March 22, 2009
One of the preoccupations of liberal journalists during the Bush administration was the way Bush was supposed to be sending signals to his followers who were evangelical Christians. Obama is proving just as adept at signalling the devotees of ideas that have come close to taking on a religious significance for many members of the upper middle class.
One of these signals is Obama’s well-publicized exercise regime. David Frum, who is quite attuned to the attitudes of his class, and shocked that the GOP is losing ground among that class, has swooned over our buff president. In his denunciation of Rush Limbaugh, Frum wrote, “This president evokes the language of ‘responsibility,’ and in his own life seems to epitomize that ideal: He is physically honed and disciplined, his worst vice an occasional cigarette.” The possibility that exercise is a matter of personal taste, rather than moral imperative, does not occur to Frum. Like many members of his class, he sees exercise as an easy way to distinguish the virtuous from the vicious. That this was not always so may be seen from Bridey’s response to Charles Ryder’s concern over the effect of Sebastian’s drinking on his health in Brideshead Revisited: “There’s nothing wrong in being a physical wreck, you know. There’s no moral obligation to be Postmaster-General or Master of Foxhounds or to live to walk ten miles at eighty.” Tell that to the stockbrokers on their elliptical trainers, Bridey.
Even more rapturous is the reaction to the news that Michelle Obama will plant an organic vegetable garden in the White House, a move that prompted paroxysms of praise in yesterday’s New York Times. The Times featured the views of a number of commenters, all of whom lauded Michelle Obama and most of whom regarded her act as having cosmic significance. According to Roger Doiron, who spearheaded a petition drive to get an organic garden at the White House, “The pace of change speaks to the power of the first family to shift people’s views and the public’s sense of urgency about environmental issues. I don’t think previous presidents were able to connect the dots between food, health, economics, and sustainability as we can.” Deborah Needleman gushes, “Michelle Obama’s rather basic kitchen garden comes loaded with politics and possibility. It can bring organic practices fully in the mainstream; it can teach children where food comes from and about nutrition and health.” Again, there is a sense that eating is about more than personal taste: it is a handy way to distinguish the sheep from the goats, with each meal offering a chance of proving one’s virtue. As many others have pointed out, such a religious sense is also widespread among environmentalists, who often regard those who don’t “reduce, reuse, recycle” the same way they regard drivers of SUVs, as evil.
To be sure, there are good reasons to exercise and watch what one eats and care about the environment. For many people, planting a vegetable garden is sensible. But many of those most excited about exercise and organic produce and the environment bring a religious fervor to their enthusiasms, and the Obamas are signalling that they share that fervor. Watch for the White House to be dark for “Earth Hour” next Saturday, and perhaps soon to be sporting solar panels again. And watch for those who believe that Obama shares their religious enthusiasms to be as loyal to him as evangelical Christians were to Bush.
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