The press has begun to bury the Reverend Jeremiah Wright story, convinced by the polls that the issue — for the most part — has gone away. But the issue of Barack Obama’s association with his pastor is unlikely to disappear completely because it so undercuts what made the Illinois senator’s political appeal unique.
A strong religious sentiment runs through American political rhetoric — one that exists almost nowhere else in the world, even in nations such as Italy or England, where there is an official or unofficial state religion. Our tradition goes back to John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans, who came here with a religious mission. Winthrop’s famous 17th-century speech (which Ronald Reagan was known to quote) was America’s first great piece of rhetoric, with its exhortation, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Ever since, the nation has looked upon itself as a distinctive experiment, blessed by Providence, and it’s remarkable how many great American speeches have referenced religion or God. Our patriotism is a civic religion. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the Almighty often, never more eloquently than in his second inaugural address, when he said of the Union and Confederacy, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
John F. Kennedy, a secular speaker if there ever was one, ended his own inaugural address by saying, “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” And it’s no coincidence that the greatest American speech of the past half-century, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” address, was delivered by a theologian and structured like a sermon, with quotes from scripture.
Chapter and verse
The key to Obama’s success as an orator and politician has always been how deftly he’s tapped into this tradition — perhaps more effectively than has any other political speaker in modern times. It began with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, where he paraphrased Lincoln, saying, “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States — Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.” And that quasi-religious approach has continued both in his inimitable “pulpit” style of political speechmaking, with its roots in black church rhetoric, and his constant inspirational theme of uplift, stressing how Americans need to work together.
What makes Obama unique politically is how quasi-religious he is; he doesn’t orate, he preaches, stressing “above politics” (heavenly?) solutions. His style is especially noteworthy given that he hails from the political party whose members tend to be ostensibly far less religious than their counterparts across the aisle. That, in fact, helps explain a large part of Obama’s appeal to Democratic voters, especially those who are young. Being an Obama-ite is to be part of a new faith for a constituency that often lacks a more traditional one. Perhaps not surprising, many have remarked how Obama has attracted a kind of religious devotion in his followers, unmatched by any other political figure in decades.