President Barack Obama appears to be relaxing a bit into his second term. He already photographed his own trip to Alaska, appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and made some killer summer playlists. Now, the president has interviewed author Marilynne Robinson for the NY Review of Books. Without having to worry about any more political campaigns, Obama tells Robinson he wanted to do an interview like this with someone whose work he admires.
“One of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas,” Obama said.
POTUS starts out by saying that he admires Robinson’s work, namely her novel Gilead, about a pastor living in Iowa in the ’50s. He calls Gilead’s protagonist, an elderly Iowa pastor named John Ames, “one of my favorite characters in fiction.” His questions for Robinson center around Christianity and Midwestern values. In particular, Obama asks Robinson for her thoughts on American Christians who use their religion to push an “us vs. them” mentality.
“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, whatever. 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,” Robinson responded, noting that her characters often struggle with their faith.
They also speak about what Obama refers to as “without romanticizing Middle America or small-town America, that sense of homespun virtues,” since they both have Midwestern roos. (She lives in Iowa and he grew up mostly in Kansas.)
“The thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap,” Obama said. “There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”
Obama and Robinson go back-and-forth a bit about the value of pessimism in American culture: “We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization,” Robinson said. “And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.”
“But that’s part of what makes America wonderful, is we always had this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on,” Obama responded. “It is true, though, that that restlessness and that dissatisfaction which has helped us go to the moon and create the Internet and build the Transcontinental Railroad and build our land-grant colleges, that those things, born of dissatisfaction, we can very rapidly then take for granted and not tend to and not defend, and not understand how precious these things are.”
For more, read the full text of the interview here. A sequel is due in the next issue of New York Review of Books.