Obama gets praise for pulling out the religion card

June 27, 2015 • 12:46 pm

by Grania

There is nothing like a heartfelt appeal to God to stir the loins and get the heads of the voters nodding in approval. In an otherwise admirable speech about gun violence, poverty and race relations in the USA, Obama referenced God on a number of occasions.

I never quite know whether politicians are truly cynical opportunists or whether they really believe the stuff they spout (probably either or both, depending on the person); but this quote strikes me as kind of cold, even for a seasoned politician who is a masterful public speaker.

 “As a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us,”

It’s a conclusion that many theologians come to when considering theodicy, that God allows tragedy to bring about an ultimate good. It is a bizarrely masochistic mindset that thinks it is permissible or moral even; for a personal, intervening and all-powerful God to patiently tolerate unspeakable acts of violence, hatred and then unbearable suffering and grief all to slowly nudge a population vaguely towards a somewhat nebulous goal.

At times like this, no doubt that speeches need to be about comfort, reconciliation and support. So it was inevitable that a number of God references were going to be made, although the isn’t God great for letting so much bad happen so that there can be good afterwards approach is one I wouldn’t have chosen. But then, I am not a politician. And it seems to have worked.

Over on Slate there is an entire column of salivating and praise for the powerful new direction Obama’s speechifying has taken.

The president was no longer giving a speech about a tragedy; he was trying to leverage the grace displayed in the wake of that heinous act into a nation’s purpose. “As a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us,” he said. “He has allowed us to see where we have been blind.” It was that grace, the president argued, that helped South Carolina lawmakers conclude that the Confederate flag should come down.

And again:

The thunderbolts of change that struck this week seem to have energized the president. He might have given the same eulogy had he not had his opinions affirmed by the Supreme Court. But given the sense of vindication that he feels, it was easy to see how those secular victories gave him the confidence to make that soaring religious speech and to wipe away the intimations toward capitulation and defeat from just a little more than a week ago.

Well, isn’t that nice? Opium of the people indeed, and evidently a great tool for a politician needing to rally citizens to the cause.


74 thoughts on “Obama gets praise for pulling out the religion card

    1. I’m an atheist. Obama is not. I can live with that, and I found nothing pandering about his speech.

      1. But you’ll agree he could have spared us his version of Amazing Grace… I mean, I’m sure in a church like that there were probably some reeeeaaaaaalllllllyyyyyy great singers 🙂

        1. I saw it differently: He had the courage I don’t to sing in public (even though I sing on key), while the off key singing added a humbly human touch, strong even in a time of great grieving.

  1. What is the point of this post? He’s never claimed to be an atheist. He’s eulogizing religious people who were massacred by a psychopath racist…in a black church.

    Is it news to you that our leaders are Christians? I’m an atheist but crapping over Obama for giving a religious speech is going to give fodder to the wing nuts who think atheists are extremists.

  2. Today, PM David Cameron said, “our thoughts and prayers are with…” about the shootings in Tunisia. I don’t often hear British politicians invoking gods. I agree with John that it’s pandering. I suppose it always is…

    1. I also heard him give the line about [DAESH] not being Islamic – Islam is a religion of peace. Very annoying.

      1. I wish some comedian would do an impression on Youtube of David Cameron practising the phrase ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ over and over in front of a mirror, trying to say it without sounding stupid.

    2. “Thoughts and prayers” is, I think, simple ceremonial deism — an empty trope people plug in when a sad situation seems to call for an expression of condolence, yet they have nothing of substance to say.

      I doubt it prompts anyone (including the speaker) to pray — or to think, for that matter — who wasn’t inclined to do so already.

  3. On the CBS news last night, one spokesperson for the South Carolina church asserted that the Reverend Pinckney died for a good cause. Hearing that caused me to shake my head in disbelief.

    1. The grieving often mouth anodyne bromides, sometimes making them up from familiar pat phrases as they go, to fill dead conversation space and stave off acute pain.

      We shouldn’t be too harsh on them when they do.

