The Sermon on the Mall
God and man in the Obama White House.
Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By TERRY EASTLAND
This is a good example of Obama the Doubter. Doubt is a big part of his faith. "Faith doesn't mean you don't have doubts," he wrote in Audacity, and Obama's doubts are apparently such that he is unwilling to posit, as have so many of his predecessors, a providential God whose ways we can trust, who helps in time of need. In his doubt, by the way, Obama is George W. Bush's opposite. Bush was accused of having a "theology of certainty" on account of his saying such things as, from his first inaugural: "I know this [a nation of justice and opportunity] is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image."
In the speech's very last sentence, Obama again mentioned God:
Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
The sentence is about us, and how we are to be perceived generations hence, but it points a finger to heaven to indicate that we have God's favor as we do our work. Here Obama, notwithstanding his own doubting faith, may have felt the need to buck up an audience that just minutes earlier was told it was making a lonely journey of indeterminate outcome. The passage doesn't explain why God favors us, but it would seem to be because we are doing God's work here on earth, a standard trope in our civil religion.
The surprise of Obama's speech was the lack of any explicit reference to the Golden Rule, which is found in the Bible and is essentially a way of restating the Second Great Commandment, which is, of course, to love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule is the essence of Obama's social ethic. He believes that it should influence policy and politics. It has parallels in other religious traditions and thus is not exclusive to any one. It has secular parallels, too.
During the campaign Obama talked about the ethic in a variety of ways (often using "I am my brother's keeper," from Genesis 4, and the need to "help the least of these," from Matthew 25). Obama employed it to discuss what he called the nation's "empathy gap" and "empathy -deficit." Maybe Obama didn't talk about the ethic in his inaugural because it was also Bush's ethic--recall in his first inaugural how Bush pledged the nation to a goal: "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." But neighbor-love is so central to Obama's politics that it's safe to predict we'll hear about it soon enough.
Obama quoted Scripture about setting aside childish things in order to mark the nation's transition to "a new era of responsibility." In this era, he said, the question we must ask
is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.
Here Obama cast himself as the post-ideological pragmatist. But the fact remains that Obama understands his faith in ways that frankly call for more government. In a speech he gave to the Sojourners Forum in 2007, Obama said that each of us has responsibilities and obligations to others, and that these responsibilities and obligations "have to express themselves not just through our churches, and our synagogues, and our mosques, and our temples, not only in our own families, but they have to express themselves through our government."
And remember that empathy deficit. How will it be closed? In a campaign speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Obama said that it's not enough
to bemoan the plight of poor children in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms.
To judge by sentiments like these, expect the Obama administration to propose more and more government as his term passes. Expect, too, that unless we Americans succumb to the charms of Obama and completely lose our minds, those old but necessary debates about the nature and purpose of government will revive.
Terry Eastland is the publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.