Obama evokes Niebuhr, black church

January 13, 2011

Expecting a speech, Americans instead heard a sermon. Drawing on
scripture, theology and the rising rhythms of black preaching, President
Obama was more pastor than politician at a memorial service in Tucson
for the victims of the January 8 shooting in that Arizona city.

It
was an aspect of Obama that galvanized his 2008 campaign but had
scarcely emerged since he entered the White House, according to some
observers.

"I was glad to see it back," said Martha Simmons,
coeditor of Preaching with Sacred Fire, an anthology of African-American
sermons. "I had missed that in his speeches over the last two years."
There are a lot of good speakers in politics, she said. "But it's not
the same as being able to hit that soul area. If you can tap into that,
you tap into something powerful and important."

As with past
presidents confronted by tragedy, Obama's pastoral side surfaced at a
moment of national grief, when the commander in chief is called upon to
comfort the afflicted and make sense of the senseless.

Obama both
embodied and gently resisted that role on January 12. In the wake of the
shootings four days earlier, partisans on the left and right sharply
debated whether inflammatory political rhetoric inspired accused gunman
Jared Lee Loughner to kill six people and wound more than a dozen more,
including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.).

Wanton evil defies
easy explanation, Obama said. "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."

Instead, Obama called on Americans to be more humble, "expand our moral imaginations" and "sharpen our instincts for empathy."

Shaun
Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, said
Obama's speech echoed the tenets of 20th-century Protestant theologian
Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been a moral touchstone for this president.
For Niebuhr, pride and self-righteousness were cardinal sins, and evil
an ever-present mystery. "Obama called for humility, the antidote to
pride and self-righteousness," Casey said. "It was a way of addressing
the polarization and vitriol by pointing the finger at everyone."

Again
drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Obama also quoted from Psalm 46,
implicitly comparing Tucson to scripture's city of God. "God is within
her, she will not fall," Obama recited from the psalm. "God will help
her at the break of day."

Jacques Berlinerblau, author of Thumpin'
It,
a study of how modern presidents have used the Bible, said the
Psalms have been a popular choice for presidential rhetoric. "You cannot
lose with the Psalms," he said.

Obama's chosen passage offered
comfort to a traumatized city and echoed Ronald Reagan's evocation of
America as a divinely favored "shining city upon a hill." "Obama is
trying to get something across about a city resurrecting itself," said
Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University.

In its
contours and cadences, Obama's address drew on traditions of black
preaching rarely if ever seen in presidential speeches, said Simmons,
who directs an online African-American lectionary project. "You can tell
this man has spent time in African-American churches, no doubt about
that," she said.

For example, Obama employed call-and-response,
repeating the phrase "Gabby opened her eyes" three times as the audience
cheered the good news about Giffords. Noting the president's use of
repetition, Simmons said: "I know where that came from. I hear that
every Sunday."

After honoring the victims and extolling the
bystanders who helped prevent further killings, Obama moved toward his
speech's moral message. "We call that the close, or the celebration,"
Simmons said. "It's the higher point that people can take with them when
they leave church."

Often a preacher will use a biblical parable
or a psalm to deliver the take-home message, but Obama used the memory
of Christina Taylor Green, an innocent and energetic nine-year-old
killed in the attack.

"If there are rain puddles in heaven," Obama
said, "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."  —RNS