  4. Given that this is a funeral for a pastor of a church, I’m reluctant to begrudge Obama referring to God here, though I am cringing at the remark about “mysterious ways”.

    I think Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee fully believe all their God talk. Can’t tell with Newt Gingrich. Donald Trump’s God talk I am certain is a lie. (And I suspect Trump believes HE is God.)

    1. I don’t begrudge that either, although I always think that theodicy is a subject best avoided after a tragedy. No, what irked me was how the religious invocations are what is being praised in Slate of all places.


      1. I’m not too surprised about the Slate piece – these last few years have felt like they do more unsolicited pandering and one of the reasons I don’t read it as much.

  5. I should go back and look up another word for pandering but that would be like looking up another word for politician.

    When you cannot do a thing about the actual problem of guns it is always comforting to fall back on the old standard, religion, to divert the attention. It’s just like the sudden need to take down the flag and that will solve the problem, only it won’t. Taking down the flag as a solution to racism is very much like turning to religion when you are going to do nothing about guns.

    1. While on the subject of pandering, how about how quickly the politicians on the right suddenly supported the movement to remove the confederate flag from state property? I almost got whiplash seeing how quickly that idea got approved. But I will take it.

      1. Yes, and for many people for a long time it has been — over my dead body. Kind of like Charlton Heston and his cold dead hands speech.

      1. I view the Confederate flag ruckus as a very “slippery slope”- what’s next? Banning any representation of it from textbooks? Banning talking about the fact that there WAS a Confederate flag? Making it illegal to wear articles of clothing with it on them (much as Al Sharpton, a cynical manipulator in his own right, would like to see these things happen)? Free speech is FREE speech, like it or not. Although I can’t see why a state would want to fly a flag that is a symbol of their past rebellion against the Federal government, I know of no Federal law against doing so.
        To think that any positive effect can result from “banning” it from games, etc. is just as ridiculous as a city wanting to ban “hoodies” thinking it will reduce crime- the Confederate flag has become an “icon” of “resistance” and “outlawdom” for everyone from bikers to those opposed to authority of any kind. To confront it directly in this manner, rather than letting it die a slow, natural death from disinterest, only hardens the attitudes of those who support it: “THEY (whoever you want that to be) really ARE trying to get us.”

        1. A slow death? How many centuries will that take? I like to help it die by the sellers to quit making it available decades ago. Much more effective. We as actors all play a part by being responsible for our actions. We are not stopping anyone from using the confederate flag but we as a collective can help by not promoting that which we think is despicable!

        2. I agree. The point of free speech is to protect the speech you don’t like, not just what you agree with.

          Still I think government-sanctioned display can be outlawed as soon as there’s a big enough local constituency to demand it. Whatever decals, etc.–even actual flags–that bikers and pick-up drivers want to display should be left alone.

  6. Although Santorum and Huckabee probably do believe their God talk, and Obama probably doesn’t, the mark of an orator and a great speech is to move people into unity.

    I checked and Obama used the word “grace” 36 times in that speech, most of the references leading up to the end.

    Watch closely the people behind Obama at the point where he pauses a few times then launches into Amazing Grace. You can hear the *POP* when that entire congregation snaps into alignment with Obama. It’s palpable.

    It reminds me of the old days of “Yes we can” and “Hope and Change.” Obama has the ability to unite people behind his words and it’s unfortunate he’s used it so sparingly.

    1. Obama was once reported to have said, “they” are not ready to give up religion or their guns. I do not see him doing much to help them get rid of either.

      1. What he actually said was “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

        And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

  7. In the last few days I’ve been tempted to write a satirical post about God being racist because it was black people that had to suffer to bring people together in His name, and to reference also such things as the Holocaust and slavery to provide examples of where He’s done it in the past.

    I decided it was going a bit far given all the terrible suffering of those involved, but it would be nice if people could see their all loving god a bit more clearly.

    Reza Aslan doesn’t think taking advantage of a tragedy is taking it too far – he was on the Nightly Show complaining that people are forgiving Dylann Roof but not the Boston bomber.

