Ludwig Feuerbach, Meet Barack Obama

It has been quite a few years now since I last taught a high school honors class in European history. But I can remember how I would cover the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) at the time. Very quickly.

There were two reasons for that. First of all, even thought the course I taught was an Advance Placement course, it was a survey course, covering the Renaissance to the Cold War. There was no time to linger on a single thinker. My judgment at the time was that Feuerbach should be covered, but only as part of the introduction to Marx's atheism.

There was another thing: I was not equipped to do much more than that. I'll ‘fess up. My knowledge of Feuerbach's theories was a classic example of knowing the "stuff about the stuff," limited to a few selections in various political theory anthologies and books on Marx. So that was what I offered my classes: stock summaries found in those sources. We went over how he was a student of Hegel who rejected Hegel's idealism and turned to atheism, viewing religion as a nothing more than a psychological need; that he saw God as a projection of our highest-minded ideals onto an imaginary being, an idealization of self.

 Before going further (I don't know if I should admit this in public), it has always struck me that Feuerbach was on to something. Not that he was right about the existence of God. If unaided reason fails us in this regard, we have Jesus' word that there is a loving Father in Heaven. But I would argue that Feuerbach is correct about how humans perceive God. His error was in concluding that this yearning and projection of our ideals somehow disproves God's existence. Not so. That human beings, in all parts of the world, from the beginning of time, have "projected their highest ideals onto a Supreme Being" is another way of saying that "God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next," to quote from the old Baltimore Catechism.

What interests me just now is a different aspect to this topic. I was always puzzled about why Feuerbach's theories would stimulate very little classroom discussion in my teaching days. My students would nod, and jot down some notes to be used for test purposes, but there was no give-and-take, no eagerness to take a stand, one way or another about his atheism. And this was not par for the course in my honors classes, where the students usually were eager to weigh in with their opinions and impressions about an author or controversial idea.

At the time, I attributed this reticence to their concerns about offending one another. This was one area where the students were respectful of each other, even those who would not think twice about ribbing someone for his choice of sneakers or the size of his nose. My honors classes were always a mixture of Christians and Jews, with an occasional admitted atheist along the way. They would go out of their way never to say anything demeaning — in public, at any rate — about each other's religious beliefs, or lack of same.

And I still think this the primary reason for the subdued response to Feuerbach's theories. But recent events have led me to consider another possibility: my inability at the time to come up something analogous to Feuerbach's "projection of our ideals onto an imaginary being" to stimulate their intellectual curiosity, something in our own time that they could relate to.

Well, if I were teaching those classes nowadays, I think I could come up with an example: the Barack Obama phenomenon. I don't know if I have ever seen anything quite like it. There have been political leaders before with remarkable charisma: FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, yes, Bill Clinton. But their crowd appeal was always based on something that these individuals had accomplished. Or at least a perception of accomplishment ginned up by public relations experts. Obama does not have even that. It seems to me that what people admire about him are attributes they project onto him, a symptom of a yearning for a new kind of leader who represents their ideals, Feuerbach's "idealization of self."

Am I saying that Obama would be a bad president? No. Outside of his position on legalized abortion and the homosexual agenda (he favors both), I can't point to anything in his record to indicate that. But neither can the people who are oohing and aahhing over him point to anything that would make him a good president. That's the point. He has no record to speak of. Yet he is all over the place, on Oprah, on the cover of the newsweeklies, on the talk shows, at bookstores signing his best-selling book, meeting with celebrities and rock stars, drawing large crowds and admiring stares.

All this for a man who has accomplished very little in his public life. Check his official website, if you think I am exaggerating. Even there, all they can come up with is a few paragraphs about committees he was on and legislation he co-sponsored during his 7 years as a state legislator in Illinois and 2 years in the United States Senate. I am not saying that he lacks intelligence. The man was president of the Harvard Law Review. You can't fake your way into that position. (I think.) It is just that he has no executive experience and virtually no voting record as a US senator; no clearly articulated positions on the major issues of the day.

