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Barack Obama on the Path to Sainthood

03/04/2008 06:33 am 06:33:15 | Updated May 25, 2011

On the cusp of the Texas and Ohio elections, Barack Obama is dangerously close to becoming a bona fide charismatic leader. Not the way Jack Nicholson is charismatic, or even--God help me--Bill Clinton. I mean a charismatic leader in the tradition of saints and martyrs, who owe their larger-than-life personas as much to the imagination of their followers as to their own capabilities.

Consider the phenomenon of Amadou Bamba, who lived a hundred years ago in Senegal, West Africa. Bamba came of age as the French were trying to establish their dominance over Islam and tribal networks, the two forces that primarily shaped Senegalese society. Bamba was, by all accounts, a devout Muslim and devoted to his studies of Islam. He founded a brotherhood dedicated to hard work and submission to religious authority. Recognizing a natural leader, a community grew up around him.

So far so good. But then two things happened: first, Bamba's message took hold not just among his disciples, but across the country. Bamba's reputation swelled. He was a holy man, an agent of salvation sent only once every hundred years. (One can almost hear the echo: "The one the Democrats have been waiting for.")

Second, the French grew nervous. They did not like the idea of a poetry-writing, prayer-reciting monk capturing the hearts and minds of their citizens. They banished Bamba to Gabon. On the boat ride over--the story goes--Bamba leapt off the side of the boat and hovered on a rug above the waves so he could say his prayers. The French were baffled. Even in his absence Bamba's popularity grew, fomented in part by his apparent ability to defy imprisonment and death.

Eventually, after several more attempts at exile, the French came around to the idea that Bamba could actually be useful to them and brought him home. There, he used his influence to encourage his followers to join the French in fighting World War I. By the time Bamba died in 1927, he was hailed as a symbol of colonial resistance, while delivering the French a population of eager soldiers and workers.

I have to trust that the Bamba-Obama parallels go only so far: it would be a shame if all this rallying around hope and change culminated in a campaign to wage war on Iran, for instance, and an exhortation to go shopping. But the shape of the two stories remains similar--a moderately ambitious man meets a public's moderate appetite for leadership, and the two suddenly become larger than either would have expected. They feed on each other, spinning a narrative of a great man at a fateful moment. At some point the balance tips, and the crowd begins creating the character, endowing him with such esteem he starts to walk on water. Voila the charismatic leader.

Obama is not quite there yet, but he may be soon. With over a million people contributing to his campaign and voter turnout in Democratic primaries approaching numbers in the 2004 general election for John Kerry (an anti-charismatic leader if ever there was one), the crowd around Obama is becoming more a force than the candidate. It is the legions of field organizers and the current of public opinion that are creating the buzz, while the candidate remains calm, looking gaunt and tall as a lightening rod.

In Senegal today, the influence of Amadou Bamba is still literally visible. A grainy, black-and-white photograph, in which the saint is cloaked except for the eyes and nose, hangs in houses, offices, schools, airports, and mosques. Images of him praying above the ocean are painted on mirrors and bowls. Graffiti depicting his face and hands peel off the sides of buildings. Eighty years after his death, Amadou Bamba is the symbolic head of the country's most powerful and pervasive brotherhood, whose influence runs beneath the country's politics, economics, and society--but the man himself is rendered perfectly flat.

If this thing tips on Tuesday, Obama may be facing a similar fate. He will serve increasingly as a symbol--an icon, even--of change, hope, enthusiasm, youth, multiculturalism, goodwill, and the triumph of American self-invention, while the person and the policies recede even more into the background. Of course, this hollowness is exactly the charge that others have leveled against him. But the criticism misses the larger point, which is that perhaps what the public wants in these times is not a chief but a vessel. If Obama can channel the public's enthusiasm into even half the civic engagement and self-governance Amadou Bamba's brotherhood displays, he will indeed have what the Senegalese call "charisma"--a word that just happens to be baraka.