The subject of religion has long been nettlesome for President Obama, but perhaps never as nettlesome as it was when he mounted the podium to give his convention speech on Thursday night.
For the previous 24 hours, the news cycle had been dominated by stories that the Democrats didn’t care about God, having deleted (and then reinstating) the words “God-given potential” in the 2012 platform. This gave ammunition to Obama’s opponents, who have already labeled him a socialist.
Then there’s the matter of Obama’s personal beliefs. Despite his clear and repeated avowals of Christian faith, 16 percent of American voters think Obama is a Muslim, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Just 38 percent of all voters say they think Obama’s religious beliefs are similar to theirs — another strike against the president, because such spiritual incompatibility is linked to an “unfavorable” view of a candidate more generally, the institute. says
Finally, Democrats are more religiously diverse than Republicans. Any effort by the president to articulate a faith-vision for the country in his acceptance speech would have to encompass, as PRRI’s chief executive Robert Jones wrote in a blog post for this paper, “mainline, black, and evangelical Protestants; Catholics; Jews; Muslims; Buddhists; Hindus; and others — along with the religiously unaffiliated, an increasingly politically important group.”
As an upstart and relative outsider before becoming president, Obama met this last challenge with ingenuity and inspiration. He has used “God talk” to great political effect, reminding Americans in 2004 that the Republican Party does not have a direct line to the Almighty (”We worship an awesome God in the blue states”) and campaigning in 2008 on the ideal of collective responsibility and common humanity, often quoting the Golden Rule and referencing Genesis: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
But since his presidential election, Obama has muted his faith message. Perhaps he decided that, as commander in chief, he was damned if he talked about God and damned if he didn’t.
Having confessed his Christian witness, he was nevertheless tarred by political enemies as a Muslim or a “liberal secularist.” Conservative evangelicals such as Franklin Graham even raised questions about whether Obama was the “right” kind of Christian. Having discovered God at Trinity Church in Chicago, it’s also possible that the president felt singed by the racial controversy that erupted during his campaign around his relationship with Trinity’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Or perhaps Obama simply believed that governing called for a wonkier rhetoric.
But tradition requires some God talk at a convention speech, and Obama was not about to flout that tradition. Nonbelievers and the religiously unaffiliated may be growing in number, but the vast majority of Americans want a president who believes. According to the PRRI, 66 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents say it’s important for a president to have strong faith.
The only question was how he’d express it. In a phone interview before the speech, Democratic strategist Eric Sapp said he hoped to see a return of the spiritually uplifting campaigner. Obama in ’08 “was very authentic,” Sapp said. “When he switched to policy, he lost. When [Democrats] become too secular, we lose our moral compass, we lose our core, we lose our values. We can’t be seen as being against God. And if we intentionally start clamming up over this stuff, we are going to lose a lot of voters for whom this is important.”
At the outset, the president’s speech lacked loft. But about two-thirds of the way in, Obama turned and faced the religion question head on. He did it with a pronoun. He started talking about “you.”
“The election four years ago was not about me,” he said. “My fellow citizens, you were the change. . . . Only you have the power to move us forward.”
Religious leaders have used this rhetorical pivot — it’s not about me, it’s about you — to great effect over the years. Moses used it in the desert when he told the people of Israel that they had to get themselves to the Promised Land. Jesus used it when he told followers that they had to make a choice and leave their families to follow him. American political leaders have used the collective “you” in their high-flying expressions of civil religion, linking U.S. citizenship to a sacred blessing and calling political engagement a sacred obligation. Think of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, when he told people, “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
The focus on the “you” gives the responsibility for doing what is fair and righteous to the people and deftly acknowledges that even the most powerful leaders are fallible and imperfect.
Through the power of the collective “you,” Obama was able to release himself from the fetters of his personal religious history and paint a picture of an America in which responsibility to country and neighbor is a responsibility to God. The soaring high notes at the conclusion of his speech were familiar to anyone who followed the candidate in ’08. “Yes, our path is harder,” he said, “but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer— but we travel it together. . . . We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.”
It was God talk, all right, and he’s good at it. He needs to use it more often.