    1. That is the forgiving thing is much more of a black religion thing. The Boston bomber has not gardnered much religious responses from the news media. The polls show that most people in Boston do not favor a death penalty, which is possible only because it is a federal trial and the federal still has a death penalty while the state of Massachusetts does not.

  8. BREAKING NEWS: Christian President gives Christian eulogy to Christian pastor at a Christian funeral.

    1. Please remember that all President’s have claimed to be religious. This is one no different. No surprise! But that does not mean that Obama is or ever was religious. I read his books and there is nothing to indicate that he ever was religious. As a community organizer in Chicago he had to be told that he should join a church to be effective. So he did. No mention of him ever going to church as an adult or no mention of the Bible and God or Jesus anywhere in his history from numerous sources. He is the first president to reach out to the nonbelievers, secularist, atheist, freethought community numerous times. I and others think there are compelling reason to believe he is a nonbeliever of some stripe! But he is a politician!

      1. In general, I think that sort of psychological analysis is misguided. But in this case, it’s simply wrong. I’ve read Obama’s books too, and he does mention attending Church once he became a community organizer in Chicago. I cursory google search also suggests that Obama began attending Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the late 1980’s, was baptized in 1988 and attended, at least sporadically, for about 20 years. Recall, that Obama got into a lot of trouble because of the controversial statements made by his pastor.

        In addition, the introductory quote from “Dreams from My Father” (written in 1995) is a Bible verse.

        I don’t know what Barack Obama REALLY believes. But he calls himself a Christian, and has been doing so for more than two decades.

  9. Of course it was very religious, and I wouldn’t have expected otherwise under the circumstances. The eulogy was for the pastor of a deeply religious church who had lost 9 of their beloved members in the most heinous way imagined. I thought it was the most powerful address President Obama has ever given and will go down in history that way. I was moved to atheist tears & applauded all the way through it, even though I personally don’t believe the goddy stuff. I can sit and listen to inspirational eulogies and be very moved, in spite of the God espoused therein. The points he made were jaw-dropping at times, and beautifully lyrical.

  10. I never quite know whether politicians are truly cynical opportunists or whether they really believe the stuff they spout…

    I’d like to think Obama is just working the black-church tool he honed long ago and stashed in his kit for such occasions.

    Then again, I’m never quite sure, with politicians, if they’re ever quite sure who it is they really are, what with all the identities they doff and don everyday. The danger (for them especially) is, as Kurt Vonnegut cautioned in Mother Night, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

  11. I was moved by the speech. And it’s important to note that he talked about the history of racism in America in a frank, straightforward manner that is often lacking in political discourse. I imagined what the speech would have been like without references to deities and it would still have been a good speech. He points out that the perp may have wanted to cause discord and enmity between ethnic groups, but that it had the opposite effect. That, instead of talking retaliation, people talked forgiveness and understanding in the midst of their sorrow. His immediate, if not his wider audience, was primed for a religious speech, but the message, stripped of god references could have been given by an atheist (with sufficient rhetorical powers!). I’m not sure how an atheist would have pulled off something similar to the references to ‘grace’ leading up to his singing ‘Amazing Grace’, a hymn that was important to the British abolitionist movement. Any suggestions?

    1. Yes! I could have done that and my singing voice is much better than President Obama’s that day. Of course maybe he had been giving talks elsewhere and he was getting hoarse? I rejected religion beginning at seven but was forced to go to church and was in my grade school choir and got invited to audition to sing for a christmas play at church and found out I had a fine voice and was encouraged to sing solos which I did and enjoyed. It did not mean that I believed that religious stuff. Politician have a group of speech writers and advisors and Obama is very bright and personal so I am sure he has learned how to promote himself as a politician and to plan his legacy.

  12. I am an atheist; however, I do not begrudge a believer for believing, especially if it gives him or her comfort. There are some that say they care about others and want them to deal in reality. But in my opinion, AfricN Americans have had enough reality for far too many years.

