Questioning Obama’s religious rhetoric

Most news stories I have surveyed on President Obama’s speech Tuesday on the economy (among other things) have mentioned his use of the biblical metaphor of the nation’s economy being built on a rock, but few have gone beyond the message’s surface. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.) For starters, none of the stories I read mentioned that President George W. Bush used a lot of religious metaphors and was at times criticized for using such language.

Obama has used the Sermon on the Mount before in his political rhetoric, (namely to express his support for civil unions), but this is one of the first times that I remember where biblical passages have been used for an area outside the social issues:

Here are the actual words of the speech, which, interestingly enough, are prominently highlighted on the Whitehouse.gov Web page with the headline “‘The House Upon a Rock.’”

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It’s a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: Number one, new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking — (applause); number two, new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive — (applause); number three, new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries — (applause); number four, new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and number five, new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. (Applause.)

That’s the new foundation we must build. That’s our house built upon a rock. That must be our future — and my administration’s policies are designed to achieve that future.

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network appropriately notes that the “rock” spoken of in these passages is anything but the economy. In fact, that “rock” is Jesus. Whether Obama’s speech writers (or Obama himself) intended the speech to convey that type of message is unlikely, but it does raise questions reporters must ask, as reporters did for President Bush, about whether or not this type of language is appropriate.

Of course, looking closer at the use of language is necessary to understand the difference in its usage. Obama is being very explicit about his use of biblical language. Bush was not always so explicit and often left reporters confused. Some even acted surprised when the language was “revealed.”

Here a non-Christian analyzes Obama’s use of biblical imagery to make his political points:

In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way still make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

Reporters should not allow this one to slide because it is a significant speech and a significant use of biblical imagery.

While the story is still fresh, questions should be asked about why Obama decided to go to the Bible to assistant in his explanation of his economic plan. (See here for an example of good questions asked regarding Bush’s use of religious rhetoric.) Is it just a convenient well-known story that people understand or is there a deeper meaning to Obama’s multiple uses of the Sermon on the Mount in his police rhetoric?

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  • Nick

    Five pillars….hmmmmm

  • MarkAA

    Doesn’t seem like Christian language is all that’s going on in the president’s speech. Aren’t the Five Pillars a key part of Islam?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Pillars_of_Islam

  • JRC

    This might be a bad time to point out that a little more than a year ago Huckabee was lambasted by the MSM for sitting in front of a bookshelf that looked like a cross. How embarrassing.

  • James

    Nick, you read my mind!

  • Elizabeth

    I’m wondering how much some of this language is part of our American civil religion–and where the line is crossed, as it were.

  • Deb

    So does the author and those commenting believe that it is or isn’t appropriate for Obama to use the biblical references? How about the pillars?

  • Franklin Jennings

    I’d lay even money that the author and commenters believe it is no more or less appropriate for Obama to use such rhetoric than Bush or Huckabee.

    I suspect they just find it interesting that it simply goes unremarked in a fellow-traveler.

  • MJBubba

    Doug P.,

    The answer to why Pres. Obama’s religious rhetoric will not be noticed or questioned by the MSM in the way that Pres. W’s was is succinctly stated in the comment below the non-Christian blog post that you quoted:
    “…who cares? It’s Obama, not Bush.”
    That same commenter noted that, depending on how you take Obama’s remarks, you might think that he had compared himself to Christ.

  • Jerry

    Given that one of the fault lines we’re seeing in the US as well as around the world concerns what the boundry between religion and the state, it’s natural that questions such as have been raised here need to be considered.

    A couple of thoughts. First about the particular passage he quoted: The “building on sand” image is universal to anyone who has built a sand castle on beach sands. Other parts, such as not resisting evil, is foreign to many.

    Second, the US is a secular nation which owes much of its strength to the Protestants that settled here. Many of the things we hold dear can be found expressed in the lives of figures starting with John Winthrop & Anne Hutchinson and continuing through the abolitionists to Martin Luther King.
    So I think the perception is that Obama is drawing on that historical context when he refers to Christian scripture rather than advancing the thesis that the US should be a Christian nation.

  • Chris Bolinger

    While the story is still fresh, questions should be asked about why Obama decided to go to the Bible to assistant in his explanation of his economic plan.

    OK, so who in the MSM is asking those questions? Like the Tom Hanks character in “Big”, I don’t get it. Is Obama trying to appeal to conservative Christians, as Bush was accused of doing? If so, why? Is he trying to package himself as a new kind of Christian leader? If so, why?

    “Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men.”

    Does a typical non-Christian know what the Sermon on the Mount is? Why refer to it as a “parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount”? Who wrote this part of the speech for Obama?

  • Jerry

    Does a typical non-Christian know what the Sermon on the Mount is?

    I found that an interesting question. Google turned up a survey that does not address that exact question but which speaks to knowledge of what is in Sermon:

    Given a choice of four quotations from the Bible, almost two-thirds of teens could not correctly identify a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount.

    I’m sure if you look at that survey you’ll shake your head about the lack of knowledge from “evangelical/born again” teenagers.

  • JRC

    Deb,

    Franklin Jennings said almost all of what I was thinking. I would only add that I don’t have a problem with either of them using religious rhetoric or allowing their faiths to inform their politics.

    I find it aggravating that G.W.’s rhetoric and Huckabee’s bookshelf draw extreme ire, while not a few months later I saw a full-sized poster on which Obama was speaking from a church pulpit underneath the words “Faith, Hope and Change” — and there was not a peep. Come on, ref, call it both ways!

    Or better yet, don’t call it at all. A man’s worldview will always impact his politics, whatever that worldview might be.

