In speaking for the nation, President Obama has reclaimed religion from the right. And America is better for it.
The president is the voice of a nation. No words can overcome the horror of the reason for last week’s speech. A nine-year-old child killed. Innocent bystanders. A terribly injured representative.
In particular, it is the first time I have ever seen a total absence of gallows humour among professional political staff. A grimace and a hooded eye, the shake of a head. There is a particular chill for anyone who has worked on the front line of elected politics, with the “there but for the grace of God” thought shared between Hill staffers, campaigning activists, MP’s constituency office workers. For people who had wanted to go into politics by seeking election, it brought into sharp relief the pleasure of meeting constituents and doing democracy in the streets and cafes of our towns. There is no hiding from this. But what can a political leader say to a grieving, angry nation?
We’ve seen the media comparisons. President Obama’s speech to an Arizonan sports stadium has already been compared to Reagan’s tribute to the Challenger disaster and Clinton’s eulogy to the victims of the Oklahoma bombing.
It’s even been seen in one Daily Telegraph column as an argument for “The Big Society,” a presumption as insulting as it is poorly argued.
But now we’ve had the space of a week in to reflect, how does the speech matter?
It is a fact historically acknowledged that a great president must be a great orator. Of course, most presidents can deliver a speech. Some can’t, with George W Bush standing out as awful. But the greatest power of a chief executive is to put into words the conscience of a nation and to be the voice of its inner pain.
The speech was so powerful because had the rhythm and cadence of the pulpit. People like me are the toggles on the anorak of political science, but analysers of rhetoric find it’s an absorbing interest. The speech was a technically superb.
The wordmanship is wonderful. The careful use of the family to relate a high message to personal experience was elegant.
After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose somebody in our family, especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken out of our routines. We’re forced to look inward. We reflect on the past.
Did we spend enough time with an aging — an aging parent, we wonder? Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices that they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while, but every single day?
So sudden loss causes us to look backward, but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.
Nothing Obama said was new. At times of great crisis or public revulsion, great American presidents appeal for moderation. It’s by no means the first appeal. Lyndon Johnson’s speech in the aftermath of Jack Kennedy’s assassination
The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.
They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders: representatives of the people answering questions to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns back to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it “Congress on Your Corner,” just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.”
And in Gabby — in Gabby, we see a reflection of our public- spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never- ending process to form a more perfect union.
We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.”
As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001…
Church and state may be constitutionally separated, but the elevated status of both Scripture and Constitution is clear in the American psyche. John Kennedy, a president for whom religion mattered in so many ways, was fond of linking the two rhetorically. For example, in 1963:
This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
Kennedy was not alone. Reagan famously spoke in 1984 of the City on the Hill of the gospels, and Obama echoed that in saying:
Scripture tells us, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the most high dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. Obama 2011
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
In his famous Civil Rights speech of 1964 to a joint session of Congress, itself entitled “We shall overcome,” a hymn of political protest, President Johnson spoke to the nation of the religious nature of the struggle:
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government — the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.
“As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life: “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope — I hope you jump in rain puddles.”
If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.
And here on this Earth, here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.
May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in restful and eternal peace. May he love and watch over the survivors. And may he bless the United States of America.”
I defy anybody to hear that and remain unmoved.
First published on WalesHome, January 2011