Sleeper: The value of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’

Even as we lurch from symbolism to substance with President-elect Barack Obama, I hope that he (and most Yalies) will appreciate the symbolic and substantive rewards of being sworn in on Jan. 20 as “Barack Hussein Obama.”

During the campaign, neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes of Campus Watch and Obama detractors thought it smart to highlight Obama’s paternal Muslim roots and associations. But now that he’s won, you’d have to be as naive as a neo-con to miss the nobility and world-historical gains this country would achieve if, having overthrown a bad Hussein, it installed a good one — not in Baghdad, but in Washington.

Yes, the mind reels. Hussein is a name of honor bestowed upon metaphorical descendants of the prophet Mohammed. An American president bearing that name, even only residually, will enact what philosophers call a transvaluation of values, generating severe cognitive dissonance for millions of people like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and for millions more, abroad, who are not like them at all.

Islamicists, confronted with a Hussein in the White House, will rage that the Great Satan has stolen and polluted a holy name. But where were they when the Saddam Hussein, an admirer more of Stalin than of Mohammed, was butchering millions?

Unlike the rule of that Hussein and of oil sheiks, mullahs and the Taliban, the prospect of our Hussein’s inauguration is raising many young Muslims’ democratic hopes even higher than America has raised their hopes of economic and cultural change. (As for the economic, it’s telling that just as Obama’s election reflected Western democracy’s deepest strengths, the iconically Western Gordon Brown was begging the Saudis to aid the International Monetary Fund.)

Notice, too, the influence of Barack Hussein Obama on African-American youths who might once have been drawn to the Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan lives a stone’s throw from the Obamas in Chicago’s South Side. Farrakhan endorsed Obama with a kind of desperation last summer, only to be rebuffed, and with good reason.

Still other ironies in Obama’s name are rich beyond measure. Barack is Arabic for the Hebrew Baruch, meaning “blessed” in both tongues — another of the many achingly poignant, almost illicit, intimacies between the two languages and religions. The most famous Jew to bear the name was the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who crossed Christian and Jewish lines, blurring them in order to transcend them.

Obama’s story draws all three lines of Abrahamic religion — Christian, Muslim and Jewish — into a convergence more promising than that drawn more than a century ago by the Rev. George Bush, a Presbyterian scholar, brother of our president’s fifth-generation lineal antecedent, and the first teacher of Hebrew, Arabic and other Semitic and ancient languages at New York University in the 1830s.

In 1844, the Rev. Bush wrote “The Valley of the Vision,” or “The Dry Bones Revived: An Attempted Proof of the Restoration and Conversion of the Jews,” which interpreted the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel to prophesy Jews’ return to Palestine from all over the world in what Bush insisted was the not-distant future.

I doubt that our departing president has read his ancestor’s exegesis, but if he also doesn’t know the Book of Ezekiel, at least Obama does. In his speech on race in Philadelphia last winter, Obama recalled that, for his black Congregational church in Chicago, “Ezekiel’s field of dry bones” was one of the “stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope” that “became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears.”

The Rev. Bush, who imagined the Jews’ return to Palestine as a prelude to Armageddon, also wrote the first American book on Islam, “Life of Mohammed,” declaring the prophet an imposter. That’s two additional reasons why America’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim prospects are brighter with Barack Hussein Obama than with any of the George Bushes we’ve known, not to mention with Karl Christian Rove.

Obama may be no more a messenger of God than are Rove and Bush, yet at moments his campaign did flash intimations of the awful sublimity of the Hebrew God’s thundering in history; of the Christian pilgrim’s exalted, arduous journey; and of the Muslim ummah’s bonds of communal faith.

And he does understand — as did an Abraham who was called Lincoln — that this republic should keep on weaving into its tough, liberal tapestry the threads of intrepid Abrahamic faith that have figured so strongly in its beginnings and triumphs. That Obama draws this understanding from intimacies with Ezekiel and Indonesia and the South Side makes him providential enough.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science and a 1969 graduate of Yale College. He is the author of “Liberal Racism” (1997) and is currently writing a book on the Hebraic and Puritan roots of the American republic.


  • Sleeper

    This article reads as if Sleeper was asleep and merely jotting down desultory and hostile thoughts from his dreams. Article is bereft of intellectual honesty. Islamists are not insulted with BO in the White House. To the contrary, most are elated with the notion for the same symbolic reasons that Sleeper describes in this article.

  • A round of applause

    Poster # 1 confuses the use of "big" words, like "desultory" and "bereft", with a coherent argument.

