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Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast

President Obama spoke on Thursday morning at the 59th annual National Prayer Breakfast. The gathering is one of those peculiar Washington pageants that elicits diametrically opposed reactions from those who bother to take note of its existence.

Those hostile to the NPB view it as a raging Christ-fest. Those in support of it view it as good, clean, absolutely necessary, public worship of God.

I, as you may have surmised, could do without the NPB. But part of being what I might call a “New Secularist” consists of dealing with reality as it is, not reality as it might have been 50 years ago.

Well, when the President of the United States of America (a Democrat) delivers a 22-minute address about his personal faith, drops half a dozen Scripture bombs along the way, and declaims “I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior”—all I can say is that the sixties are over, man!

The Golden Age of Secularism has passed. The Secular Movement—if there ever was a viable one in this country—must look at events such the NPB as an invitation to think secularism afresh (something I am trying to do in my current research).

In any case, here’s what I took away from the President’s speech:

Obama’s performance? Not for the professors, but. . . . . : Many academics, I suspect, secretly believe that Obama is one of us. As far as we’re concerned he’d rather be cogitating down at a good Div or Law School instead of working this dumb day job that he has got going now.

So whenever Obama speaks on weighty matters like religion, we professors expect nothing less than Reinhold Niebuhr meets Max Weber meets Ralph Ellison. And we are invariably disappointed. That’s because a Commander-in-Chief who ruminates like an Oxford Don is not long for the White House.

Still, while yesterday’s address was a platitude-fest as well (i.e., “My Christian faith then has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years,”; “my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn’t always been a straight line”), the overall speech was quite effective.

Obama spoke slowly. He avoided grand rhetorical gestures. He was humble and quite frankly, he looked exhausted—all of which lent his address an air of authenticity, even gravitas.

Using faith and values talk to his advantage: In last week’s State of the Union, the president refracted nearly all of his issues through the prism of education.

At the National Prayer Breakfast he employed a similar tactic. Obama managed to skillfully package partisan political points in the guise of God Talk.

Notice how Obama addresses the problem of incivility—in particular the rather uncivil charge that he is not a Christian—by seeking refuge in God:

When Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Now observe how the president delivers a stealthy but firm elbow to the Tea Party and others who seem at war with the very notion of government:

There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need . . . . And that’s why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.

The office or the Kremlin?: Mid-speech the president gave a shout out to “The director of our Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership’s office, Joshua DuBois—young minister himself—he starts my morning off with meditations from Scripture.”

I wish Mr. DuBois would start off my morning with explanations of what exactly that Office is doing—a never-ending source of confusion, and even awe, among reporters, policy analysts, and professors in Washington, DC.

I have complained about this for years. I have nothing more to add.  So, heck, let the President words speak for themselves:

Now, sometimes faith groups can do the work of caring for the least of these on their own; sometimes they need a partner, whether it’s in business or government. And that’s why my administration has taken a fresh look at the way we organize with faith groups, the way we work with faith groups through our Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Raging Christ-fest? While the president thankfully steers clear of “Christian Nation” rhetoric, there was simply too much of Obama the Christian yesterday.

Come to think of it, the National Prayer Breakfast often has this effect on politicians. Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, sprinkled so many references to the gospels at the 48th National Prayer Breakfast in 2000 that he made George W. Bush look like a desk officer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Obama may earnestly believe that Republican Senator Tom Coburn is his “Brother in Christ.” But such a sentiment sounds odd coming from a president who once reminded his Turkish hosts that ours is not “a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation,” but  “a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” 

Such a nation, one would hope, would be led by a person who understands that this type of rhetoric can be deeply troubling to those who don’t believe in Christ. Just as it may offend those Christians who believe that Christ’s teachings tend to become distorted when they are mouthed by the worldly powers that be.

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