Did you hear about Obama’s ‘fiery’ rhetoric?

Earlier this year, I complained about the lack of coverage surrounding President Barack Obama’s confession of Christian faith at a pre-Easter Easter breakfast he hosted at the White House. I wrote:

“… Remember how much the media covered those polls showing that huge chunks of people in all parties were confused about Obama’s religion? Isn’t that at least partly an indictment of how the media cover Obama’s own words about his faith? Even when he speaks very clearly about his own religious views, the news is covered but not highlighted, pushed to the margins or sent out on the wire without fanfare.”

It happens all the time. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that many reporters have a preferred template of “Republicans have religion, Democrats don’t.” Another might be the comfort they have in criticizing religious speech from some political figures compared with a reticence to do the same with others. I don’t know, but it keeps happening.

This weekend, President Obama gave an interesting speech that was full of religious imagery. The speech was to the Congressional Black Caucus on the occasion of their annual awards gala. And near as I can tell, it’s received almost no coverage.

I’m going to quote directly from the speech’s beginning, just so you get a feel for the religious substance (He’s referencing Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery):

A few years back, Dr. Lowery and I were together at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma. (Applause.) We’ve got some Selma folks in the house. (Applause.) And Dr. Lowery stood up in the pulpit and told the congregation the story of Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. You know the story — it’s about three young men bold enough to stand up for God, even if it meant being thrown in a furnace. And they survived because of their faith, and because God showed up in that furnace with them.

Now, Dr. Lowery said that those three young men were a little bit crazy. But there’s a difference, he said, between good crazy and bad crazy. (Applause.) Those boys, he said, were “good crazy.” At the time, I was running for president — it was early in the campaign. Nobody gave me much of a chance. He turned to me from the pulpit, and indicated that someone like me running for president — well, that was crazy. (Laughter.) But he supposed it was good crazy.

He was talking about faith, the belief in things not seen, the belief that if you persevere a better day lies ahead. And I suppose the reason I enjoy coming to the CBC — what this weekend is all about is, you and me, we’re all a little bit crazy, but hopefully a good kind of crazy. (Applause.) We’re a good kind of crazy because no matter how hard things get, we keep the faith; we keep fighting; we keep moving forward.

Now, I picked up on this because I love the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The image here is from my Arch Book of that Bible story that I read and reread as a child. The speech goes on and on with religious imagery, but it looks like it was picked up by precisely two media outlets.

The first was ABC News. And really, they just printed a transcript of the speech and set it up with several paragraphs that didn’t really mention anything about religion. Well, there was this:

The president urged black Americans — a key Democratic constituency — to keep their faith in him even though the economy remains sluggish.

The second was the Washington Examiner‘s conservative editorial page, which actually did a good job of explaining the religious significance of the story, before adding some criticism of the comparison Obama made to it. That paper’s story began:

President Obama made an appeal to the religious faith of black voters at a Congressional Black Caucus rally, likening Biblical prophets who had faith in God — and so refused to worship an idol — to the black voters who “keep the faith” by supporting him and his policies – and, he hopes, his reelection campaign.

Obama opened the speech by mentioning the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three captive Jews who were thrown into a fiery furnace because they would not worship a golden idol. Obama quoted a pastor who referred to the three men as “good crazy” for having that faith. He added that the pastor had attributed the same “good crazy” to him when he decided to run for president.

Obama continued that analogy, equating the Jews’ “faith in the things not seen” to the more mundane “belief that if you persevere a better day lies ahead.”

Obama added, “you and me, we’re all a little bit crazy, but hopefully a good kind of crazy…We’re a good kind of crazy because no matter how hard things get, we keep the faith; we keep fighting; we keep moving forward.”

I actually liked that additional context because while the Congressional Black Caucus and any of us who loved Arch Books are probably going to remember the particulars of the story, even many Hebrew School and Sunday School students might have forgotten some of the story. And those who didn’t have the benefit of learning about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego might not pick up on the significance of Obama’s story at all. Now, the Washington Examiner, being conservative, also took some swipes at Obama’s speech. But it’s an editorial page and we typically don’t address political opinions. I just thought it interesting that they were one of only two news outlets to even cover the speech’s religious themes.

