Imagine my delight when I found this record of my favourite author in conversation with my favourite president. This exchange between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson (one of his favourite authors) is an articulate peregrination through contemporary politics, theology and literature. Reading their conversation feels like a glimpse into the kind of exalted correspondence that winds up in a presidential library, or a literary museum.
They talk about a persistent “us versus them” mentality in America, in which Christians are especially implicated. The President asks: “How do you reconcile the idea of [...] 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 replies: “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity [...]. 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.” She goes 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.”
Meanwhile, in a lecture named for his favourite Prime Minister, our recent Prime Minister has argued that Christianity must disown itself in order to preserve itself. Or at least that the West should disown Christianity's central idea in order to preserve its Christian character. “Love thy neighbour,” runs his argument, was never meant to apply to people who are not like us, whose preservation might require our sacrifice. Christ, no. Mr Abbott might do well to heed the warning Robinson gives in her new essay “Fear,” which she and Obama discuss: “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity [...] they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’”