    Pulling the specifics out of the comment, we end up with:

    "This article reads as if I disagree with it. It lacks agreement with me. I think those people don't feel something. To the contrary, I think they feel anti-something, for the same reasons described in this article."

    What would be really amazing about this comment board, would be if people actually backed up their points, instead of just saying 'you are wrong.' It especially looks bad when the op-ed is well-considered, and the comment devoid of content.

    And sorry poster #1; this is nothing personal (how could it be, you're anonymous) but you are emblematic of most YDN comment posts.

  • jim sleeper

    A comment by Jim Sleeper:

    Although neither of these first two posted comments actually engages the opinion essay I wrote, I've received a lot of interesting reaction to it directly, and I see that it was frequently e-mailed by readers to other readers. So let me add a brief comment to the piece itself.

    Some people wondered if my purpose in writing this op ed was to strenthen an American, "crusader state," religious nationalism. The short answer is no, but a longer answer would have two points:

    1. I wanted to highlight the silliness of the neo-conservative and far-right thunder over Obama's middle name, by suggesting that if those who tried to sow suspicion about Obama had really cared about America's world standing as much as they claim to, they would have found something to attack besides his childhood encounters with Islam.

    2) I do want to suggest that America's civic-republican strengths, which favor neither the "left" nor the "right" that's good from a difficult synthesis of Hebraic and Puritan traditions that are still quite evident in our politics, albeit often in corrupted, tangled, but still-valuable ways. One needn't be a religious believer to recognize their importance and, I would argue, their necessity for a liberal-capitalist republic.

    Liberalism (including the classical, free-market kind that conservatives champion) depends on virtues and beliefs which the liberal state itself cannot nurture, enforce, or even defend, because it has to respect citizens' rights to disagree. Yet without deeply shared virtues and beliefs, a republic such as ours has no adhesives, no moral and social glue -- as we have seen very clearly in recent months.

    A great glory of the American republic, though, is that it has found ways to avoid imposing any religious doctrine even as it continues to rely on strong currents of religious faith. Non-believers benefit more from everyone's keeping this balance -- of expecting faith without imposing doctrine -- than they would from a free-for-all that would quickly become a free-for-none, with no deeply common beliefs.

    Obama embodies and articulates this balance, and in a way that happens to include a religion that too many Americans have demonized rather than incorporated, in the typically American way. Whether my proposed synthesis of "Abrahamic" faiths is really possible within an American civic-republican consensus remains to be seen, but it ia an effort worth making.

  • R. Warner

    It's apparent from these comments, that your Biblical knowledge is limited, so I will not argue scripture with you.
    Obama is no 'saviour' to Christians or Jews, if in fact he is a decendant, at least in name, to the Muslim prophet, I did not hear anything from Obama to indicate a love for people or hope for future relations with those who do not agree with his views, to improve.
    I fear for the future of this country as well as the free world in general, not from the 'terrorists', but from those people that are willing to allow them to operate.
    A man like Obama in the seat of the President of the U.S.A. is a signal to radicals of all types that the U.S.A. is fair game. He may sit in that 'seat', and as a Christian I will pray for him, but he is not my President.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Warner,

    Is America's president's (a hypothetical one) being a descendant of the Muslim Prophet, even if it more than in name, in anyway harmful to the Christians and the Jews in this country considering that he has the same values as President Abraham Lincoln (not pointing at any particular person but rather making an ideological point)?

    Your Koranic knowledge is limited (and so is your knowledge of the similarities between the Abrahamic faiths and the respect given to Moses and Jesus their religions in Islam) so I will not argue the scripture with you. I would however like to point out a few things. America is a secular democracy and so the Bible or the Koran, no matter how high an esteem I or anyone else hold both or either of them in are in no way supposed to dictate the way this country is run. Furthermore, by saying that "Obama is no 'saviour' to Christians or Jews, if in fact he is a descendant, at least in name to the Muslim prophet", you are implying that his fault and his harmfulness lie in his relation to Islam. By saying so you are implying that Muslims in this country are in some way harmful to this country because of their religion!

    Any Muslim has equal right to run for the President of the United States as you do or President-Elect Barrack Obama does and if the American people chose him or her as their President than he is the best choice for this country for unlike you seem to think, America is a democracy not a Christian of Jewish state and so the decision of the People of America is more important here than what the Bible or the Torah say!

  • agupps


  • agupps

    Agreed, it is difficult. At the end of the day, the point is to pick something and get really good at it. Like we know that you have become very good at ‘conservative politics’ (whatever good may mean), but because of this, you will be recognized as a competent, capable person should you decide to do something else. Do not worry.