Bobo has produced a thing called “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he gurgles that the betrayal of the age of excess has made us hungry for a new code reconciling material and spiritual longings. Mr. Cohen, in “Europe and Benign Neglect,” says President Obama the post-Atlanticist has European leaders shaking their heads. Mr. Herbert, in “Rising to the Occasion,” says on Labor Day, President Obama finds his voice in outlining a $50 billion infrastructure campaign to rebuild America. He wonders where’s this guy been. Here’s Bobo:
Maybe the first decade of the 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom. During those years, new houses had great rooms with 20-foot ceilings and entire new art forms had to be invented to fill the acres of empty overhead wall space.
People bought bulbous vehicles like Hummers and Suburbans. The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car — so you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders.
When future archeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that sometime around 1996, the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.
But that economy went poof, and social norms have since changed. The oversized now looks slightly ridiculous. Values have changed as well.
Today, savings rates are climbing and smart advertisers emphasize small-town restraint and respectability. The Tea Party movement is militantly bourgeois. It uses Abbie Hoffman means to get back to Norman Rockwell ends.
In the coming years of slow growth, people are bound to establish new norms and seek noneconomic ways to find meaning. One of the interesting figures in this recalibration effort is David Platt.
Platt earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. At age 26, he was hired to lead a 4,300-person suburban church in Birmingham, Ala., and became known as the youngest megachurch leader in America.
Platt grew uneasy with the role he had fallen into and wrote about it in a recent book called “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.” It encapsulates many of the themes that have been floating around 20-something evangelical circles the past several years.
Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.
Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”
Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Him do it. This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: to build in this world and prepare for the next.
The tension between good and plenty, God and mammon, became the central tension in American life, propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist. Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.
Platt is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled. The material world is too soul-destroying. “The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel,” he argues. The American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets.
But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The American dream emphasizes upward mobility, but “success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.”
Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize.
Platt’s arguments are old, but they emerge at a postexcess moment, when attitudes toward material life are up for grabs. His book has struck a chord. His renunciation tome is selling like hotcakes. Reviews are warm. Leaders at places like the Southern Baptist Convention are calling on citizens to surrender the American dream.
I doubt that we’re about to see a surge of iPod shakers. Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.
The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie. The code was designed to help the nation cope with its own affluence. It eroded, and over the next few years, it will be redefined.
I would dearly love to know what Bobo drives. I’ll lay odds it’s not a hybrid. Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from London:
I was in the White House a few weeks back for a pleasant chat with Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff, and was struck by the red digital clock on his wall showing times in critical spots around the globe.
Back in the 20th century, not really that long ago, you would have had the times in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, and possibly in the capital of some regional cornerstone power, say Cairo or New Delhi.
McDonough’s list begins with Washington and Potus (the President of the United States), followed by Stillwater (the town he’s from in Minnesota), Kabul, Baghdad, the Yemeni capital of Sana, Jerusalem and Tehran.
The Stillwater reference is a joke. My ex-wife’s family was also from there and I can vouch that it’s a lovely place, but the strategic epicenter of precisely nothing. Another inside joke is the bracketed “Rahm” after Jerusalem — a reference to the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, whose ties to Israel are strong.
The serious bit is what this list says about America’s strategic priorities a decade into the 21st century. They have been transformed.
Sana is a sleepy little spot that happens to be pivotal to the Obama administration’s new “scalpel” approach to terrorism — picking off Al Qaeda operatives rather than applying the “hammer” of invasion. The other foreign capitals speak for themselves as hubs of war, conflict or escalating nuclear tensions.
What is striking, just two decades after the end of the Cold War, is the absence of a single European city. Europe, for the first time in hundreds of years, has become a strategic backwater. Europe is history.
Since taking office, President Obama has reached out to the Muslim world as a whole, to China, to Turkey and to Iran, but has devoted scant serious diplomatic energy to Europe. In many ways, he is the first post-Atlanticist president, drawn by temperament, upbringing and circumstance to focus elsewhere.
“Europe is the object of benign U.S. neglect,” said Camille Grand, a prominent Paris-based defense analyst. “Obama has not established or re-established a strategic relationship with any single European country or with Europe as a whole.”
Obama remains popular with Europeans — even if giddy infatuation has gone the way of giddy infatuations — but European political leaders feel jilted. Obama was supposed to put together the European Humpty Dumpty that President Bush shattered by favoring alliances of the willing over old alliances. He hasn’t.
Central Command in Florida, running the Afghan war, rides roughshod over NATO. New Middle East peace initiatives are launched, new Afghan strategies decided, without even a nod to the Europeans who will pick up part of the tab and do part of the dying. Nowhere else has Obama’s remoteness and distaste for the two-minute protocol phone call been so keenly felt as a brush-off.
France is in a quiet sulk. Nicolas Sarkozy is the most pro-American president of the Fifth Republic. He brought France back into NATO’s military command, rejected the de rigueur cynicism of French political discourse on the United States, and reached out to Obama. For all of which he got nothing. He must hear de Gaulle’s ghost at night whispering, “I told you so.”
