Political Mercury

August 26, 2010
By Douglas Burns


Obama’s groundbreaking speech shows thinking Christian


During his time in the U.S. Senate, President Barack Obama delivered one of the more groundbreaking, even magisterial speeches you’ll hear, a “Call to Renewal” address in which he frankly discusses his own Christian beliefs.

Unlike the messianic proclamations from some on the right, or the roll-your-eyes pandering of secular Democrats clumsily trying to go Chautauqua, Obama’s stem-winder should ring true with many conservatives and liberals at the same time because it is so eloquently honest.

It is an inspiring speech, one I didn’t think a contemporary American politician could deliver. And it’s instructive to review in the current environment with ridiculous allegations and intellectual dishonesty ping-ponging about the blogosphere and talk radio challenging Obama’s Christianity.

“Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts,” Obama said in that June 28 speech to religious progressives in Washington, D.C. “You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away — because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.”

Obama is a believable Christian because of his thoughtful journey with faith, one that involved those doubts. His own books and speeches are stuffed with religious imagery. It’s not something that can be faked.

Unlike former President George W. Bush, who runs the equivalent of old San Francisco 49er short slant routes with theological discussion, Obama can go deep.

For Obama, the God card isn’t the way to beat Jack Daniels and Al Gore and John Kerry — and then find a “higher power” than daddy.

The themes in the “Call to Renewal” speech are echoed in Obama’s best-selling book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and elsewhere. His remarks have drawn standing ovations not only from liberals, but thousands of conservatives at venues like “The Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren’s megachurch.

It’s not because Obama’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. It’s because he truly is speaking to us.

“The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms,” Obama said. “Some of the problem here is rhetorical — if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”

Obama goes on to say: “After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.”

In the speech, Obama makes a remarkable admission: that he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious home and that his mother was a skeptic of organized religion.

But as he worked with church leaders in community organizing Obama said he found something missing in his life.

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith,” Obama said. “It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear.”

Obama, like Ronald Reagan, a fitting comparison in many ways, believes in using one’s personal faith to promote public good, rather than the more common practice of using public faith to satiate private ambitions.

One can be both devout and a protector of the wall between church and state.

“Whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?” Obama asked. “Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount — a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.” CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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