One, two, three — find faith (updated)

To tell you the truth, I don’t have much to say about the press coverage of the religion elements of Sen. Barack Obama’s speech from the mountaintop (of course, Denver is located on the high plains, but you know what I mean). I don’t have much to say because the mainstream press doesn’t have much to say about the topic.

Let’s see. Let’s study holy writ, by calling up the New York Times lead story on the speech — “Obama Takes Aim at Bush and McCain With a Forceful Call to Change America” — and run a few searches.

“Faith” — Not found.

“Repent” — Not found.

“Prayer” — Not found.

“Christian” — Not found.

OK, I’ll try it. “Muslim” — Not found.

OK, how about “abortion” or “gay”? Not found.

OK, let’s try the sidebar about the speech itself. That’s not very inspiring, either.

Now, remember that we’re talking about the Times coverage of the speech — not the speech itself.

The author of a book analyzing the “I Have A Dream Speech” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once told me that the great preacher carried a political speech to the podium, that day, but ended up throwing it aside and giving a sermon.

Based on the coverage, reporters half expected the old Obama to speak, delivering a soaring civil-religion sermon based on his attempts to reconcile his liberal Protestantism with an appeal to traditional Catholics and Protestants. Instead, it appears that most think he — metaphorically speaking — threw away the sermon and decided to give a political speech that included a few inspirational flourishes (The Politico kind of agrees). In other words, if you read the coverage, it appears that Obama went old school, when it comes to speaking to Democrats. This was not the new prophet of post-partisan America.

Now, if you are interested in the actual religious content of the speech, you need to head over to the weblog at Christianity Today, where Ted Olsen, Sarah Pulliam and Co. have quite a bit of interesting material for you to read. As always, the progressive side of the evangelical world remains very, very interested in all things Obama. Amen.

This short note from Collin Hansen is especially interesting:

I doubt any commentators will accuse Sen. Barack Obama of using religious code language in his acceptance speech. Yet two famous New Testament passages made an appearance. As is typical of civil religion today, God was replaced by the “American promise.”

“Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend,” Obama said, borrowing from 2 Corinthians 4:18.

Obama then concluded his remarks this way: “Let us keep that promise — that American promise — and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.”

This statement comes from Hebrews 10:23. But the context of this passage explains something far more beautiful than the American promise. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22).

The omnipresent Ted Olsen also analyzed the “traditional values” piece of the speech, which tried to reassure people in red pews, while drawing cheers from people in blue pews. It is crucial to note that he did not take a position one way or the other on same-sex marriage and, yes, note that the goal is to reduce unwanted pregnancies, not reduce the number of abortions.

Thus, Obama offered the following:

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.

Did I miss it? Was there any kind of reference to his call for an expanded faith-based initiative, his outreach to faith-based groups that are willing to surrender their right to hire staff members who share their doctrines and beliefs? That is an interesting point of silence, in the press and in the speech.

However, I was especially interested in CT‘s highly detailed coverage of the origins (he talked to Billy Graham) and text of the Rev. Joel Hunter’s prayer, since he was the only Republican evangelical that I am aware of he spoke last night and, well, he had the last word.

And what was the most telling part of this prayer? Hunter attempted free speech.

Now I interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction. I want to personalize this. I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer. So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Please let me know if you see solid mainstream coverage of the faith elements of the speech, such as the context of Obama’s scriptural references. I will, of course, keep reading.

UPDATE: The ties that bind! Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a giant post up online showing the strong ties of this Obama speech to the acceptance speeches of Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore. Old-guard political speeches for a political night.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    In one of President Bush’s State of the Union messages he ran down a list of alternative energy sources very similar to the list Obama ran down last night. Coming from Bush it sounded as phony as a $3 bill; from Obama it was inspiring.

    Obama may have decided that trying to close the God gap in his acceptance speech would sound as phony as an alternative energy list from George W (Friend of the House of Saud) Bush, and that he didn’t want to kill the buzz. I watched the speech live and listened in anticipation of some God-gap closure language, and didn’t find any more than Terry did.

