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In this Nov. 21, 2011 photo, Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at a town meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
At last, drama. Both Newt Gingrich and President Obama are reinventing themselves in the never-ending American drama, “Who will save us?” of politics as salvation.
All the talk of religious “values” in the public square is not as powerful a reminder of how much American politics often plays out as a drama of salvation as when there is a sudden shift in expectation. Newt Gingrich unexpectedly, and dramatically surged in South Carolina, and he is leading Mitt Romney in Florida.
Gingrich has gained his second act in politics by sounding not just a “dog whistle” on racial resentment, but an audible police siren. Catholic church leaders warned him (and Rick Santorum) not to do that; he did it anyway and won. In this vote, were South Carolina Republicans saying that Gingrich is “gutsy enough” to “save” them from Obama? For it is political “salvation,” not just picking a candidate that surged in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, in another, but very different, dramatic political moment, President Obama sang a few bars from Rev. Al Green’s soul classic, “Let’s Stay Together” about love and the video of that went viral . After noting that the “Reverend Al Green” had performed earlier in the evening, Obama crooned, “Ahhhhm … so in love with you,” as the crowd and cheered wildly. The president broke into his trademark smile and pointed to the side of the stage. “Those guys didn’t think I would do it. I told ya I was going to do it.” And everyone laughed. You can now get a ringtone for your iPhone or other mobile device from the Obama campaign. Obama tells the voter who downloads this ringtone, every time their phone rings, ‘I’m so in love with you.”
Both of these candidates are reinventing themselves, and drawing deeply on the uniquely American approach to politics: who can get us to the Promised Land?
This is a version of Pilgrim’s Progress, the Protestant idea that came here with the Pilgrims and has become such a powerful American story: Our nation’s soul is at stake in our political life. The players change depending on your political party, but the STORY is what’s so strongly influential.
The meaning of this presidential race is being crafted in such moments for both sides. It can appear that the choice is shaping up to be “racial resentment” versus “jobs and the economy.” But that’s on the surface. At times of crisis, Americans reach into a deep religious script about this country and whether it is on the right road or not. This script, in great part, is the religious narrative of Pilgrim’s Progress, where “Christian,” the name of the protagonist, but who also stands for the archetypal human being, must journey from his hometown, the “City of Destruction” (or this world), toward the “Celestial City” (or that which is to come, i.e. heaven).
You don’t need to be Protestant, or even a Christian to engage this narrative. Americans from many religions or no religion can engage this drama in recognizing that there is something beyond the issues that is fundamentally at stake in such an important presidential election. The deep drama is this choice: ‘Are we on the right road, going where we need to go as a people, or are we heading for sure destruction and even ruin?’
Newt Gingrich conveys the urgency of this narrative far better than the tanned and bland Mitt Romney. Mitt is here to fix your company (or your offshore bank account, depending on whom you believe). He’s the corporation man, the technocrat. Gingrich is all about passion and vision; he can drill down into that ‘we’re going to hell in a hand basket’ resentment that white voters, who actually have been losers in the one percent economy, can grab on to and easily transfer into racial resentment.
Both sides in a presidential contest try to paint themselves as about the salvation of the country, and cast the other side as the road to ruin. Each side must tap into the emotions of voters, their deepest convictions.
Obama has been criticized (or praised) for being “cool and aloof,” but that’s not how he won the presidency. He won last time not on the issues, but on tapping into that uniquely American belief in hope. He did that in the last race about as well as the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan used to do, using both humor and gravity to tell Americans they could believe they were on the road to the “Celestial City” again, but only if they voted for him.
It is clear that an Obama singing about “love” has decided to reconnect emotionally with voters. Hope isn’t going to get it done this time. But love just might work.
Two powerful emotions: love and hate. This is a dramatic contest now, cast as a struggle for who will save the nation. And the third act is yet to come.