Charisma and its discontents

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false prophet Obama.jpegAt Temple Beth El last night I was struck again by the bitterness and vituperation that Obama provokes in some people. Why should a candidate whose campaign has been built on a rhetoric of bringing people together, who engages in a minimum of personal attack, inspire such antipathy? Back during the primary campaign, the antipathy was evident among certain Clinton supporters. I put it down to the anger of disappointed hopes and to annoyance at Obama’s more enthusiastic followers. But that hardly explains its presence on the GOP side. The deeper explanation has to do, I think, with the hostility that arises from the conviction that someone is a false prophet.
The discernment of false prophets is a small but important theme in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; the need to make sure that the people are not led astray, particularly away from God, is acute. And so false prophets are treated in the harshest terms. As in:

That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 13:5)


Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Mat. 7:15)

The ultimate false prophet is, of course, the Antichrist, but the various depictions, friendly and hostile, of Obama as savior, The One, world’s greatest celebrity, etc., tap into deep-seated religious anxieties about charismatic leaders who lead in the wrong direction. There is, doubtless, a purely psychological dimension to this as well–the rage you feel at someone who exerts a powerful emotional appeal that you yourself are immune to, or repelled by.

  • Christine

    Or maybe the fact that this charismatic leader and his emotional appeal might acutally effect some change in the status quo. Also, the question “who does he think he is?” is usually answered by “someone not like me.”

  • The citizens of the U.S. have long been energized by messianic rhetoric and messiah characters. We long for that great leader who will right the wrongs in our country. What a huge difference there is between the millenarian messianism that George W. Bush has claimed for himself in order to justify his foreign wars, and the “false messiah” accusations being leveled at Barack Obama in the current presidential campaign. Bush manipulated our longing for messiah to garner support for himself, whereas now Obama–the one who says “Yes, WE can!”–is criticized for thinking himself a messiah despite his emphasis on broad-based grassroots change.