It was no typical Sunday afternoon on December 9, 2007, in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost 30,000 people had opted out of or came directly from a local church worship service to attend a different kind of service – an Obama presidential rally featuring Oprah Winfrey. But this rally felt more like a Christian crusade than a political rally. With a crowd peppered in Sunday dress and hats, the Obamas and Oprah delivered evangelistic and messianic messages to those in attendance.
“We need a leader who's going to touch our souls. Who's going to make us feel differently about one another,” Michelle Obama told the crowd.
Taking it a step further, Oprah said that Obama was the answer to the old woman’s question to every child, “Are you the one?” as told in the 1974 film, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," which was based on Ernest Gaines' 1971 novel. The story continues that the woman, who survived both slavery and the Civil War, also asks the child whether he will “carry part of our cross.” “He is the one,” Oprah told the cheering crowd.
These messianic-type references were not isolated to this one event; it pervaded his campaign.
I remember as Obama was growing in popularity walking down my street only to encounter a neighbor wearing a shirt with a profile of Obama’s face imprinted on it with the word “Hope” underneath. Hope for a new America, hope for racial reconciliation, hope for world peace all rolled up into one man. Supposedly, this one man would bring the hope the world needed. “Change we can believe in” was the motto of his campaign.
An Obama supporter in Colorado once shouted of him, “He’s been sent by God,” which then became the headline of a 2008 article by The Telegraph. More startling was another article written in 2008 by Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein in the American Prospect in which his purposefully-crafted praise of Obama was to elevate Obama to a place greater than Jesus Christ.
“[Obama] is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I've heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.” (Emphasis my own.)
It was believed by many in 2008 that Obama would inaugurate a post-racial society, heal Middle East/Muslim relations and thereby reduce terrorism, and would bring Americans together. To some, he was America’s – more than that, the world’s – messiah.
However, after almost eight years in office, it is clear that while he has done good things as president he was not the “messiah” that everyone – including himself at times – had made him to be.
Race relations did not get better but in some ways worsened. During his presidency we saw the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the shooting massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and police shootings of young, black men in Ferguson, Chicago, and Cleveland, to name a few. These incidents set off national riots and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign.
The situation in the Middle East and acts of terrorism did not improve. During Obama’s presidency, the world watched as ISIS became a power of terror implementing terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and the U.S. ISIS also was responsible for the mass killings of Christians and other religion minorities in Iraq, Syria, Liberia and elsewhere in Africa. As a result, Europe (mostly) has had a mass influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
In regard to bringing together America, we’ve seen some of the most divisive issues come to a head during his presidency – healthcare, gay marriage and abortion.
When interviewed in 2013 by Piers Morgan on CNN, Barbara Walters admitted that many Americans were feeling disappointed once they realized that Obama was not the next messiah.
“We thought that he was going to be -- I shouldn't say this at Christmastime -- but the next messiah. And the whole Obamacare, or whatever you want to call it, the Affordable Health Act [sic], it just hasn't worked for him. And he’s stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.”
Our desire to look for a political messiah of our own making is nothing new.
In the Gospel of Luke we are told that the people were “in expectation” and “questioning in their hearts concerning John whether he might be the messiah.” But John, recognizing his humanity and limitations, truthfully replied that he was not the messiah but someone greater than him, who was the messiah, was coming.
When Jesus, the true messiah did come, however, they wanted a messiah that fit their own ideas and fantasies instead of the kind of messiah that Jesus claimed to be.
They imagined a messiah who came from Jerusalem; Jesus came from Galilee. They wanted a messiah who only gave them physical bread; Jesus came (ultimately) to give them the bread of life. They imagined a messiah on a horse; Jesus came on a donkey. They imagined a messiah who would come bearing a sword and would deliver them from political oppression. Jesus came to die so that he could deliver people from sin. When Jesus perceived that the crowd wanted to force him to be king of their own making, he withdrew (John 6:15). Ultimately because he claimed to be God (and he definitely was not the political messiah they expected), they rejected and killed him.
Since then people have continued looking for the political messiah that Jesus refused to be. As Jesus warned in Matthew, many will come pretending to be the messiah but they will be perpetrating a lie. History has something to teach us, if only we will be teachable, and that is all attempts at making someone a messiah other than Jesus are futile and dangerous.
As I consider this coming election I see a similar cycle. No doubt most likely every presidential candidate sees themselves, in part, as a political messiah. The most obvious of these is Donald Trump, who draws the kind of large crowds that Obama did. Donald Trump, whose campaign motto is, “Make America Great Again,” implicitly communicates that only he can make America great again. And it is obvious from Twitter that many of his fans believe that Trump is the solution or "savior" to America’s problems.
"@redneckgp: All you haters out there, STOP trashing the only candidate @realDonaldTrump that will put ALL OF YOU & AMERICA FIRST #trump"
"@R_U_OK_UK: @realDonaldTrump @glozee1 @PaulManafort @CNN @DanScavino Vote trump to save the west. Don't become like Europe - #WakeUpAmerica"
"@governor_savage: @realDonaldTrump is the only person who can save us from this corrupt political mess. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain"
But no matter which candidate has your vote please consider this – no man or woman will ever or can be a political messiah. No one other than Jesus will be able to bring peace, safety and harmony to this world. The Bible is clear. Only Jesus Christ is the messiah. Only in God and in the second coming of his Son Jesus will the world one day be made perfect and right and good.
As we consider who we will vote for president, choose someone who is (the most) virtuous, whose philosophy and policies you most agree with, and who you think will do the best job at representing you and our country to the world. But do not vote in vain that this person will save you, this country or even the world. Do not place your hope on any one candidate. If so, like Barabara Walters, you will eventually be disappointed. Instead, place all your hope on the only One and True Messiah – Jesus Christ. There you will not be disappointed.
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; For only in thee can we live in safety. Lord, keep this nation under thy care; And guide us in the way of justice and truth. Let thy way be known upon earth; Thy saving health among all nations. Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; Nor the hope of the poor be taken away. Create in us clean hearts, O God; And sustain us with thy Holy Spirit. (Suffrage, Book of Common Prayer)