|President-elect Barack Obama is neither the messiah, nor the antichrist. He is first and foremost a politician, whose adoring adherents deny his feet of clay and demonizing opponents refuse to respect him. Hopes are too high; despair is too deep.
Rooted in a flawed understanding of human nature, both extremes pull the nation apart, setting up an age of rock-throwing theological incivility.
One need not place stock in Louis Farrakhan's claim that Obama is the messiah to validate the salvific expectation abroad in the land.
"He is the One," said Oprah Winfrey. "The reason I love Barack Obama is because he is an evolved leader who can bring evolved leadership to our country."
MSNBC's Chris Matthews placed Obama within the pages of the New Testament. "I've been following politics since I was about 5," he said. "I've never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament."
Left-wing evangelical writer Jim Wallis called Obama's rallies revivals.
"I've officially been saved, and soon, whether they like it or not, the rest of the country will be too. I will follow him," wrote Maggie Mertens in the Smith College newspaper.
Film director Spike Lee said Obama's election would be so important that people would mark time based on "before Obama" and "after Obama," paralleling the Christian calendar of "Before Christ" and "After Christ."
A newspaper editorial writer said last Friday that Obama is "the embodiment of an ideal," a kind of evolutionary advancement in the human race.
Of course, Obama has contributed to the savior narrative through his rhetoric: "A light will shine down from somewhere…you will experience an epiphany;" "We are the ones we've been waiting for;" or "I have become a symbol of America returning to our best traditions." His campaign has reinforced rhetoric with visuals such as the god-like Greek columns at the Democratic convention.
So fearful of the public's yearning for political salvation, Sen. John McCain's campaign launched a TV ad mocking "the one."
Conservative Catholic blogger Christopher Blosser created an anti-messiah blogspot—Is Barack Obama the Messiah?—which catalogued and commented on the adoration.
Others crossed the line from criticizing the messiah theme to demonizing the man with gradations ranging from the false prophet (one who misleads the faithful) to the anti-Christ (one who does wondrous things by the power of Satan). The false prophet charge is harsh enough. The anti-Christ accusation is malevolently radioactive, making Obama the embodiment of evil.
On Fox News Forum, religious right columnist Cal Thomas said that Obama was a "false prophet."
Jim Bramlett, formerly of Christian Broadcasting Network, stepped across the line when he contrasted "Barack Hussein Obama," who has a "strong spiritual force behind him" which displeases God, with Gov. Sarah Palin, who has "the anointing" and "knows the One she serves."
Columnist J. Grant Swank, Jr. claimed the "spirit of antichrist rests on Obama," while Ed Vitagliano, director of research and news editor for the American Family Association, reportedly linked Obama with the "spirit of Antichrist."
When radio talk-show host Chris Baker referred to Obama as "the Nicolae Carpathia candidate," conservative Christian readers of the Left Behind book series knew immediately that Baker was saying that Obama was an anti-Christ.
Whether the label is false prophet or anti-Christ, religious conservatives have so theologically smeared Obama the candidate that one cannot figure out how they will honor him based on their proof text of Romans 13 about obedience to government: "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God…For he is a minister of God to thee for good."
At the same time, Obama's followers should remember the hero worship about the biblical figure David when he rivaled King Saul. The adoring crowds sang that Saul had slain only thousands, while David had slain tens of thousands of their enemies. Yet David's kingship was badly marred by adultery, political assassination, one son who raped his sister, another son who murdered his brother, coup d'état by a favored son and God's denial of David's wish to build the temple—not exactly the expected script of the cheering crowd.
Both Obama's adoring adherents and demonizing detractors disclose a lack of discernment. The sky is neither filled with angels proclaiming peace on earth, nor is it falling. Obama is neither the political messiah, nor the political anti-Christ.
Theological realism about our new president will temper the extremes, making possible needed policies to address the abundance of global problems.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.