Again, it’s weird that any story about the White House forgetting to send out a Christian holiday proclamation gets hundreds of hits while any story indicating Obama’s familiarity with a Bible story gets downplayed to the point of almost a blackout. And the thing is that I’ve covered Obama enough to know that he drops stuff like this somewhat regularly.

If the sermon at whatever church Michele Bachmann happened to visit in Iowa one day gets coverage, if every reference a GOP candidate makes to — gasp — prayer gets covered, surely a presidential speech built completely around the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego might be worthy of something, right?

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  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    The cynic in me wonders if the press ignores Obama’s faith and faith language because it doesn’t fit the narrative: that only Republicans believe that stuff, which makes them all dangerous dominionists or kooky fundamentalists or subversives secretly plotting to tear down the wall of separation between church and state.

    Given how attentive the media is to faith statements from the right, one has to conclude that the silence about Obama’s faith is very deliberate. Exactly what that silence means is hard to say. Since faith among conservatives is often portrayed as evidence that they are just not very bright people, evidence of faith in such a brilliant mind as Obama’s must be very confusing to the secular journalists in today’s newsrooms.

  • Jerry

    To me this is a classic example of confirmation bias. I liked the wikipedia entry which, amazingly enough, had the following references to the phenomenon:

    In the Divine Comedy, St. Thomas Aquinas cautions Dante when they meet in Paradise, “opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.”[49]

    Bacon, in the Novum Organum, wrote,

    The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

  • tolkein

    It also references Hebrews 11. Obviously comfortable with the Bible and weaving Old and New together.

    I think that the press doesn’t understand how religious belief informs a lot of politicians’ thinking. This is also true for the UK. in my experience in the UK, I’ve known senior politicians – cabinet ministers – who were practising believing Christians (and these are Labour Party politicians!). There are lots of Christian roots in the Labour Party, it’s just that the press is so secularised they can’t see it. But I don’t know, given the press’ normal interest in root causes, why the press is not interested in delving into left politicians’ religious beliefs.

    Maybe the omission from liberal coverage in the US is because some (many, most?) journalists in the US think (hope?) that Obama is really an atheist, but is lying about it for political purposes, so don’t want to frighten their readers. Just as some on the nutty right think he’s a closet Muslim.

    Always interesting to follow your stories in the UK.

  • http://jaydinitto.com Jay DiNitto

    Politicians by nature have to be slinky beings at the best of times, outright dishonest in the worst cases. When a figure is in politics mode (i.e., whenever we hear them speak) I can’t believe wholeheartedly what they say about religion, or religious sentiments they recite. There’s Christianity and there’s American civic religion, which morphs into whatever doctrine is most appealing to whatever voter base you’re trying to cajole.

    This stuff is undeniable in the digital age–to wit, I can remember Hillary Clinton’s awful southern drawl when speaking in Alabama before the 2008 elections. Or when she suddenly emphasized Jewish ancestry? If politicians do it with accents or ethnic heritage why not religion? If you just want to get elected they are of the same superficial stuff.

    Is Barack Obama a Christian? Maybe. Probably. It doesn’t matter to me–it’s irrelevant because humans believe or disbelieve in religious propositions, politicians practice civic religion.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: There are lots of Christian roots in the Labour Party,

    As a famous quotation goes, “The British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.”

  • Martha

    Specifically Biblical quotes before a church congregation, referencing the support of a pastor for his campaign. Is Obama a Dominionist? Someone alert Bill Keller!

  • R9

    Well no he’s not, which is why his references to religion in speeches etc are, while still a bit worrying to secularists (and worth reporting on), less of a big deal.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Can anyone name an actual Dominionist in American politics? I mean, even Pat Robertson rejected that theological point of view in the 1980s.

  • Bill

    Good points by Charlie #1 and Jerry #2.

