Richard Beck has a fantastic post out today reflecting on a passage from Barack Obama’s recent memoir and how materialism affects our ability to find common cause across ideological boundaries. Here’s the Obama quote:
T]emperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.
Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality…a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.Barack Obama, from A Promised Land
Beck contrasts Obama’s Christian non-materialistic optimism with the atheistic, materialistic pessimism of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hope, and a pragmatic politics, says Beck, are rooted in a non-materialistic view of reality.
I have leaned politically left in the past decade but been frustrated by the inability of much of the progressive left to share a hopeful view. Beck’s paragraph here turned a light bulb on for me:
…Obama is correct, there are shared values between the materialists and the non-materialists. And those shared values lead us to think we can share “common cause.” We want to. And we try. All the time. But that “common cause” is perpetually undermined as these values are embedded within two very different metaphysical worldviews. In the non-materialist worldview, grace and hope season hate toward political enemies and impatience with the lack of progress in our lifetimes. Non-materialists can play the long game, graciously and hopefully, because they believe in a long game. By contrast, non-materialists [sic, Beck clearly means ‘materialists’ here], since there is no long game and the winners write the history books, will be driven to hate those who oppose them and become violently impatient in the face of conversation, compromise, and incrementalism. Given the pressing urgency of the Revolution hope and grace are moral failures, each dampening the passions needed to change the world.
This is as good an explanation as I’ve seen for the tension between those two groups on the left. Count me among the hopeful non-materialists.
If you go read Beck’s whole post (which you should), you’ll find he also has a couple rather (to borrow a word from my friend Dan) spicy things to say about conservative evangelicals. While I feel his frustration, I wish he would’ve spelled out his reasoning a little bit more to justify such strong words. It would be fascinating to explore why conservative evangelicals, non-materialists in Beck’s schema, seem to so frequently use the materialist’s political playbook. Of course as frequently as Dr. Beck blogs, that piece may already be on its way.