In London, the British are shaking their heads. Prime Minister David Cameron, knowing Obama’s cool, set expectations low but is looking for a way to re-energize a special relationship shaken by the Iraq war. He has found little responsiveness in Washington. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the senior director for European affairs at the N.S.C., is widely viewed as dismissive of British concerns.
“The special relationship is in real trouble,” said Julian Lindley-French, a defense expert at the Dutch Royal Military Academy.
I can understand the U.S. attitude: Europe is at peace and reluctant to spend on defense. Some 2,000 Dutch troops are quitting Afghanistan at a critical juncture. NATO, in search of a relevant doctrine, has become an aging experts’ dilemma. France and Britain are smallish countries even if they account for 43 percent of E.U. defense spending. There are jihadis to fight and a broken American economy to fix.
Still, benign neglect is the wrong U.S. approach to Europe. It’s short-sighted and dangerous.
The Atlantic relationship remains the cornerstone of world stability even as new powers emerge. With its huge debt, America needs affordable influence; Western allies are the way to find it. The struggle of our age pits the state against the anti-state, with weapons of mass destruction potentially mixed in: The West embodies the values and has the institutions central to winning that fight. America needs a British-French-German defense troika alongside it and an end to NATO’s strategic drift.
“Beside the E.U., is there another bunch of countries anywhere willing to work as closely and permanently with the U.S. on almost all issues of global and regional concern?” asked Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador in Washington. “I wish Obama would say just that.”
Coolness can be reciprocated, the benign turn malign. Sana is not London. Heck, it’s not even Stillwater.
Now here’s Mr. Herbert:
On Labor Day afternoon in Milwaukee, President Obama finally began to vigorously push the kind of high-profile, rebuild-America infrastructure campaign that is absolutely essential if there is to be any real hope of putting Americans back to work and getting the economy back into reasonable shape over the next few years.
In a speech that was rousing, inspirational and, at times, quite funny, the president outlined a $50 billion proposal for a wide range of improvements to the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The money would be used for the construction and rehabilitation of highways, bridges, railroads, airport runways and the air traffic control system.
Mr. Obama linked the nation’s desperate need for jobs to the sorry state of the national infrastructure in a tone that conveyed both passion and empathy, and left me wondering, “Where has this guy been for the past year and a half?”
After noting that nearly one in five construction workers is unemployed, Mr. Obama told the crowd, “It doesn’t do anybody any good when so many hard-working Americans have been idle for months, even years, at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding.”
The U.S. once had the finest infrastructure in the world, he said, “and we can have it again.”
The president’s plan would include the creation of an infrastructure bank that would use public dollars to leverage private capital for major projects. If properly conceived and executed, the bank could become a crucial factor in financing the nation’s long-term infrastructure needs.
It should be kept in mind that Mr. Obama’s proposal is only a first step. Despite the $50 billion price tag, it’s not in any way commensurate with our overwhelming infrastructure needs or the gruesome scale of the nation’s unemployment crisis. But it’s an important step. It’s a smarter approach to infrastructure investment than the wasteful, haphazard, earmark-laden practices that we’ve become accustomed to, and it will put some people to work in jobs that pay decent wages.
The details of the proposal are less important than whether the proposal itself is a sign that Mr. Obama and his party are ready, at long last, to engage this awful economy with the sense of urgency and bold initiatives it requires. The plan won’t help Democrats in November. It’s already too late for that. But a good faith commitment to rebuilding the infrastructure would show that the party has some idea of the scale of the effort that’s needed to overcome the worst downturn since the Great Depression and, ultimately, to build an economy that offers the prospect of a decent living to the next couple of generations.
The president was eloquent on these matters in his speech. Speaking of his grandparents’ experiences during the 1930s, he said: “They would tell me about seeing their fathers or uncles losing jobs during the Depression, how it wasn’t just the loss of a paycheck that stung. It was the blow to their dignity, their sense of self-worth. I’ll bet a lot of us have seen people changed after a long bout of unemployment, how it can wear down even the strongest spirits.”
Leaning toward the microphone, with his shirt collar unbuttoned, Mr. Obama spoke in a way that belied his reputation for aloofness, for struggling to connect in a visceral way with ordinary working people. He was speaking to a pro-Obama labor gathering, so he didn’t have to win over the audience. But if his goal was to demonstrate that he genuinely cared about the struggles of the people in the audience and those watching on television — and about the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren — he largely succeeded.
The question that remains, however, is whether he and his party will fight with the skill and tenacity needed to guide his infrastructure proposal to fruition, and whether they will finally focus intensely, as they should have been doing all along, on the difficult but absolutely critical task of putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work.
Mr. Obama seemed to take a wicked, almost Truman-ish delight in going after the Republicans in his speech. It doesn’t matter what actions are taken or proposed to help ordinary Americans or to rebuild the economy, he said, “almost every Republican in Congress says no.”
In fact, he suggested, the Republican Party is committed to saying no to absolutely anything and everything, no matter what the topic: “If I said the sky was blue, they’d say no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.”
As if on cue, Republican leaders denounced the president’s infrastructure plan as more “out of control” Democratic spending.