less than liberty itself.

The liberty which, as Americans, we claim to prize may very well be a dispensation from God.  I, for one, thank God regularly for it.  But it is something that comes to us directly from the broad dispersal of power and authority of which our constitutional arrangements consist.  To put it more simply, our liberty is comprised of a complex of liberties implied by the federal design that those who framed and ratified the Constitution imposed upon the United States government.  Such explicit “freedoms” as are found in the Bill of Rights and those that are implicit elsewhere throughout the Constitution are the obverse of the federal government’s obligations—namely, its obligations to refrain from undermining its federal character by usurping those “powers” that are reserved to the states.

It has been a long, long time since the federal government has been a genuinely federal government. Still, it is critical that we appreciate the nature of liberty before we proceed to talk about “religious” liberty and the like.  “Religious liberty” is simply the liberty to practice religion.  Because our system of government forbids any person or group from acquiring a monopoly on authority and power, individual Americans are permitted to engage in a staggering array of mutually incompatible pursuits of their own choosing. Religious activity is just one of these engagements. 

In short, what this means is that when the government undercuts the liberty of some Americans to pursue ends of a religious nature, it undercuts the liberty of all Americans to pursue ends of any nature.  Conversely, whenever the government impedes the exercise of liberty for any ends, it impedes the exercise of liberty for religious ends.

This being so, that Catholic institutions will be compelled under Obamacare to subsidize products to which they are opposed is something that should elicit every bit as much outrage from every liberty-loving American as it has elicited from the most orthodox of Catholic clerics.  At the same time, however, Catholics should have been as indignant over the fact that for decades and decades, Americans of all backgrounds have been coerced by a gargantuan federal government to subsidize all manner of practices to which they have been opposed. 

Truth be told, not only is it the case that the Church has been silent; it has actually demanded an ever more intrusive federal government.   

The Quest for ‘Social Justice’

This last point brings me to my present one. 

“Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”   There is a reason that this is an old saying: there is no small measure of truth in it.  It is indeed more than a bit ironic that the very same Catholic Church that for decades has been calling for “social justice” is now reaping what it has sowed. 

The demand for “social justice” is a demand for an ever expansive government.  More specifically, the demand for “social justice” is a demand for an activist government, the kind of government possessed of a large concentration of power sufficient to confiscate the resources of some—“the Haves”—so as to “redistribute” them to others—“the Have Nots.”

“Social justice” is radically incompatible with the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders.  What they referred to as a Republic is what the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott characterized as a “civil association,” an association whose members are related to one another in terms, not of some grand purpose to pursue, but laws to be observed.  These laws neither specify actions in which the associates (citizens) are to engage nor do they dispense substantive satisfactions for them to enjoy. Rather, the laws are “adverbial,” as Oakeshott put it, in that they assert conditions for the associates of civil association to fulfill while engaging in their self-chosen pursuits. 

In these respects, laws are like grammatical rules.  The latter do not prescribe what is to be said. But whatever it is we say, if it is to be decipherable, if it is to gain a hearing, it must conform to the conditions of our language’s grammar.  Similarly, only those actions are permissible that satisfy the conditions posited by the laws.

An association committed to “social justice” is most certainly not a civil association.  It is not a Constitutional Republic. It is what Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.”  In an enterprise association, the government is expected to “lead” its subjects into a Promised Land of one kind or another, a new dispensation in which some ideal condition is realized.  In this case, the case of “social justice,” the ideal is a condition in which material goods achieve a more equal distribution. 

The problem, though, is that in a Constitutional Republic, a civil association, there is no place for any schemes of “social justice,” for the latter is a purpose to which all others must ultimately be subordinated.  That is, the call for “social justice” is the call for citizens to devote—or, more precisely, be made to devote—at least some of their resources in time, energy, and property to the fulfillment of this one over arching purpose.  The call for “social justice” is the call for less individuality, less liberty, and more government.

Yet in a civil association there is no purpose, grand or otherwise, that citizens are compelled to pursue.  And the federal character with which the Framers of our government originally invested it precludes the pursuit of “social justice” for which the Catholic Church and others have been relentlessly calling for decades.             


This election season, perhaps even more so than during seasons past, promises a fairly salient role for religion.  President Obama’s controversial health care law has insured this.  For the first time in a long time Catholics and those of other faiths are acutely aware of the precarious nature of liberty (and “religious” liberty).  Obamacare is just now beginning to reap what it sowed.  To paraphrase Obama’s former pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, Obamacare’s “chickens are coming home to roost.”

Previous Posts