  • Michael VanGilder

    It is really irrelevant if Obama’s’ interpretation is wrong, but just the fact that he is trying to bring the BIBLE into this mess is hopeful. Our country was founded on GOD and it says so on our currency here. Bring GOD into the picture and be Proud to do so. It is the only way for our country to come out on top.

  • Deb

    Thank you to those who responded to my questions above. I think something remains unclear. The post seems to be suggesting reporters have the responsibility to scrutinize religious rhetoric used by politicians (“questions should be asked about why Obama decided to go to the Bible to assistant in his explanation of his economic plan”). But I am getting the sense that many people would like to see the opposite happen. Is this a journalism thing or religion thing? Maybe both I guess.

    To use the words of JRC, is it better for the ref to “call it both ways” or “stop calling it at all”?

  • Paul of Alexandria

    “Is it just a convenient well-known story that people understand or is there a deeper meaning to Obama’s multiple uses of the Sermon on the Mount in his police rhetoric?”

    Bush was speaking as a Christian might casually speak to other Christians, assuming that his audience knew the references. The reporters were caught unawares because they weren’t used to the common culture and frame of reference to which Bush was refering.

    Obama, on the other hand, is deliberately trying to appear to be “one of us”. He’s deliberately crafting references and carefully explaining them to those who aren’t “in the know”. He’s trying to appear to be religious and conservative, or at least centrist.

    With respect to Michael VanGilder (#13), you have to look at actions, not merely words. Satan can use God’s name also (in vain).

  • Chris Bolinger

    is it better for the ref to “call it both ways” or “stop calling it at all”?

    As a basketball coach, I state emphatically that it is better for the ref to call it both ways. Once the refs stop calling it at all, a basketball game turns ugly.

    The role of the MSM is supposed to be to call it both ways.

  • Dave

    This is a tempest in a teapot. The Bible is, among other things, great literature, and Obama was using it for a literary reference.

    Bush and Huckabee were properly suspect as politicians who clearly didn’t recognize where the line is draw between church and state. No such suspicion reasonably attaches to Obama (whatever one might think of his policies).

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dave, if you were an official, then I’d instruct my team that we’re not going to get any calls in our favor. And you’d probably “T” me up in the first quarter for complaining.

  • JRC

    Bush and Huckabee were properly suspect as politicians who clearly didn’t recognize where the line is draw between church and state. No such suspicion reasonably attaches to Obama (whatever one might think of his policies).

    That is merely one narrative, which happens to be used rather uncritically by the MSM and many left-leaning thinkers who reside across the cultural divide from the “Christian Right”.

    Another narrative might state that thinkers in both camps have a worldview that informs their politics, and that this necessarily occurs in the case of any serious thinker. Obama and Bush have both forged policies that accorded with their worldviews. To designate one of the two perspectives “religious” and then call for its exclusion from politics is inconsistent, especially when both have strong religious overtones, and either can be supported by the use of natural reason.

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak

    Chris asks “Is he trying to package himself as a new kind of Christian leader?”

    No he is invoking biblical images and language in order to make himself into a Christ-LIKE leader. Those who have the messianic vision to seek to build a secular Heaven on Earth (be it the 19th Century Utopian American Colonies, the First French Republic, The Workers Paradise, the Thousand Year Reich, The Great Leap Forward, Year Zero, The Great Society, etc.) are often accused of trying to build “Christianity without the Christ”.

    Obama is simply seeking to fill that void.

    As this shows…http://conservativeblkwoman.blogspot.com/2009/04/jesus-name-above-every-nameexcept.html

  • Dave

    Chris, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    JRC, I never proposed to exclude religious perspectives from politics. I’m saying that you can distinguish politicians reasonably suspect of trying to impose their religious views, from those that are not (though, being politicians, the latter are certain to want to impose something).

  • FW Ken

    I’m saying that you can distinguish politicians reasonably suspect of trying to impose their religious views…

    You certainly can.

  • JRC

    I think you just called it both ways. :)

  • Jay

    Several of you discuss the MSM and Huckabee’s Christmas ad cross last year. Actually, it was Catholic League President Bill Donohue who complained about the subliminal cross, not the so-called “MSM.” How about being more specific than just complaining about the “MSM?”

    See http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/2007/12/18/mike-huckabee-in-new-ad-merry-christmas-and-i-approve-this-message/

    (From Fox, which isn’t the MSM, or is it?)

    The “MSM” is not one person, and doesn’t act in a monolithic manner. Indeed, I’m not sure it is a useful concept.

    As for the description of Brody’s comment (it isn’t quoted, so the description may be inaccurate), Jesus was not the rock referred to. Hearing his words from the sermon and putting them into practice were to be a rock for a “wise man” to build upon. Perhaps someone might think that is an attempt to elevate Obama’s “five pillars” to an equivalence with Jesus’ words, but I think it is just colorful language. The Bible is part of our culture, and using it’s language in other context shouldn’t be a problem. If Obama instead made up a story about either building a house down on a beach or up on a rock on the bluff, he’d be hiding where he got his idea from. Why not relate it to his actual source? I’ll let folks on all sides get away with being truthful about where they got their story.

    What would bother me is if Obama, or anyone else, tries to suggest that they are speaking for Jesus, God, Mohammed, Buddha, etc. Bush was reported to have crossed that line here-I don’t know if he confirmed the words he allegedly used:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/bush-god-told-me-to-invade-iraq-509925.html

  • Jay

    Actually, Brody does say Jesus is the rock-I didn’t see the link due to my occasional color blindness. I see a significant difference between building on Jesus and building on Jesus’ words, if we really want folks to get religion. The author of the Get Religion piece leaves out that Brody gave Obama an A on speech writing…so is he really criticising him on this one? I think Brody’s intent was to remind folks of what he sees as the more substantive message in the original.


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