In a wide-ranging conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, President Obama suggested that Christians who take their religion the most seriously often adopt an “us versus them” mentality.
In the interview, published in the Nov. 5 issue of The New York Review of Books, the president lamented “the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an ‘us versus them,’ and those are sometimes the loudest voices.
“But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Ms. Robinson. “How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?”
Ms. Robinson replied, “I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.”
Ms. Robinson went on to say that “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”
Later in the interview, Mr. Obama told Ms. Robinson that part of what makes America great is “this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on.”
“That’s how we ended up going west, that’s how we — ‘I’m tired of all these people back east; if I go west, there’s going to be my own land and I’m not going to have to put up with this nonsense, and I’m going to start my own thing, and I’ve got my homestead,’” he argued. “It is true, though, that that restlessness and that dissatisfaction which has helped us go to the moon and create the Internet and build the Transcontinental Railroad and build our land-grant colleges, that those things, born of dissatisfaction, we can very rapidly then take for granted and not tend to and not defend, and not understand how precious these things are.
“And this is where conceptions of government can get us in trouble,” the president said. “Whenever I hear people saying that our problems would be solved without government, I always want to tell them you need to go to some other countries where there really is no government, where the roads are never repaired …”
“We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together,” he added.
Mr. Obama has long been a fan of Ms. Robinson’s, to whom he awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal, The Hill reported. During the interview, he spoke about how he read her novel “Gilead” while campaigning in Iowa in 2008.
The interview took place on Sept. 14 during the president’s stop in Iowa designed to promote his educational initiatives. The second part of the interview will be published by The New York Review of Books in its next issue.