  13. The commenters here who say Obama was not pandering sure come across as though they have that opinion because they like him. None of you say his god talk improved your opinion of him or that it even buttressed your positive view of him. How about his decision this past week to allow families to negotiate with terrorists and even pay ransom without fear of prosecution? Did he do something good there too? As a person who has been ambivalent about Obama from the start, it looks to me like he’s absolutely pandering. When has he ever sounded like a baptist preacher before this past week? I’m surprised he didn’t do the Jesse Jackson rhyming in rhythm trick. He seems to suddenly want to do things that get people behind him and it frankly looks phony to me.

    1. How often does he address black congregations after nine of their members have been slaughtered by a racist?

      I think you are being remarkably tone-deaf and ethnocentric here. He was a black man giving a eulogy to a black congregation and expressing his unity with them in a powerful way. And, yes, it improved my opinion of him.

  14. I have not watched, listened to or read President Obama’s eulogy…yet. I do not begrudge
    him his use of language suited to the congregation he was speaking to. Many times believers have tried to show their sympathy for me when one of my loved ones died by offering religious sentiments or prayer. I accept that it is their highest form of regard for me.

    I, as an atheist, find it similarly difficult to express my sentiments in a way that is meaningful to them, without compromising my beliefs. But, we must be able, somehow, to give voice to our common humanity.

    As to the response of the congregation when President Obama sang “Amazing Grace”, as a former
    fundamentalist Christian, those old songs still
    resonate with me. I can’t help but pop to attention and am most likely to sing along or, at least, hum quietly. The music, architecture,
    art and literature of the church do not need to be jettisoned from the lives of nonbelievers.

    1. I think Obama has been a terrific President (compare where we are now to where we were when Bush left office), but I totally disagree with you on this point. I believe in an absolute separation of church and state, and I don’t want politicians (even a good Democratic one) anywhere near churches or talking about their god or anybody else’s god. Like you, however, I do appreciate it when believers offer religious sentiments or prayers – I understand that not everyone is an atheist and I try my best to respond appropriately.

  15. I don’t think Obama is a believer. The thing is the whole preacher thing goes hand in hand with American politics.
    His first big speech at the national conference was straight out of the civil rights preacher’s handbook: we are not blue states, we are not red states, we are the United States bla bla.
    He had the enunciation, the pausing. It was traditional religious technique at work.

  16. President or preacher man? I’m not sure if it’s good news or bad news but I sensed not an ounce of sincerity in Obama’s ill-conceived eulogy/sermon. Immensely disappointed.

  17. It seems the opinions on this one run all over the place. I always have a very hard time separating the politician from his trade. So when a politician shows up at a funeral or wake or whatever it is, you can be sure of plenty of religion positives. Who really knows how much is real and how much is pandering. Obama is a master politician just as Clinton was. They can work a room of any size. When the camera is on so are they.

    I do agree with one thing already said, it is too much mixing of politics and religion for me. Not just because I am an Atheist but also a person who would like much more separation as those founders intended.

    1. Indeed – you can also be religious and benefit equally from a secularist position. The biggest test is to see how much religion – specifically Christianity – a politician can be seen to endorse without contradicting the First Amendment (oh – I forgot – that happens all the time in Republican la la land).

  18. What was even worse than the speech was CNN’s coverage immediately after. They nearly went full scale revival meeting in their praise of it. Stopping just short of yelling Amens, Hallelujahs, and dancing in the aisles, with Don Lemon in the role pastor. I was so disgusted by the whole thing I had to shut it off after about 10 minutes.

    1. I wanted to add while trying not to be judgemental that I’m extremely surprised that there is so much difference of opinion here in the comments. Does personally liking Obama really excuse everything he says and does?

      1. What exactly did he say or do that requires “excusing”? The guy is a Christian who gave what appeared to be a heartfelt eulogy at a Christian service? What’s so horrid about that?

        1. “The guy is a Christian who gave what appeared to be a heartfelt eulogy at a Christian service?”

          He isn’t JUST a Christian he’s the president. Maybe CNN’s reaction to it made it worse. Don Lemon, and his guests were absolutely beside themselves with praise, and almost exclusively over his infusion of God into the speech. Talking about how he had finally made God a centerpiece of his presidency. It was literally nauseating.