But that does not seem to matter. Ask the people who are singing his praises about why they think he should be president. They won't be able to point to anything specific. They will use words like "a breath of fresh air," talk about how he "understands" the needs of the poor and urgency of racial reconciliation, about how he is our best chance to "end the partisan bickering in Washington" and bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the West. They might quote from his book, where he speaks of his "powers of empathy" and his "ability to reach into another's heart."

There is nothing wrong with such sentiments, of course. But more is required from those who aspire to political office, some indication of the specific policies they would employ to achieve their high-minded aspirations. Absent specific policy recommendations, rhetoric is just rhetoric. Socially active movie stars and rock musicians can give us that.

Probably Obama will be forced to come off the mountain and get into the specifics in due course. The other Democratic Party candidates for the presidency are not going to give him a free ride, especially the Clinton team. It is not hard to picture a debate somewhere down the road where an opponent will cut through the haze around him and make clear to the audience that they are listening to a recitation of platitudes from a young man not yet ready for prime time. Someone like James Carville or Paul Begala will come up with a line for Hillary that will sound like a patient pat on the head, but will cut to the bone. Even in this age of celebrity, what sells on Oprah does not sell everywhere.

But in the meantime, the Obama phenomenon has provided us with an insight into what Feuerbach meant. It is possible to impute nobility, intelligence, competence, compassion, understanding and courage onto a cipher.

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  • Guest

    Feuerbachian? I can think of another leader who accomplished little of any essence who was ‘adored’ by media on masses – his name was Hitler. If any want to question the dread simile, I can’t say that Hitler was much more guilty when elected than his voting populace was; hence, adoration of Obama scares me.

    It is well known among a number of us Illinoisans that Barack Obama is but an intellectually-fitted-out so-called progressive so-called liberal rubber stamp. (And, do permit me to remind that Harvard Yard has also given us the Clinton coterie. And, hark! What great ideas for civilization has come out of Harvard since they more or less muted their religious purposes?)

    Otherwise, of B.O., as some of us call him, frankly, he is a cipher – ideal for the job of a vamped up leader. Nothing to show ‘pro’, there is little but his congressional records to show ‘con’, either. Though, one ‘con’ is that what he does say – mostly in cliches and platitudes – stands (and votes, too) prog.lib./PC/’left’ of such as Kennedy and Kerry, right on into socialism. His trump-suit backer is Oprah Winfrey – just a household name in picking out statesmen. (NOT!)

    What has he? Forgive my noticing, from among the barrage of adoration, it seems to be his African-American heritage. He is more or less from a sustained fad that gave us affirmative action as well as O.J.’s acquittal. The race sort of ‘has it coming’ whether it has it coming or not. It could be likened to a (quite mythological) notion that JFK shouldabeen Prexy because it was about time a Catholic ‘had it coming’.

    Which is also to say that we are running near ’empty’ of statesman-like leaders. Uh – sorta like Germany in the 1920s and 30s . . .

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    I think this ‘idealization of self’ plays a huge role in theology. In fact, that is likely the only other place to get theology other than scripture, tradition, or the magesterium. Either God reveals himself to us or we simply imagine what he must be like. The ladder is prone to much error so we need to focus on the former. It does not means God does not fulfill deep desires in our heart. We just need to confirm that with what the family of God has discerned over the centuries.

    You hear this all the time. “I don’t beleive in a God who would send people to hell”, or “I can’t imagine God would want a gay man to go through life with no sex”. What people are really doing is constructing a God from the ideals they get from their culture.

    I don’t see the connection with Barak Obama. This is more from the trend in the last few decades to make the news more celebrity driven. Politicans become the key rather than parties and issues. Style matters more than vision. It comes from a society that is more and more afraid of deep thinking.

  • Guest

    I’m not sure why people keep rehashing the tired old Hitler metaphors. National Socialism and it’s main supporters were wiped off the map 60 YEARS AGO. Their numbers today are small, and influence even less proportional. Maybe it’s because these types seek to cloak the much more apropos comparison to the Soviet Union. To my recollection, they were never defeated, and the problems in our society today are a direct by-product of that fact. That’s the truth.

