President Obama lamented the rancorous, divided state of U.S. politics in a wide-ranging interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson.
In the unusual discussion, Obama revealed some of his longstanding frustrations with politics while asking the Iowa author questions about her family, her Christian faith and her writings.
Robinson replied that those “turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves” against an “imagined other,” are not “taking their Christianity seriously.”
Obama’s comments about religion’s role in America have often irked his opponents. Throughout his presidency, a vocal group of Obama critics have questioned his Christian faith.
Ahead of Pope Francis’s recent visit to the White House, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee suggested that Obama “pretends to be” a Christian while blocking others from practicing their faith.
Obama said that America’s greatness stems from a sense of “nagging dissatisfaction” that spurred settlers to move West, helped astronauts land on the moon and inspired the creation of the Internet.
But he said Americans often take those achievements for granted, a mindset that fuels deep skepticism of government.
“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 ... or kids don’t have access to basic primary education,” he said. “That’s the logical conclusion if, in fact, you think that government is the enemy.”
The president added that it’s natural to be suspicious of government “as a tool of oppression” but “it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.”
Obama has increasingly turned to unorthodox formats for media interviews in the final stretch of his presidency.
He appeared on comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, when he used the “N-word” in freewheeling conversation about race, and he also played the part of an interviewer with David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.”
The president spoke with Robinson during a September stop in Iowa designed to promote his educational initiatives.
Obama has long been a fan of Robinson’s, to whom he awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal. During the interview, he speaks about how he read her novel "Gilead" while campaigning in Iowa in 2008. The book tells the tale of a reverend who is dying of cancer.
“I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning,” Obama said. “And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because 'Gilead' is actually set here in Iowa.”