Obama's speech: from president to preacher

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.”

Check out the rest.


  1. Yes, I did find this as well, the religious tone. For someone who is said to be very distant, he seemed very present to the sorrows of all those involved and to the meaning of it all for the nation at large.

  2. I am not surprised at the tone and approach of Obama in his speech in Tucson on Wednesday evening. Four years ago, when Barak Obama appeared on the scene nationally, I read “Dreams of My Father.” I was particularly interested in his time working as a community organizer with Catholic parishes in Chicago, since my son lived there. Here is an excerpt where he reveals his frustrations. It has stayed with me. (I have dog-eared the page 166.)

    Part of the problem was our base, which -in the city, at least- had never been large: eight Catholic parishes flung across several neighborhoods, all with black congregations but all led by white priests. They were isolated men, these priests, mostly of Polish or Irish descent, men who had entered the seminary in the sixties intending to serve the poor and heal racial wounds but who lacked the zeal of their missionary forefathers; kinder men, perhaps better men, perhaps, but also softer for their modernity.” Surrounded by and compared with the Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostalists they had been persuaded that community activism would ‘rekindle their spirits’ But “That hope had been fragile, though, and by the time I met with them they had already resigned themselves to their disappointments.

    “The truth is,” one of the priests told me, “most of us our here looking to get a transfer. The only reason I’m still around is that nobody’s willing to replace me.”

    What struck me most was the kind way (no judging, no condemning) that he analyzed the issue which, of course, is our issue as members of the Catholic Church here in the U.S.

  3. pagansister says:

    Indeed a well given speech, doing what I think he set out to do—attempt to comfort those who needed it and make sure that everyone knew of his sorrow at the horrible event that made this speech necessary.

  4. romancrusader says:

    I can honestly say I wasn’t terribly impressed with Obama’s speech. Nope. And I make no apologies for saying this. I’m not impressed with Obama as a speaker. He’s not even half the orator Pope John Paul II was. Still, he speaks better than most politicians. But, standing ovations are common even for mediocre speeches like this. I’m inclined to doubt every word he utters.

    He can say whatever he wants and he’s entitled to it. But his actions speak louder than his words. And therefore, I feel that his words are empty. We know what side of the fence he is on, whether through ignorance or intention, and no amount of his rhetoric can change that.

    Like I say, never let a crisis go to waste as the brazen opportunists say. This event used the coffins of the slain as a platform for a politician.

    Ever since the Democrats have been clobbered by the people’s wrath, they started to repackage themselves and chant another mantra. Gone are the days of bulldozing the people’s will and sentiments. So, they put forth a charm offensive using muppets and melodrama.

    I say they should have more respect for the dead and their relatives and not leveraged a tragedy for profile and profit.

    I can also tell you that the intectual and cultural level of the young in the U.S. of A has fallen to such a point that the crowd didn’t even recognize the moment. Reason is simple, it’s because we live in a society where everything is made informal or done as a “short cut.” In this age of Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, and the Internet, an infinite amount of information is available at our fingertips, but retained knowledge is seemingly unimportant. As for culture, I think there is a direct correlation between what happened in the 1960′s with the de-sacralizing of the liturgy and the erosion of decorum in society. If going to church can be an informal event, why can’t a memorial service or any other secular ceremony such as a graduation or similar event?

  5. Over the past week, there seems to be a real consensus about raising the level of our civil discourse. For me, David Brooks (interestingly a political commentator) has given the most practical advice on how to accomplish this goal. (This is why I seek out blogs that help me clarify my positions and that promote civility, like this one.)

    “I think what has to come is a sense of humility, that the reason people behave civilly to one another is because, alone, no one has the resources to really conduct an intelligent policy, that you need the conversation, you need the back-and-forth, and that’s where you get your meaning.
    And, if you don’t respect that conversation, if you think you can do it alone, your side has 100 percent of the truth, then of course you’re going to behave uncivilly.
    And if you don’t have that humility, that sense that you need the other side, it’s going to be hard to be civil. But we have to have that sense of civility, that we need the back-and-forth, or else we will be carried away by the falsehood in our own positions.”


  6. pagansister says:

    romancrusader, can you admit that President Obama is a MUCH better speaker than “W” ever was? You most certainly don’t have to agree with him, but at least he can deliver a speech.

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