TOWARD THE END OF his acceptance speech Barack Obama borrowed twice from the New Testament. The first was when he said that "what makes us rich" and "strong" and "what keeps the world coming to our shores" 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."
Collin Hansen at Christianity Today says that here Obama borrowed from II Corinthians 4:18. That seems right. Obama's "fix our eye not on what is seen but what is unseen" is almost the same as the first half of that verse, which says, "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen" (New International Version). But II Corinthians 4:18 may not be the only New Testament influence upon this Obama sentence.
Consider that Obama defines "what is unseen" as "that better place around the bend." The reason I think Hebrews inspired the words "that better place" is that the letter (in 11:16) speaks of "a better country," one that (when you take 11:16 in context with the rest of the chapter and indeed the entire letter) is "unseen" to those desiring it, The "country" of 11:16, if I am right about this, becomes "place" in Obama's speech.
The other New Testament passage Obama borrowed was in his concluding sentence: "Let us keep that promise--that American promise--and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope we confess." The words of Scripture here are from Hebrews 10:23, which says, "let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" (King James Version).
In using these verses, Obama left out important context. The rest of II Corinthians 4:18 defines the things that are seen as "temporary" and the things that are unseen as "eternal." Hebrews 11:16 understands that the better country ("place," for Obama) not as something we'll arrive at in this life but as "a heavenly" country, meaning eternity with God. And Hebrews 10:23, in the context of the chapter and the book, understands "the hope we confess" to be Christ. It's not about "the American promise." Hebrews, not incidentally, was written to Christians who happened to be wavering in their faith.
Of course, it's hardly unusual for presidents to borrow from the Bible. Nor for them to take passages out of context and employ them for political purposes. But in this case there is irony, for it's fair to say that Obama fixes his eyes not on what is unseen, but on what is seen. That is where his politics--and his religion--take him. Obama himself has said that as a result of attending Trinity United Church of Christ (when Jeremiah Wright was senior pastor) he came "to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active palpable agent in the world." An active, palpable agent that can carry you around the bend to "that better place," which is in this world and not to be confused with the next.
Early this year Joseph Knippenberg reviewed all that Obama had written or said about his faith. He concluded: "Obama's religion seems to be emphatically political and only secondarily spiritual. . . . [His] view of the role of church elides the difference between religion and politics. [It] is a political religion, calling us not only to charitable action in civil society, but to political activism, justifying not only prophetic witness but also governmental coercion." This is the hope that Obama would have us confess. Without wavering.
Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.