03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Recast As MLK, Jesus, Leading Spiritual Youth Movement

By evening, on this primary day in New Hampshire, I'm expecting the waters of the Merrimack River to turn to wine.

After Obama's speech on the night of his Iowa victory, pundits began to speak about his ascension to Democratic frontrunner in terms of a veritable movement. But witnessing his campaign stops here, this movement seems less like a political one than a religious one. Earlier in his campaign, Obama spoke quite openly about his belief in Jesus Christ, reaching out to Christian voters with tales of his conversion and the role faith has played in his life.

In New Hampshire, this week, he's talking to people about salvation as well. But this time it's our salvation, and the messiah's word he's spreading is his own. And it's this godly fervor, not a political one, which may well be galvanizing the grassroots youth effort not just in New Hampshire, but across the country.

Obama's sermons setting forth his own transcendent leadership are not accidentally Christian in nature. He's internalized this practice so deeply that he's already joking about it in his stump speech. Like a pastor who asks first-time church-goers to raise their hands at the beginning of the sermon, he requests a show of undecided voters and beams his kilowatt smile upon them, saying "A light will shine down from somewhere. You will experience an epiphany." In the chortles of the crowd, you can practically hear the angels sing.

It's not his own resurrection Obama preaches, but that of the country, and that of ourselves. His litany on hope has basically nothing to do with politics and everything to do with incandescent inspiration. You want to know about his health care policy? He tells the crowd they can take a look at the 25-page report on his website. The members of the Obama crowd aren't here for policy talk. They can get that -- competently, fluently, impressively -- from Hillary Clinton at any one of her competing rallies. Policy is what the apostles tried to carry out on behalf of Jesus. A messiah speaks to something far bigger than the nuts and bolts; a messiah speaks to the soul. Policy is for Washingtonians who have already seen their own lights extinguished under a mountain of failed bills and anguished compromises. The candidate says his opposition warns, "Obama hasn't been in Washington long enough," and that they say he won't be ready to lead the country until they "boil all the hope our of him 'til he sounds like us," those damn Pharisees.

It's not Pastor Mike Huckabee who talks about his work in churches on the stump, as Obama does. Nor does he translate the "warriors for Christ" language that inflected his evangelical sermon Sunday into a Christian-tinged secular message: it's Obama who is calling on us to be "happy warriors for change." Likewise, Obama, not Huckabee, suggests Christ's teaching to love one's enemies, when he speaks in broad strokes about his plans to meet with opposing national leaders. "The people of Iowa vindicated my faith," he has exclaimed from podiums across this state, asking his new minions in New Hampshire today to do the same.

Despite his references to John F. Kennedy, the only political figure (other than our current president) who appears in his stump speech, it's Martin Luther King who he quotes most, and whose oracular patterns he adopts out on the trail. Obama's speech yesterday resonated with the same. "In one day's time," he'd say, opening up a new theme -- on change, on hope, on uprooting the status quo, on "repairing" not just America, but the world -- building to a vocal crescendo and then and circling back to that same clause, "in one day's time."

It's like listening to that scratchy recording of King delivering his most famous speech from the Lincoln Memorial, to which Obama refers frequently on the campaign trail, when he defends his concept of "hope" from the barbs of those "reality" naysayers. From the stump, Obama asks us to imagine Dr. King standing on those steps, looking out over the crowd and the reflecting pool, across to the Washington monument, and saying, "Sorry guys. False hope. The dream will die."

But King didn't run for political office. He didn't ask for votes. He stayed remarkably far away from the inner chambers of Washington, for a man with such a profound political effect on our nation's history. His job, most principally, was to preach. And yet, it's no wonder that listening to Obama speak, it feels like he's carrying us all along with him to the mountaintop. I've spent a lot of time in churches, reporting on faith in America. I'm used to being the atheist crying in church. I can handle that. But despite my skepticism and my pragmatism, when Obama speaks, it doesn't even feel shameful to be the reporter tearing up in the press stands.

When towards the end of his speech, Obama says, "I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now. I believe that there's such a thing as being too late. That hour is almost upon us." I know this is cultivated. I know it's intentional. All the same, I practically feel an "Amen" threatening to escape my throat. This is what it feels like. It's feels like the opposite of every other candidate's campaign rally I've attended here. It feels like the ghost of Otis Redding is about to rise up behind the podium and sing "A Change is Gonna Come," while we all about to join hands.

This, dear reader, is what is galvanizing the youth vote, and sending packs of dewy-faced volunteers out to the street corners of the state to hoist Obama signs high over their heads today. I have traveled all over the country talking to the 18 to 30 set about what they are hungering for in a nation they say feels broken. They speak about the leadership they desire, the experience they crave, in spiritual terms, not political ones. The least politically engaged of them, don't talk about their crushing disappointment in their society in terms of political particulars, or even concrete ideas, they talk about what they want to feel. It's a spiritual search, not a political one.

This is the reason the Evangelical church has been able to attract and organize 25-30% of the country, by offering a feeling of change, of leadership, of salvation. Obama has been demonstrating that his brand of campaign spirituality can motivate a base, enlisting "warriors for change" in much the same way. Young people aren't going to organize en masse for policy initiatives. They're in this for a personal and national reformation. In those terms, you can understand why volunteers have driven from Texas and Arkansas and Illinois to tramp down cul de sacs in the melting snow to get out the vote, to sleep on floors by night and staff phone banks during the day, or why, in a mock election yesterday, 78 percent of Concord High School's Democrats chose Obama as their next president. It takes religion -- even a secular one -- to develop and organize a youth grassroots base in America today.

But will it last? Think back to who you fell in love with when you were eighteen or twenty. The deeper your initial infatuation, the higher the stakes. The greater number of nights you pissed off your roommate during too-vocal sleepovers during that first month, the greater the risk of getting your hopes crushed. And when your young lover presented his or her human weakness -- or unpreparedness for the relationship -- you'd be at the bar making grandiose statement about the opposite sex (if you swing that way), swearing never to date again: "they're all the same." Youthful love is fickle and delicate, and difficult to sustain for a few months, much less eleven of them. After you fall in love with how someone made you feel, and you stop feeling it, you might be tempted to announce your celibacy, or perhaps to choose your next date based on what he or she does, rather than how that person makes you feel.

In other words, what is happening today in New Hampshire is profound, to be sure, the stuff of love stories and conversions. The question is whether the love can last, and if it does, if Obama may be looking at his schedule next year from his desk in the Oval Office asking himself, WWHD -- what would Hillary do?

Check out HuffPost's comprehensive on-the-ground New Hampshire coverage here.