Obama’s speech

There’s much discussion and analysis of Obama’s speech yesterday. I continue to be amazed, as I look at Obama’s speeches, simply that they are written with complete paragraphs, and not (as in so many speeches, even Hillary’s) with a single sentence per paragraph. That is how Obama thinks, and I truly believe the time has come for a president who thinks in paragraphs, not in talking points.

The emphasis on the speech is on the notion of a “more perfect union,” the idea of perfectibility, and the entirely uncontroversial notion that we aren’t there yet. Our Founding Fathers promised more perfection, and recognized that democratic governance was the best system for the improvement of a nation (albeit not a path to perfection). This notion that our nation can be better, can be perfected, is central to progressive politics of the 20th and 21st century, as it was central to the liberalism that motivated this nation’s founders, and it’s greatest presidents.

I dare say that those were our greatest presidents because they had such deep faith (“assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) in this nation’s potential, in our ability as a people to fix the problems that afflict us. Consider Washington holding together a young country as it tried to find a way to govern itself, the peaceful transition between parties after Jefferson’s election, Lincoln’s war to preserve the Union and abolish slavery, or Roosevelt’s war against the Depression (and then against fascism). Obama demonstrated that same grasp of a president’s power to set a tone and a vision for the nation, as Henry Farrell observes:

I?ve lived in the US for the last four years as a permanent resident, and been quite happy here. Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about, regardless of specific disagreements I might have. You hear a lot of guff in politicians? speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive.

Stephen Suh also sees risks in Obama’s speech:

What’s happening today [with the kerfuffle over Obama's pastor] is just a continuation of the way in which the slaves and lower classes took the rich white man’s religion and not only accepted it, but started to understand it, practice and expect even the white man to do the same. That’s Jeremiah Wright’s scandal. That’s his offense, the offense of his church. At Trinity UCC in Chicago they not only understand that systemic and systematic racism is prevalent in this country, they work to change that. They work to improve people’s lives here on earth not in spite of their Christian beliefs – heaven is usually held out as the only reward poor people need – but because of their Christian beliefs. Their practices and even their very existence is a slap in the face of White American Christianity – just like the person and message of Jesus was such a slap in the face of the religious and political rulers of his day.

I was recently sent a link to this article that appeared in the Christian Century almost a year ago. Obama’s faith, unlike so many of our politicians, seems to be the real deal – not measured in terms of sincerity, because people like James Dobson, John Hagee and Mike Huckabee are sincere. They are sincere about a religion that has very little to do with the Bible they claim to revere. No, I mean “the real deal” in terms of a faith grounded in what Jesus actually said and did instead of the accretions of the last 2,000 years.

If true – and I’m really starting to think it is – Barack Obama is probably the most dangerous man to ever make a serious run for President.

As Devilstower notes at DailyKos, Rev. Wright’s spirited condemnation of the USA was not so far from Biblical principles, either. “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” the Reverend told his flock; the Good Shepherd told the crowds, “Damn you rich! You already have your compensation, Damn you who are well-fed! You will know hunger.” One can object to the way that Rev. Wright made his point, without rejecting his underlying point about the absolutely atrocious way we treat our citizens.

It’s hard to doubt that Jesus would damn this nation’s treatment of the poor, of drug addicts, of the homeless, the mentally ill, the chronically ill or of soldiers, mothers and the elderly. Of course, he also advocated love for the sinner, and damning the nation is a very different act. Jesus was a firm believer that humanity could be improved, and his followers do well to follow that example.

Obama’s optimism about what America can be, and his willingness to think seriously about how to get us there, are admirable. I hope he wins this thing. If nothing else, it’ll piss off the heirs to William F. Buckley’s brand of conservatism, a political philosophy built on racism, elitism, and the faith (“assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) in a past time when everything was supergood.

Comments

  1. #1 Christian Prophet
    March 19, 2008

    Barack Obama gave a good speech on race, but it’s being argued that it was designed to distract attention from much more damaging non-racial aspects of his THEOLOGY. See:
    http://christianprophecy.blogspot.com/

  2. #2 Left_wing_fox
    March 20, 2008

    Anyone who holds that Ayn Rand and Christianity are not in conflict is not a person to be lecturing ANYBODY on “Strange Theology”. Good grief…

    Regardless, it was an excellent speech on Obama’s part. After 8 years of President Malaprop, it’s a refreshing change.

  3. #3 MattXIV
    March 20, 2008

    As Devilstower notes at DailyKos, Rev. Wright’s spirited condemnation of the USA was not so far from Biblical principles, either. “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” the Reverend told his flock; the Good Shepherd told the crowds, “Damn you rich! You already have your compensation, Damn you who are well-fed! You will know hunger.”

    I’m not so sure about the “damn you” translation – “Damned are you” (similar to the KJV translation of “Woe onto you”) makes more sense in context, as it is meant as a contrast to a series of “Blessed are the” hungry/poor/etc immediately proceeding it. The Scholars Transition substitutes “Damn” for “Woe onto” to make it sound more like modern English, but it obscures the meaning in this case where the point of those lines in context is asceticism – it is a warning that it’s easy for those who aren’t sacrificing to profess belief, so material well-being is a burden in the search for salvation, not an advantage.

    Lines 32-36 drive this point home:
    “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34And(BJ) if you(BK) lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35But(BL) love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and(BM) you will be sons of(BN) the Most High, for(BO) he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36(BP) Be merciful, even as(BQ) your Father is merciful.” (from here)

    It’s important to point out that the motivation here is ascetic, since biblical asceticism often gets misread as egalitarianism. For example, Matthew 19, which contains the famous “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” line encourages not only the rich to leave behind their wealth, but all people to disregard all things of this world in the pursuit of spiritual perfection:
    “29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”