      2. I have mixed feelings about the man. I like him and find his progressive approach a great relief from prior administrations. On the other hand, a have to wince quite often when he handles the necessary accommodations that are just part of the job.

  19. I suppose it would be cynical to reword Obama’s sentiments as saying the all-loving God once again accepted human sacrifices for a “good” that could reasonably be attained sans violence. I say “good” because I don’t find removal of a flag to be on par with the murder of innocent people. As person I know said with regard to the major chains such as WalMart banning Confederate flag sales, “Next time a racist fucker walks into a WalMart intent on purchasing guns and a Confederate flag to go on a killing spree, he’ll only be able to buy one of those things.”

    So again, I may be cynical, but what material good has come out of this that will actually change things going forward?

  20. Off subject just a bit but for Grania, if you are listening/watching.

    I thought of the song for Jerry’s road trip —

    MOVIN ON by Missouri

  21. When a plane crashes due to mechanical failure and kills all aboard on American soil, the FAA investigates. It is not religious, it is not a gender or culture or race or sexual preference issue. It is scientific procedures that make future planes better. For all I know the majority of FAA workers are Christian, they may well be, but I have never seen a report in the last fifty years which suggests people’s beliefs help keep the planes in the air.

  22. Well, I guess I like the idea that Obama said in effect that religion does not belong to the right wingers.

    One cannot expect more from a practicing politician in this country. What he did exceeds by far anything imaginable from any Republican.

    We are far from being a secular nation. Get over it.

  23. The main problem with the speech stems from the fact that:

    a) If God could have set the Charleston shooter in motion then he could also have prevented him from killing 9 – I repeat 9 – innocent people.

    b) The suggestion in the Slate piece that 9 people died – again I repeat so that 9 people had to die so that some Southern states could suddenly have a change of heart over their oppressive flag (as if extrajudicial lynching of innocent black men by crazed horse riders and centuries of slavery wasn’t enough of a justification).

    c) It makes it appear as if we could have done nothing to stop someone from walking into a church and opening fire – ever since the soul-searching of Sandy Hook makes that excuse look ever more impalpable.

  24. All their Imaginary Friend has to do is show up ! and that will put an end to all the arguments , I won’t hold my breath in anticipation of his appearance.

  25. Probably because I could never be a politician – I am not “middle of the road” in anything I can think of, therefore, not moderate in my views – bringing up god in a “church-like setting” is probably the most expedient thing one can do if you’re a black president “preaching to the choir.” Even if it is a eulogy.

    Ofttimes, when one of our “leaders” says or does something, I try to put myself in his or her position before I comment (like I’m doing now) just to get rid of the hypocritical tinge that might betray my true feelings. No way if I was in Obama’s shoes would I use my world view as the basis for Mr. Pinckney’s eulogy.

    You see, if I were POTUs, EVERY NIGHT would be the White House Correspondent’ Dinner night. I’d be “Roaster-in-Chief.”

  26. I’ve many times ranted (on Facebook) about how wrong it is for presidents to dip their toes into the pool of theology, leave alone jumping in headfirst. I maintain that position.

    But… I think the President’s eulogy was an amazing pice of rhetoric. He was blunt and honest about race, flags, bigotry, and guns. I’m not bothered by him breaking out in song. It was a stunning moment.

    As an atheist I can’t help feeling isolated when government leaders deploy gods in public comments. But I thought it a wonderful speech that could have been even better had he left out the deity.

  27. Currently watching “David Attenborough meets President Obama” on BBC1. Obama conducting an interview of sorts. Talking about the impact Attenborough’s programs had on him.

  28. Hitch once said something about not being so heartless as to try to remove someone’s religion as a source of comfort if that someone were on his or her deathbed. I think this situation, being in the peak of emotional shock and grief, is similar enough. Obama gave them what they needed. They can reconsider its validity later. Perhaps he gave them too much, just to inspire them to reconsider it later. “He doth protest too much.” (I can hope, can’t I?)

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