  • Jerry

    It’s true that there is a nuance between reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies and reducing the abortion rate, but the vast majority of women getting abortions cite reasons that add up to unplanned pregnancies:

    Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner. Some of those are no doubt women who’s situation changed from the time they conceived but I have to believe the vast majority are unplanned by those who refused to take responsibility for their own actions.

    Besides which, does Obama have to repeat his position in every speech. He laid out his position on abortion in front of CBN and other places in which he specifically addressed abortion by name.

    It’s therefore fair to say that he repeated his already articulated position on abortion during his acceptance speech and put it in the context of his oft-repeated statement that we need to find ways to work together even as we disagree rather than to stay split into two camps that can only shout “you’re evil” at each other.

    It is crucial to note that he did not take a position one way or the other on same-sex marriage

    Again, he did that directly earlier when he defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. Again I don’t think he needed to repeat his stated position.

    Old-guard political speeches for a political night.

    That’s true. I was not surprised that a politician gave a political speech at a political convention.

  • Dale


    Research by or funded by the Guttmacher Institute has questionable credibility on issues regarding abortion. The GI is a sister organization of Planned Parenthood, and that fact should be noted whenever information is sourced from them and published as purported fact.

    It’s true that there is a nuance between reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies and reducing the abortion rate.

    That’s a bit of nuance that you can drive a truck through. This is the biggest policy speech that Obama has made in his life, and I refuse to believe that his statements, especially on that subject, weren’t very carefully chosen. It’s clear from the past policies of the Democratic Party that “reducing unwanted pregnancies” means sex education emphasizing contraception, distribution of contraceptives to minors, abortions provided to minors without parental consent and tax-funded abortions. I’ve heard nothing from Obama that suggests that he means anything different.

    Where’s the change? He could have at least mentioned “encouraging adoption as an alternative to abortion”, but he didn’t, and I don’t think that the lapse was unintentional.

    Saying that we can find “common ground”, only to reproduce your prior position without compromise is naked rhetoric.

    Would you be impressed if McCain said he wanted to “reduce unnecessary war”, and suggested that was common ground between him and those who oppose the Iraq War, and people were somehow divisive and short-sighted if they didn’t see past that “small” issue, since we all agree that unnecessary war is bad? Or would you think someone was playing you for a fool?

    If a reporter is going to characterize this as reaching out to pro-life voters, then he or she should note that this reaching out involves no substantial change to the Democratic Party’s abortion policies.

  • Stephen A.

    That’s true. I was not surprised that a politician gave a political speech at a political convention.

    True, but it was duly noted on more than one network that he abandoned his “Keep Hope Alive” version of speech and went with a dull laundry list that mentioned all the special interest groups in the Democrat Party.

    He was right to not attempt any “God gap” language in the speech because, as Dave noted, it would have sounded phoney.

  • Stephen A.

    I can’t remember if this was posted before. It deals with all the praying that went on at the Demccrat’s convention:

  • Stephen A.

    I’ve been searching in vain for ANY commentary about the pastor’s “One, two, three, JESUS” benediction on the Internet and have found nothing. I watched this live as it happened (notably, on C-SPAN, since most other networks were talking through it, as I ran through the channels and quickly jumped over there to hear it) and I was a bit dumfounded by it.

    I’ve never heard a conservative Christian pastor say “insert your own God HERE” before. Even at multifaith prayer breakfasts, it’s understood that the clergyman will invoke his/her own God. I suppose it fit the conext of the Democratic convention, but Wow. How different. Anyone seen a commentary? Essay? Follow-up article?

  • Dave

    Anyone seen a commentary? Essay? Follow-up article? Pretty thin.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    UPDATE: The ties that bind! Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a giant post up online showing the strong ties of this Obama speech to the acceptance speeches of Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore. Old-guard political speeches for a political night.

    Wait, what happened to “Change we can believe in?” Or was that a McDonald’s ad touting feeding two for under $10? Perhaps “Change we can believe in” was thrown under the bus when Joe Biden got in?

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist….

  • Stephen A.

    John, it’s hard to push “change” when your runningmate is “more of the same” – a Washington insider.

    BTW, I’ve seen little more about Biden’s religion. Is he attending Mass regularly now? Is he getting communion? Is there a Catholic blog or Website covering this story?