Listen to President Obama Interview Novelist Marilynne Robinson

President Obama tried on a new hat as a books journalist for The New York Review of Books. The President talked to Marilynne Robinson in Des Moines, Iowa on September 14, touching on topics ranging from her books to democracy, Christianity, and systems of oppression. Obama says in the interview that it was a welcome change from the various political events he usually attends when he’s visiting towns around the country, explaining it’s not often that he gets to: “have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in, [about] the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.”

Obama goes on to tell Robinson that she was first on his list of people to talk to, and that he is a great fan of her books and especially her character Pastor John Ames from her book Gilead. They then discuss Robinson’s essay on fear, and the role of fear in politics, democracy and culture. Robinson explains that she believes that the fear of “the other” is the worst thing we could have become a part our political discourse, to which Obama replies:

Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

The conversation moves on to deal with how Christianity in the US is sometimes connected to an “us versus them” mentality, and how Robinson, who takes faith very seriously, grapples with the suspicion that some people of strong faith have towards those who are not like them. Robinson explains her view on the matter, saying:

Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk […] But 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.

Obama goes on to ask Robinson about her small town upbringing, how it has informed her writing and the subjects she is interested in, and her appreciation, which Obama says he shares, for Middle America. The conversation circles back to the idea of us versus them, and how this pertains to systems of oppression and local versus national government. The full first part of the interview can be read here, and the second part is upcoming in the next issue of The New York Review of Books.

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