AP highlights Obama’s eisegesis — perhaps unwittingly

Without doubt, the job of president of the United States can easily drive someone one to drink — or to his knees in prayer.

It’s right there in history. Lincoln’s prayers during the Civil War are well-known, and the line extends to Richard Nixon (who reportedly dragged Henry Kissinger to his knees for a joint prayer at the height of Watergate) past Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

Now it is President Barack Obama’s turn in the religious spotlight, thanks to the Associated Press and reporter Josh Lederman, one of the wire service’s White House correspondents:

“President Barack Obama is not an overtly religious man. He and his family rarely attend church, and he almost never elaborates in public about his own relationship to his Christian faith.

“But far away from the public eye, his longtime advisers say, the president has carefully nurtured a sense of spirituality that has served as a grounding mechanism during turbulent times, when the obstacles to governing a deeply divided nation seem nearly insurmountable.”

Lederman is chiefly a political reporter and, naturally, the article views the president’s “sense of spirituality” through a political prism. A key player here, of course, is a former White House aide, the Rev. Joshua DuBois

“Obama is particularly moved by theories that draw connections between biblical themes and the personal journeys of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., DuBois said. He added that the president’s spiritual strength is his belief that God will carry him through to see another day — even amid crises like the debt-and-spending debacle that’s ensnared Washington for the last month.”

This kind of makes it seem as if Scripture is designed to take the edge off negative poll numbers, such as the 37 percent approval rating the 44th president received in an early October AP-GfK survey. I’m not sure that was the intent of the Bible’s authors, but that’s the sense, reinforced by passages such as this:

“At pivotal moments in Obama’s presidency, DuBois sometimes selects texts that offer lessons apropos of the challenges at hand. Before one State of the Union address, it was the words of Isaiah, in an appeal for clarity of speech: ‘So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.’”

If that statement accurately reflects DuBois’ intent, then the “former associate pastor at a Pentecostal church,” as he is described, has, I believe, wrenched Isaiah 55:11 from its context: the declaration in this case coming from the Lord, the “word” being generally understood to be Scripture. And if the president is applying this statement to his State of the Union address, that would seem to be eisegesis, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas.”

And for a president who “rarely attend[s] church,” little probing is done here of an interesting annual spiritual exercise:

“Every year on Aug. 4, the president’s birthday, Obama convenes a group of pastors by phone to receive their prayers for him for the year to come. During the most challenging of times, prayer circles are organized with prominent religious figures such as megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights activist.”

Notably absent from the story are any quotes from these pastors, or any others alleged to have been involved in these prayer meetings. Granted, men (and, presumably, women) of the cloth have been loathe to blab since the Rev. Billy Graham spilled after his 1950 meeting with Harry Truman, but surely someone could find some details of this practice.

Apart from these (to me) missing elements, I believe the AP’s story might have been better if, perhaps, religion correspondent Rachel Zoll had been brought in to contribute.

Context, context and more context is missing here, in my opinion, and to have the Bible presented in the way it is here begs for some factual, journalistic context.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Carlh

    Sadly, this article appears to be yet another in the category of “spiritual, but not religious” stories, in which what the supposed dichotomy really means, if anything, get very short shrift, regardless of the angle of the day.

    Mark’s comments on this particular story seem spot on, particularly noting that it was written from a political perspective. But, even from that angle, there seem to some pretty amazing “political/religious ghosts” in the midst of this bit of secular (albeit “spiritual,” of course) hagiography. What does it suggest about the current occupant of the White House that he convenes a group of religious leaders to “receive their prayers for him”–and on his birthday, no less? I truly hope that is just a very unfortunate choice of words by the writer! (At least a Darius-like edict hasn’t gone out to all the subjects.) Or, eisegesis or not, what does it portend that, as Mark pointed out, one of the President’s spiritual advisers seems to connect political rhetoric to the “word” (of whom, again?) in Isaiah?


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