Overall, I thought President Obama’s speech was good. I wish, though, that presidents wouldn’t feel the need to try to get biblical. While it shows that our cultural is not entirely secularized yet, they so seldom do theology or scripture well. He says,
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
I understand the temptation to pick a phrase from scripture, abstract it from its context and content, and repackage it in a new way. It lends the aura of Christian religiosity to your message. I’d say first, that American eschatology is not the same as Christian eschatology. While it is a good time for our nation to put away childish things (like thinking we can do whatever we want with no consequences – whether we’re thinking of trying to remake other countries in our image, trying to consume our way to happiness, or sexual licentiousnes), the advantage of decontextualizing, is you don’t have to specify what those childish things are, leavign hearers to fill in the blanks for themselves.
When he says “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness," this sounds more like Americanism than Christianity, more an echo of our nations’ founding documents than of the Bible and the Christian tradition. In so doing, Obama follows in the long tradition of seeing the hand of Providence in America, so my dissatisfaction with Obama at this point is a dissatisfaction with the whole tradition.
I’ve seen some mock Obama’s “hope” mantra. While I agree with them that it lacks substance, I think nonetheless that it is entirely appropriate in hard times. This economic crisis (caveat: I am a non-expert. I only took one economics course in college. At least I made an A, for what it’s worth.) is largely a crisis of confidence. In a crisis of confidence you build confidence. That is done not primarily by rehearsing the grim facts of the situation. Plenty of folks do that. Confidence is regained by acting confidently, even before there is substantial reason to do so. For that reason I’d rather Obama speak positively and confidently about our situation than simply “tell the truth.”
Another advantage of proclaiming hope, even apart from substance, is that too many apparently substantive claims are unfounded. Our confidence in the abaility of government to solve our problems (i.e., bring us the salvation we seek) is vastly overrated. Yes, I know – it is common for those running for office to proclaim their comptency in the role of savior, and for those in office, to try to lower (i.e., make more realistic) expectations. The really dangerous thing is when politicians actually believe they can bring us salvation.
I’ve voted in every presidential election since I came of age. I am now four of four – half the time my guy was elected, half the time not. In each case, however, I pray for the success of the president. By the way, I am careful, when I pray, to ask God to define success.