    I remember back in the late 1950s (IIRC) a hit song about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Many TV shows, such as Gunsmoke, often used Biblical references. It was assumed the audience would be familiar with these stories. Have we come to a point where unfamiliarity with the most read and influential text in Western history is a sign of intellectual superiority?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Bill, you’ve given me an excuse to link to this great Louis Armstrong rendition of the song.

  • sari

    I hesitate to say this, but could race be a factor? His choice of texts, Psalms at 9/11 and Daniel before the CBC, are atypical of those who choose to wear their Christianity on their sleeve. While some might say that his choices reflect a desire to utilize religious texts in an inclusive way, his choices reflect faith traditions in the African-American community: an emphasis on the Exodus, on G-d acting in history, on maintaining faith in physical redemption despite repression and oppression.

    Does this reflect journalists’ desire to keep Obama secular, a failure to understand context from the perspective of religion -and- race, or a free pass when religious oratory lacks Christian overtones?

  • Dave

    While he freely uses religious allegories in speeches, Obama runs on his policy positions, not his faith affiliations. This puts him into a certain political pigeonhole, one whose religious utterances are perhaps uninteresting to the MSM.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Interesting, but I’m not sure what you mean. How is a speech such as this different from one on the other side of the aisle? How does it demonstrate running on “policy positions” but not “faith affiliations” in a way that’s different from what a Christian Republican might do?

  • astorian

    Remember the Pew survey on people’s perceptions of Obama’s faith?

    Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people who thought Obama is a Muslim were self-identified conservatives, and that got a lot of media attention. But there was another angle to that survey that I found equally interesting, but which got practically NO media attention.

    Among people who identified themelves as liberals Democrats, only a tiny, tiny percentage believed Obama is a Muslim, BUT only 59% agreed with the staement “Obama is a Christian.”

    http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Politics_and_Elections/growingnumber-full-report.pdf

    THAT is a fascinating number. Why woudl 41% of self-described liberal Democrats either deny that Obama is a Christian or express uncertainty? It seems to me there are only two possibilities:

    1) Liberal Demorats are no smarter than conservative Republicans and are just as likely to believe things that are not true.

    2) A very large number of secular liberals can’t quite buy the notion that an intelligent, well-educated man could really believe in Christianity. These secular liberals tell themselves that, if an educated liberal politician claims to be a Christ claims to be a Christian, it MUST be just an act to fool gullible Christian voters.

  • Bill

    Thanks, Mollie #10. I remember that. But wait! There’s more! I always loved Sachmo’s Jonah.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6VvhFDpo3A

    And thaks for the illustrations. Many illustrations of Biblical stories from the books of my childhood are still vivid in my memory. The watercolors of David slaying Goliath and Samson pushing the pillars of the Philistine temple were particularly appealing to a young boy with lots of energy. I fashioned a sling like the one in the illustration and began flinging rocks at the Philistine giant, played by an old chestnut tree in our side yard. My father, unimpressed with my accuracy and concerned about collateral damage to windows, suggested (a 1950s term meaning commanded) I use horse chestnuts instead. Knowing how boys’ minds worked, he said the spines on the soft outer shell of the chestnut would hurt Goliath more than a mere rock. I’m glad we never tried to play Shadrach. We had far more enthusiasm than sense and likely would have scorched half a county.

  • Dave

    Mollie @13, my suspicion is that politicians on the other side of the aisle are seen as running on their faith affiliations, so that’s “news.”

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    I think sari’s probably right – for whatever reason, the media and people in general tend to be more accepting of African-Americans (and maybe Latinos and Asians) expressing religion than white Americans, and therefore it doesn’t seem as newsworthy to them.

  • James

    Charlie is right.
    If George W Bush had employed religious imagery–even to point of referring to Jesus as “our Savior”, Obama’s base would be freaking out over an impending Christianist takeover. If Cheny had delivered a speech in revivalist style, they’d have had visions of Savonarola.

    The portion of the media who would normal have kittens over invocations like these *simply do not hear it* when it comes from Pres Obama’s mouth (or perhaps they merely find it embarrassing) . The only time they recall any of it is when they are defending claims that he is a Muslim (which, in their circles, is much worse than being a secularist who uses religious references to “get over” –which is what they believe Obama to be).


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