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Reverend Obama's Historic Sermon

The religious underpinnings of the President's call to political action

When President Obama broke out into “Amazing Grace,” to the astonishment of millions who were watching and would watch his speech on Friday, it was a moment when the spiritual and the political became indistinguishable. Our nation’s first black president was moved to sing an anthem written by a former slavetrader-turned-abolitionist, to honor a black leader who was slain by white hate, who presided over a church whose own founder was executed for planning a slave revolt nearly 200 years ago. Obama’s moving eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney wasn’t only to heal and unify America in the face of tragedy. It was a call to take action and change public policy out of a duty to God. And it was embedded in the lyrics of  “Amazing Grace” itself, which, as James Fallows points out, Obama used to frame his entire speech: “Was blind / but now I see.”

Obama’s speech in Charleston on Friday reflected a deep sense of spiritual gratitude that undergirds a politics of hope—one that has a long history in the black church, but which the president has never embraced in such nakedly religious terms. He explained the Christian concept of grace, which holds that we have neither earned nor deserved it, but it has been bestowed upon all of us through “the free and benevolent favor of God.” He spoke of the manifestation of that grace in the days after the shooting, when the most heinous acts were met not by hate, but by forgiveness, generosity, and national introspection.

In other words: We are still blessed. And, Obama continued, the only way to continue to do justice to that gift is to right what the tragedy has shown us is wrong. “We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same,” the president said, to a rising response from the crowd. He added later: “It is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

It's a sentiment that Obama expressed with great emotion. But his religious call to action is deeply seated in changing flawed policies and institutions. His very first example was the decision by South Carolina lawmakers to take down the Confederate Flag, given the painful history of subjugation it represents. “By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace,” he concluded. “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to be way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now.”

It’s a path to righteous living that may unsettle more secular Americans—including some of Obama’s own supporters—who are wary about any calls to shape political institutions in the name of God. After decades of fighting the Christian right on social issues, rank-and-file liberals are quicker to reject the intrusion of religion into public life than welcoming it into the party on a national stage. 

But Obama’s speech also delivered a broad sense of awe and the promise of transcendence that lay at the heart of his original political vision while running for office, and that has drained out of our politics since then. In his breakout 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama played up the communitarian ethics of Christianity (“I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper”) and religious Democrats (“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states”). The title of his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, came from a sermon given by his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. 

During election season, Obama's spiritual side was only one part of his broader appeal and, for many Democrats, easy to overlook, particularly after the controversy surrounding Rev. Wright made it a less politically friendly topic. On Friday, however, it wasn’t Candidate Obama’s promise of political transcendence—uniting red states and blue states, liberal America and conservative America—but Reverend Obama’s promise of moral absolution as Christianity sees us: as flawed humans who’ve been blessed without earning it, and people who should express that gratitude through just acts. That’s been the great source of strength for a black church like Emanuel AME that has sustained a community that has been subjected to such deep suffering. And Obama is trying to be the bearer of hope once again by channeling that spiritual tradition into policy action.  

In his speech, he expanded his call to action to the broader forms of institutional racism that have exacerbated economic injustice and inequality—the causes at the heart of Christian liberation theology, whose proponents have sought to uplift the poor across the globe. Obama drew particular attention to the ways that racial discrimination can seep into hiring practices, which has been a major focus of his administration’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” he explained. 

Obama finally addressed the “unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts.” But he didn’t simply renew his call for new gun control measures, but also explained that doing so would make us more worthy in the eyes of God. “The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners want to do something about this. We see that now,” he said. “And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”

Obama believes that we prove ourselves worthy of God’s benevolence through the choices and changes that we make, and that the most urgent changes happen through the hard slog of policy reform. Obama himself bristled at the triumph of words over action. “Every time something like this happens, somebody says, ‘We have to have a conversation about race.’ We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. We don’t need more talk,” Obama said. 

The president’s eulogy, of course, was a continuation of that conversation about race. But it was also more than simply rhetoric: It continued the late Reverend’s own work in bridging words and action through his faith, in the tradition of prophetic witness. As a state senator and a pastor, Pinckney saw little difference between the church pulpit and the bully pulpit.

“Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant,” Obama said during Pinckney’s eulogy. “But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of AME Church.” Pinckney continued the long history of black civil rights leaders who've come out of the church, including not only Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., but also Denmark Vesey, the co-founder of Emanuel AME Church, who was executed after planning a slave revolt in 1822.

As a lawmaker, Pinckney also dealt with the gritty process of passing legislation. Weeks before his death, he gave a speech on the statehouse floor recalling the story of Thomas in the New Testament. His colleagues credited that speech for helping to galvanize support for the passage of body-camera legislation that he helped sign into law just a week before he was killed. 

“It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again, once the eulogies have been delivered once the TV cameras have moved on, to go back to business as usual,” Obama said. “That’s what we so often do, to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudices that still infect our society, to settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change.” 

The oratorical power of Obama’s speech led many to speculate about his potential post-presidential role in politics and policymaking. But it’s also difficult to see many other political figures on the left taking his lead. Democrats generally are less likely to be religiously affiliated than their Republican counterparts, and the millenial generation even less so. As Buzzfeed’s Joel Anderson explains, Pinckney himself was an outlier for embracing “faith-based, left-wing politics” at a time when many black politicians are “post-partisan technocrats.” That includes Obama himself: For much of his time in office, it’s been Professor Obama—not the Reverend President

But inspiration has to come from somewhere, especially since the path to change necessarily runs through our decidedly non-transcendent politics. Obama’s eulogy came at the end of an extraordinary week of Supreme Court decisions that ushered in sweeping political progress: Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and Obamacare is here to stay. But those victories were only possible because of the gay rights movement’s political success in changing state laws across the country, and Democrats’ political success in sweeping control of Congress as well as the White House. 

Just a week earlier, in a very different set of remarks, Obama openly admitted that the political consensus to reform gun control simply doesn’t exist right now. “[T]he politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it,” he said. The press immediately piled on to lament Obama’s “surrender” on gun control in a moment of apparent resignation. But failing to acknowledge those political obstacles to fighting injustice is tantamount to pretending them don’t exist. And we will need leaders, movements, and advocates who are able to consolidate enough political power to break through those political barriers, which continue to fuel resignation, cynicism, and political disengagement—a kind of spiritual disillusionment. 

“We have a lot of fancy forums and galas and town hall meetings, and this meeting and that meeting, where we talk, we talk, we talk. Meanwhile, our young people aren’t connected,” said Munir Bahar, a 34-year-old community activist, told me at a forum on poverty in Baltimore last week, frustrated by the lack of action in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.

A call for social change that fails to seek the political tools to enact them will just be more talk, no matter how divinely inspired the rhetoric. And it means convincing more Americans that sweeping change isn’t always damned to fail.