During February, Black History Month, PBS stations around the country have been showing The Better Hour, an excellent documentary about William Wilberforce, the great British anti-slavery reformer (see WORLD, Feb. 10 and Oct. 13, 2007). The documentary is part of a project that includes local gatherings and an essay contest for high-school students (TheBetterHour.com).
As that documentary is making black (and white) history come alive, another reformer, Barack Obama, is making history in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also turning on many young evangelicals turned off by politics, in part because, like Wilberforce, he speaks smoothly and doesn't rage at opponents.
Wilberforce, though, stood for more than style. He explained precisely and concretely his abolitionist objective. Obama, though, has not been precise. He speaks of "change," but change can affirm life or can affirm more death, both in the womb and in cities that could be destroyed by nuclear terrorism.
Frankly, I'm tired of conservative talk-show rhetoric, so Obama's "Yes We Can!" has an emotional appeal. But can what? Can bridge ideological divides? The nonpartisan National Journal rates Obama the most liberal member of the Senate. Reduce the amount of lobbying? The only way to do that is to reduce the amount of money Washington controls. (If you build a centralized government, lobbyists will come.)
Obama so far has not agreed to be interviewed by WORLD, maybe because we would not be content with the soft questioning he generally receives. He speaks of finding bipartisan solutions to our stickiest problems, but I have yet to hear of any specific solutions he offers that would receive the support of most Republicans as well as most Democrats.
In the absence of the specificity that Wilberforce brought to questions, Obama supporters seem to be part of not "the better hour" (that was poet William Cowper's description of Wilberforce's time) but a bewitching hour. The occasional disease of democracy is the tendency for huge numbers of people to put on the back of a charismatic candidate the sum of all their hopes and fears.
These episodes rarely last longer than a year, but during that time much damage can be done. Wilberforce himself complained of those who "either overlook or deny the corruption and weakness of human nature. They . . . speak of man as a being who is naturally pure." Those who think of any politician as pure will inevitably be disappointed.
Obama gets lots of style points, but the question to put to his supporters is: Tell us about the specific Obama policies that you think would make things better in America. Give us whatever evidence you have that these policies would succeed. Tell us what his proposals would cost. For example, tell us, based on the evidence of the past 50 years, how his ideas would improve education and help the poor.
Many people see Obama as the second coming of John F. Kennedy-but Kennedy was a John McCain on foreign policy. He orated in his inaugural address "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." How will a precipitous U.S. retreat from the Middle East make more likely the success of liberty in Iraq?
Kennedy asked Americans to remember that "civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof." Obama's calls for civility deserve praise and emulation, but we need some proof of sincerity in his eloquent calls to bring America together.
The tiniest of markers would be for him to renounce his opposition to last year's Supreme Court upholding of a partial-birth abortion ban. The vast majority of Americans disapprove of that particularly barbaric practice of smashing the skull of a baby during the process of birth. If Obama can't disappoint his pro-abortion backers with even a small gesture, how can we expect him to do anything larger?
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