This past Saturday, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday"—the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans.
His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.
Between April 1831 and February 1832, two officials of the French government under Louis-Philippe toured Jacksonian America. These two officials—Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont—were on assignment to research prisons in the United States and later produced a report of their findings in 1833. But while traveling through America, Tocqueville and Beaumont were also carefully observing political and social life in the new republic. Both men published works on their observations. Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America (1835/1840) and Beaumont wrote a novel, entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States(1835).
Most Americans are familiar with Tocqueville’s work, but Beaumont’s novel is less well known.
In January, a measles outbreak at Disneyland caught the media’s attention. Over 114 cases appeared not only in California, but in six other U.S. states and parts of Mexico. Even though measles was officially eliminated from the United States in 2000, there have been more and more cases of the disease in the last seven years, with over 600 in 2014 alone. That year, one outbreak in an Amish community in Ohio included 383 diagnoses of measles. This particular religious community reconsidered its previous relaxed stance on vaccines. The Amish weren’t opposed to vaccination, but rather didn’t realize that measles was still such a threat to public health.
In October 2013, a program entitled “Health Care from the Pulpit” was introduced by Enroll America, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to increase enrollment in services provided by the Affordable Care Act among the previously uninsured. They intend to bring churches of different faiths together to “be engaged in the education and outreach efforts around the Affordable Care Act open enrollment period.”
Programs like “Health Care from the Pulpit” have existed for centuries and in a number of national contexts. The greatest example occurred during the spread of the smallpox vaccine in France in the early 19th century.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, President Obama urged humility about “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith” to the point where we commit atrocities, like slavery and Jim Crow, in the name of Christ. Critics quickly denounced Obama’s comments as un-American, while supporters defended their accuracy. But few have asked why Obama did not also link Christian conviction to the campaign against slavery and racial injustice.
Sitting beside my best friend, we tensed as policemen clubbed civil rights protesters. We teared up as Martin Luther King Jr. marched alongside James Bevel, as Coretta Scott King talked with Malcolm X, and as the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee strained to relate to their elders. Selma was an experience: visceral, soulful, inspiring, and shocking.
A visual image that struck me was based in sound: microphone before King, organ pipes behind him.
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union proposed to enlarge the American promise of prosperity by introducing a new tax structure for the very wealthy, tax credits for families outside of the wealthy stratum, increased access to retirement plans for more American workers, and a plan to subsidize community college tuition. While there will be resistance to the president’s proposals, the impulse behind them is an appeal to an idealized form of decency that Lyndon B. Johnson believed would make his idea of a Great Society an American reality.
Fifty years ago this month, Johnson introduced his vision to Congress.
When Pope Francis thinks of climate change, he thinks of social justice. In his 2013 inaugural homily as pope, Francis implored “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life” to “be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” Speaking at an Italian university a year later, Francis announced, “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to give us what she has within her.” In 2015, Vatican-watchers expect Francis to produce an encyclical that situates climate change within the framework of Catholic social teaching.
Francis’s position on the injustices of climate change is not new to the Roman Catholic Church.
2014 demonstrated that, whatever the significance of Barack Obama’s two terms as our first African American president, we have hardly moved beyond national struggles over race and class. Failures to indict white policemen accused of the unjust killings of black men precipitated protests and online shouting matches about racial inequality, or just how to talk about race. Christians participated in (hopefully) profitable discussions such as the December 16, 2014 “A Time to Speak” event, hosted by Pastor Bryan Lorritts of Fellowship Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum.
December 16 was also the 300th birthday of George Whitefield, the most important evangelist of the Great Awakening of the 18th century.