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.