Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sam Harris Headshot

What Barack Obama Could Not (and Should Not) Say

Posted: Updated:

Barack Obama delivered a truly brilliant and
inspiring speech this week. There were a few things, however, that he
did
not and could not (and, indeed, should not) say:

He did not say that the mess he is in has as much
to do with religion as with racism--and, indeed, religion is the reason
why our
political discourse in this country is so scandalously stupid. As
Christopher
Hitchens observed in Slate
months ago,
one glance at the website of the Trinity United Church of Christ should
have
convinced anyone that Obama's connection to Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright
Jr.
would be a problem at some point in this campaign. Why couldn't Obama
just cut
his ties to his church and move on?

Well, among other inexpediencies, this might have
put his faith in Jesus in question. After all, Reverend Wright was the
man who
brought him to the "foot of the cross." Might the Senator from Illinois
be
unsure whether the Creator of the universe brought forth his only Son
from the
womb of a Galilean virgin, taught him the carpenter's trade, and then
had him
crucified for our benefit? Few suspicions could be more damaging in
American
politics today.

The stultifying effect of religion is everywhere
to be seen in the 2008 Presidential campaign. The faith of the
candidates has
been a constant concern in the Republican contest, of course--where John
McCain,
lacking the expected aura of born-again bamboozlement, has been
struggling to
entice some proper religious maniacs to his cause. He now finds himself
in the
compassionate embrace of Pastor John Hagee, a man who claims to know
that a
global war will soon precipitate the Rapture and the Second Coming of
Jesus
Christ (problem solved). Prior to McCain's ascendancy, we saw Governor
Mitt
Romney driven from the field by a Creationist yokel and his sectarian
hordes.
And this, despite the fact that the governor had been wearing
consecrated
Mormon underpants all the while, whose powers of protection are as yet
unrecognized by Evangelicals.

Like every candidate, Obama must appeal to
millions of voters who believe that without religion, most of us would
spend
our days raping and killing our neighbors and stealing their
pornography.
Examples of well-behaved and comparatively atheistic societies like
Sweden,
Finland, Norway, and Denmark--which surpass us in terrestrial virtues
like
education, health, public generosity, per capita aid to the developing
world,
and low rates of violent crime and infant mortality--are of no interest
to our
electorate whatsoever. It is, of course, good to know that people like
Reverend
Wright occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the
sick.
But wouldn't it be better to do these things for reasons that are not
manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing
that Jesus
Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts?

Yes we can.

Happily, Obama did a fine job of distancing
himself from Reverend Wright's divisive views on racism in America,
along with
his fatuous "chickens come home to roost" assessment of our war against
Islamic
terrorism. But he did not (and should not) acknowledge that the worst
parts of
Reverend Wright's sermons, as with most sermons, are his appeals to the
empty
hopes and baseless fears of his parishioners--people who could surely
find
better ways of advancing their interests in this world, if only they
could
banish the fiction of a world to come.

Obama did not say that religion's effect on our
society, and on the black community especially, has been
destructive--and where
it has seemed constructive it has generally taken the place of better
things.
Religion unites, motivates, and consoles beleaguered people not with
knowledge,
but with superstition and false promises. Surely there is a better way
to bring
people together in the 21st century. The truth is, despite the
toothsomeness of
his campaign slogan, we are not yet the people we have been waiting
for. And if
we don't start talking sense to our children, they won't be the ones we
are
waiting for either.

Obama was surely wise not to mention that
Christianity was, without question, the great enabler of slavery in this
country. The Confederate soldiers who eagerly laid down their lives at
three
times the rate of Union men, for the pleasure of keeping blacks in
bondage and
using them as farm equipment, did so with the conscious understanding
that they
were doing the Lord's work. After Reconstruction, religion united
Southern
whites in their racist hatred and the black community in its
squalor--inuring
men and women on both sides to injustice far more efficiently than it
inspired
them to overcome it.

The problem of religious fatalism, ignorance, and
false hope, while plain to see in most religious contexts, is now
especially
obvious in the black community. The popularity of "prosperity gospel" is
perhaps the most galling example: where unctuous crooks like T.D. Jakes
and
Creflo Dollar persuade undereducated and underprivileged men and women
to pray for wealth, while tithing what
little wealth they have to their corrupt and swollen ministries. Men
like Jakes
and Dollar, whatever occasional good they may do, are unconscionable
predators
and curators of human ignorance. Is it too soon to say this in American
politics? Yes it is.

Despite all that he does not and cannot say,
Obama's candidacy is genuinely thrilling: his heart is clearly in the
right
place; he is an order of magnitude more intelligent than the current
occupant
of the Oval Office; and he still stands a decent chance of becoming the
next
President of the United States. His election in November really would
be a
triumph of hope.

But Obama's candidacy is also depressing, for it
demonstrates that even a person of the greatest candor and eloquence
must still
claim to believe the unbelievable in order to have a political career
in this
country. We may be ready for the audacity of hope. Will we ever be
ready for
the audacity of reason?

Sam Harris is the author "The End of Faith"
and "Letter to a Christian Nation." He can be reached at
www.samharris.org

Read more HuffPost coverage and reaction to Obama's speech