  • Guest

    I see no metaphor, but ‘history repeating itself’ for a world of peoples who refuse to see that history is doomed to be repeated where knowledgeable vigilance is not maintained.

    Stalin and Hitler (and Mao, and Pol Pot, etc.) were of one cloth. Other labels notwithstanding, they were nationalist and socialist statists. Of elevating their own elitism, they contrive and forge ‘national elite’ fantasies. They were murderous tyrants quite simply because they could be. Their peoples permitted their tyranny for ‘feeling-good’ exaltation.

    Now, are you going to tell me that such could not happen here? We surrender our freedoms and morality for material gains, and the end result, to protect our piles of drek, can be that we fall for depending upon a tyrant. And, of course, a tyrant who has to be rid of ‘elements’ that ‘threaten the rest of us’.

    You know – those ‘theocratic Christians’ . . .
    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest


    It may be true that the former-Soviet Union is much more apropos (and current). But I guarantee you, “poll” the “average” American, and they will think things are pretty fine-and-dandy (relatively speaking) in the former-USSR. Some problems, yes…but nothing that can’t be handled, right?

    But use “Hitler” and you have automatically surface in their minds exactly what you are talking about.

    No…”Russia” or “Soviet Union” will not automatically produce the imagery one is trying to draw. Not because it isn’t true…but because it isn’t recognized.

  • Guest

    “Now, are you going to tell me that such could not happen here? wjewell”

    To be honest, I started taking your comments with a grain of salt once you started referring to yourself in the 3rd person in some of them. But to answer your question, I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, I’m saying it would be a leftist/atheist totalitarian regime, not a rightist/atheist one….in the US. If we had large amounts of muslims committing terror, then I’d agree with you.

    As for lpioch, I say ‘bullwinkle.’

  • Guest

    AND, zephyr, just what would the difference REALLY be, leftist vs. rightist, statist communism vs. statist fascism?

    AND, let us not confuse style (third-person bother you? take it to a proper forum. not to mention that my above post is far less ‘third-person’ than other posts of mine) with substance – for your response adds little to the substance issue and argument. And, your style has an odor of the insultus ad hominem about it; very un-Christian.

    AND, all over the world, 90+% of terror is Islamist driven – that ISN’T wide-spread terror? However, that is tangential, at best, to an Obama yielding a personality-cult-driven Presidency and its ramifications vis-a-vis looking at history.

    lpioch was merely elaborating on my Hitlerian sense of the Obama phenomenon, as Hitler was an elected tyrant by ‘adoring’ voters as contrasted to Stalin merely grabbing totalitarian reins already in Party hands.

    Of an aside, weren’t you the one who gave untoward insultus ad hominem Eric Scheske’s way, about which I requested explanantion? I have yet to hear from you on that. Use the third-person voice, if you wish . . .

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

    PS: AND, while I am booleanizing – if you want to get personal use my email address – its right there above this PS

  • Guest

    Neither of the Clintons went to Harvard: Bill went to Georgetown (a Jesuit institution), Oxford University (the one in England) & Yale; Hillary went to Wellesly & Yale. I understand that to some Americans–especially those not from the Northeast–that one Ivy League school is pretty much like one another but, believe me, there are differences. After all, William F. Buckley also went to Yale. As an Eli, PLEASE don’t confuse Harvard with Yale. And I find the Hitler analogy quite tenuous. Obama is a politician in one of the 2 ruling parties of our land, & shares most of the tenets of his party; Hitler was a political outcast who more or less forged a brand new political party out of his own twisted ideas & ideology.

  • Guest

    When I think how I laughed at B.O. a year ago when that child of privilege actually had the nerve (or complete stupidity) to compare himself to Abe Lincoln, I shudder to think how unfunny today is his Senate win. Good grief, if the Dems ever put him on Hillary’s ticket, they’re unstoppable, and we are all in very deep do do.

  • Guest

    Well, it could be that for four years little will happen as H.Clinton holds her breath about her re-election to a second term. Then, the next four years little will happen as B.Obama holds his breath about succeeding her.

    Elections seem to substitute for grace for all too many politicians and their ‘keepers’.

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …