Preachers and theologians are taking a closer look at President Obama’s stirring speech from Wednesday night, and finding some striking religious undercurrents. Details, from the Religion News Service:
Drawing on Scripture, theology, and the rising rhythms of black preaching, President Obama was more pastor than politician at Wednesday’s (Jan. 12) memorial service for the victims of last week’s shooting in Arizona.
It was an aspect of Obama that galvanized his 2008 campaign, but had scarcely emerged since he entered the White House, according to some observers.
“I was glad to see it back,” said Martha Simmons, co-editor of “Preaching with Sacred Fire,” an anthology of African-American sermons. “I had missed that in his speeches over the last two years.”
There are a lot of good speakers in politics, she said. “But it’s not the same as being able to hit that soul area. If you can tap into that, you tap into something powerful and important.”
Like past presidents confronted by tragedy, Obama’s pastoral side surfaced at a moment of national grief, when the commander in chief is called upon to comfort the afflicted and make sense of the senseless.
Obama both embodied and gently resisted that role on Wednesday.
In the wake of last Saturday’s shootings, partisans on the left and right sharply debated whether inflammatory political rhetoric inspired accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner to kill six people and wound more than a dozen more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
But wanton evil defies easy explanation, Obama said.
“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding,” Obama said. “In the words of Job, `When I looked for light, then came darkness.’ Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”
Instead, Obama called on Americans to be more humble, “expand our moral imaginations,” and “sharpen our instincts for empathy.”
Shaun Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, said Obama’s speech echoed the tenets of 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been a moral touchstone for this president. For Niebuhr, pride and self-righteousness were cardinal sins, and evil an ever-present mystery.
“Obama called for humility, the antidote to pride and self-righteousness,” Casey said. “It was a way of addressing the polarization and vitriol by pointing the finger at everyone.”
Again drawing on the Old Testament, Obama also quoted from Psalm 46, implicitly comparing Tucson to Scripture’s “city of God.”
“God is within her, she will not fall,” Obama recited from the Psalm. “God will help her at the break of day.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, author of “Thumpin’ It,” a study of how modern presidents have used the Bible, said the Psalms have been a popular choice for presidential rhetoric. “You cannot lose with the Psalms,” he said.
Obama’s chosen passage offered comfort to a traumatized city and echoed Ronald Reagan’s evocation of America as a divinely favored “shining city upon a hill.”
“Obama is trying to get something across about a city resurrecting itself,” said Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University.
In its contours and cadences, Obama’s address drew on traditions of black preaching rarely if ever seen in presidential speeches, said Simmons, who directs an online African-American lectionary project.
“You can tell this man has spent time in African-American churches, no doubt about that,” she said.
For example, Obama employed call-and-response, repeating the phrase “ Gabby opened her eyes,” three times as the audience cheered the good news about Giffords. “I know where that came from,” Simmons said. “I hear that every Sunday.”