Our New Best Friend?

Written a few weeks after the Inauguration of President Barack Obama last year, this is reprinted with permission from the Oberlin College (Ohio) Alumni Magazine, Spring, 2009, with minor editorial changes.

By now, you would have to be living in fact-free limbo to believe Barack Obama is a "secret Muslim," as some opponents suggested during the campaign. I think it is possible, however, that he’s a "secret Quaker"—so secret he himself has yet to recognize his true religious calling.

I don’t base this claim solely on the fact that the Obamas chose Sidwell Friends School, a prestigious Quaker institution in Washington, D.C., for their two young daughters. Rather I see many of the values of the Religious Society of Friends exemplified in the way their father campaigned for the Presidency, and is governing. Is there anyone else in public life today who embodies the Quaker ideal of "stillness" and inner peace more than the man known as "No Shock Barack. No Drama Obama"? Complementing that unflappable cool is the warmer, more ingratiating side of Obama’s public persona: the easy way he lights up a room, the incandescence derived from the sheer candle power of his smile. A manifestation perhaps of what Quakers refer to as the "inner light" that they seek in all people. The official credo of the Sidwell Friends School, for example, is "Eluceat omnibus lux" or "Let the light shine out from all."

Quaker teachings have their own distinctive vocabulary, phrases such as "active listening," "outwardly directed witness," "intentional community," as well as more familiar-sounding concepts such as "interfaith worship." Obama may not always talk the Quaker talk, but he does seem to embrace "active listening." In directing his faith outwardly toward the community, he seems to walk the Quaker walk.

But what clinches the "Obama as secret Quaker" argument for me is the affinity between his belief in bipartisanship—perhaps even post-partisanship—and the distinctive method of group decision-making practiced by Quakers: consensus. When it works, concept of winners and losers—and the accompanying fear that the losing minority may be bullied or even tyrannized by the majority— gives way to a process that seeks to resolve, or at least mitigate, minority concerns. Above all, for practitioners of consensus, the process itself is as important or even more important than the product it produces. But as any resident of an Oberlin College co-op or any faculty member of a Quaker school can tell you, when consensus doesn’t work, the process can be downright torturous.

For Obama, bipartisanship does not appear to be merely a means to an end (e.g., a strategy for obtaining the best possible stimulus package). It’s an end in itself— a whole new, tone-changing approach to biparty governance—one that deserves to be defended above and beyond the specific results it yields. Why else would Obama have originally envisioned a stimulus package that might garner 80 votes in the Senate as opposed to the more realistic and still filibuster- proof number of 60? That also helps explain why Obama preemptively offered the Republicans $300 billion worth of tax cuts before serious negotiations had begun.

Obama knows the concept of "consensus"—indeed, the desirability of ever arriving legislatively at something akin to consensus—was the single biggest casualty of the era of hyper-partisanship in U.S. politics. That Red State/Blue State era was pioneered by Lee Atwater, perfected by Karl Rove and his wedge issues like same-sex marriage bans, and is most evident today in the person of Rush Limbaugh, who appears to be functioning as the de facto head of the Republican Party.

Therein of course lies the problem with attempting to govern the U.S. as a consensus- seeking Quaker. Obama has reached so often and vigorously across the aisle that he’s in danger of dislocating his right shoulder. How many times can you extend a hand in search of consensus only to be ignored or rebuffed? The answer for Quakers is: as often as necessary.

With not a single Republican in the House and only three Republicans in the Senate willing to vote for the stimulus bill, bipartisan consensus amounts to an unrequited gesture on Obama’s part. There is, of course, a method to the madness of this Republican intransigence. The Republicans want to do to Barack Obama what Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole did to Bill Clinton in 1994. If they can weaken Obama’s initiatives just enough to prevent them from reviving the economy, then the GOP has a reasonable chance of changing the balance of power as early as two years from now. Once again, it’s the economy, stupid, that will determine whether or not Obama can achieve something as transformational as the New Deal.

But it may prove transformative in itself if Obama continues to govern like a Quaker. If nothing else, he’s bound to be an improvement over the two U.S. presidents who actually were raised as members of the Religious Society of Friends. Believe it or not, our only two bona fide Quaker presidents were Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. With Friends like those. . . .


Roger Copeland is a professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College. He is the author of What Is Dance? and Merce Cunningham: The modernizing of Modern Dance.