11/07/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Of Names and Narcissism, or, What Really Happened Tuesday

A generation ago, scholars of religion could still sometimes refer to Islam as "Mohammedanism," failing to comprehend the magnitude, or the meaning, of the insult.

To suggest, as this name appears to do, that the religion of radical submission to the divine will as revealed through God's final prophet, Muhammad, amounted to a worship of that same prophet, was a staggering disavowal of the central tenet of the religion: namely, a radical and utterly uncompromising monotheism. The extraordinary, outside-of-time grandeur of the Author of All Things as described in the Qur'an, with His world-directing will, implies that nothing, and no one, may be held in any way comparable to God.

Allah-ism, maybe; Mohammedanism, never.

The irony in this situation was that most scholars who utilized the name were well-intentioned enough. They were attempting to grant Muhammad an authoritative place in the context of his religion similar to the one occupied by Jesus in his. In other words, they intended the name "Mohammedanism" as a compliment.

But therein lay the category mistake. Mohammedanism is nothing like Christianity. And because Christ was not Jesus's last name, "Christianity" was a very far cry from "Jesus-ism."

According to Luke, the name 'Christianity' was coined by Jesus-followers in the Syrian city of Antioch; maddeningly, Luke does not tell us what they thought the name was supposed to mean. It had something to do with the recognition that Jesus was God's "anointed one." But as to the specifics of that anointing, and what sort of figure it made of the anointed one, well, this took several centuries to resolve.

The solution was articulated in multiple creeds defining, first, the Incarnation of God in Christ, and then, the mysterious Trinitarian structure of Father, Son and Spirit... all of which led to the continuous elevation of the figure of Jesus Christ until he was, quite literally, made equal to the creator of the universe and was re-envisioned essentially as one of the three masks, or personae, worn by God.

From Jesus to Christ: it was a long way for a thirty-year-old carpenter from Nazareth to have come.

And this way represents an idolatrous heresy, for traditional Jews and Muslims alike. God's radical otherness is to be preserved at all costs in those traditions. You can't call Judaism "Abraham-ism," or (God forbid) "Moses-ism," and you can't call Islam "Mohammedanism" for this same reason. The messenger must be kept distinct from the message.

Or, to put the same point in more overtly political terms, the legislators must be kept distinct from the laws. If you erase that distinction, then you've made the lawmaker equivalent to the law itself; in other words, you've made a king. Or a god.

The beginning of the end of the Obama presidency came, paradoxically enough, at the height of the previous election cycle -- during the first of his debates with Mitt Romney and shortly before his re-election to a second term in office.

Governor Romney referred somewhat caustically to "Obamacare," at which point the moderator began to correct the former governor by noting -- entirely appropriately, I might add -- that the program in question was a law, the "Affordable Health Care Act," not a presidential edict. But the president demurred; "that's okay," he responded casually, "I like the name."

That is the equivalent of Muhammad actually liking the name Mohammedanism. Worse still, that is like a king seeing his own word as law.

And so it was, having confessed that, the president snatched moral defeat from the jaws of electoral victory.

In saying this today, I am not engaging in the standard Republican polemic against our president, suggesting that he's really a king in sheeps' clothing, attempting to eviscerate our individual liberties by imperial fiat and Big Government.

I am, however, engaging in the kind of criticism that has come with increasing vehemence from whatever political left is, well, left. The complaint has to do with the arrogance of all top-down authority-types, an arrogance which leads to the dissolution of the very democratic institutions that are necessary if lateral (and not top-down) relations are to endure and to thrive.

When President Obama accepted Governor Romney's characterization of a law as "Obamacare," he did two things. First, he contributed to the Tea Party paranoia that still, to this day, believes that the health care reforms which have been implemented were created by a presidential order and thus may be eliminated by a wave of the imperial wand. Governor Romney repeatedly promised that he would repeal "Obamacare" on his first day in office... and never, not once, did the president of the United States ask his opponent where in the US Constitution he found the passage granting a U.S. president the power to nullify a law passed by both houses of the US Legislature.

If it was "Obamacare," then all it needed was "Romney-ation."

All right, so far we are encountering a piece of ignorance, as benign in its way as well-meaning scholars of religion calling Islam "Mohammedan" instead of an Affordable Divine Act of Care.

The larger failure, and the one for which the president is singularly answerable follows from his blithe acceptance of the name: if you're going to own it, it's on you to sell it. This president, inexplicably, stopped selling the Affordable Health Care Act the day it was passed by Congress. If it was to be his (and his Party's) signature piece of legislative success, then it was his job to explain how it worked and to sell it... to an electorate which is as confused about it today as it was when it attempted to log-on the online marketplace in that first bewildering month or two.

Muhammad, of course, did far more to sell Islam than President Obama has done to sell "Obamacare." That's a real problem.

And it created an electoral problem that was as insurmountable as the original narcissism itself. We were left with a king trapped in an isolation borne of his own apparent hybris, unwilling to sell the policy with his name on it, and hence unable to sell the Democratic brand. He could not even assist loyal party members who voted for the law, because the name erased any role they had in passing the thing. Congressional and Senatorial candidates running as Democrats might have run on that record, explaining to a voting populace eager for knowledge as to why this new law is good for them and for the nation. Instead, as their president ran away from the law, all they were left to do was to run away from their president.

And they couldn't run far enough.

It did not need to be this way. And, yes, I know that a president in his sixth year of office is a known commodity, too well known perhaps. People tire, want something new. A new majority, a new day. That day has now dawned.

A formative moment in the early formation of Islam came on the day the Prophet died. One of his close followers emerged from the tent and instructed the crowd that, if they had been there to follow the Prophet Muhammad, then it was time for them to go home. If, on the other hand, they were here to follow Islam, then their adventure was just beginning.

What it is -- not Whom -- that the Democratic Party is here to follow is now a question of the first order.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.
Georgia State University