President Obama seems, lately — with a little over a year left of his term — to be allowing himself a few instances to have public fun that’s (perhaps only illusorily) unlinked to presidential causes. Recently, he ate some salmon with Bear Grylls (while he was in Alaska for the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience). And now, as another public display of enjoyment, the President had a conversation with Housekeeping/Gilead author Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books. “One of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in,” he told Robinson, towards the beginning of their talk, which happened on September 14 in Des Moines and centered on her newest book of essays, The Givenness of Things — out in hardcover October 27. (Though from what can be gathered in the interview, the two have communicated often ever since Robinson received an award — likely the 2012 National Humanities Medal — and attended a dinner at the White House.)
He begins by professing his love for Robinson’s Gilead character, John Ames (who hails from the fictional Iowa town, Gilead) — it was this character, with his confusion “about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through” that first drew Obama to her work. The two discuss political fear-mongering as a topic in her essays, and the dangers therein. Obama postulates that right now the public may be particularly vulnerable to this type of politicking, having just come out of the “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” and dealing with “the stresses of globalization and rapid change.” Robinson responds:
Having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that [now] we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook…
This brings them into matters of faith — which is where it was inevitably going, giving that this is, after all, a conversation between someone who is obligated (whether in agreement or in protest) to take Christian values into consideration at every turn and someone who chooses to do so, heightening her humanism through it. (Kirkus Reviews called Robinson’s upcoming essay collection “A sober, passionate defense of Christian faith.”)
“How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you… [while] 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?” asks Obama, and it seems these vague-enough-not-to-be-controversial yet heavily loaded comments are also a means for Obama to vent and address his own frustrations with what he’s had to endure in his presidency.
Robinson responds, “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… ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’… 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.”
From there, the two both go into their family histories, and their respective upbringings’ emphasis on “homespun virtues,” and Obama uses his approval of this perceived small town sense of care and generosity to aim discussion towards the gap between how these values might be applied to people’s personal lives but not their politics. “They know they want to take care of somebody who’s sick, and they have a generous impulse. How that gets translated into the latest Medicare budgets [isn’t] always clear,” he says. It’s ultimately a fascinating conversation between someone who clearly has a lot he’d like to say about the appropriate intersection of Christianity and politics, but is still working around the restraints of obligatory presidential formality — and Marilynne Robinson.
Read the whole discussion at the New York Review of Books.