In his great book Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, the British theologian, satirist, and mystery writer Ronald Knox notes that, “these days,” America “is the last refuge of the enthusiast,” i.e., one who is convinced of his personal possession by the divine.
I thought about Knox’s book–which focuses primarily on the 17th and 18th centuries and the heresy of Montanism–while watching the crowd cheering Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention last night. There, surely, was one variety of enthusiasm, understanding the word in the modern, not the theological sense.
I thought the speech a splendid breath of fresh air–an “electrifying mix of intelligence, passion, energy, optimism and plain speaking” as one British paper put it–and I would surely have been cheering wildly along with the rest of the crowd had I been there in St. Paul.
But one of the things that struck me most forcefully about the crowd’s response to Palin’s speech was how the quality of its enthusiasm differed from the enthusiasm that greeted Obama’s Greek-temple oration last week. The crowd went wild for Palin, as it did for Obama. But in her case the enthusiasm was directed more at the performance than the performer. The crowd liked what it heard, and reacted accordingly. Palin came offering a new approach to Washington politics: an approach that featured an effort to make government smaller, to keep it our your life and pocketbook, and that emphasized traditional “small town” virtues like hard work, entrepreneurship, family loyalty, and fiscal responsibility. She also came bearing a refreshing quota of humor: what other candidate for high office would gladly describe herself as a hockey mom and then go on to explain that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was that the hockey mom wore lipstick?
By contrast, Obama came offering–himself. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he said in his Super Tuesday speech. I fear that he–and, what’s more, that his acolytes–really believe it. The enthusiasm that greets Obama is not the acknowledgment and approbation of an ambition, as it was in the case of the enthusiasm for Palin’s speech, but rather a coefficient of a personality cult. All those McCain ads portraying Obama as a Messiah-like figure are caricatures. But like any good caricature, they are revelatory precisely because the seize upon and exaggerate an obvious truth. Obama really did say, after all, that his nomination marked the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
So, it is with enthusiasm as it is with so many other things: there is enthusiasm of the good sort–which describes that natural ebullience we feel in the face of some important good–and there is enthusiasm of the narcissistic sort, which is fervent but blind in its uncritical endorsement of an abstraction: The Leader, The One, be he right or wrong.