My friend told me last night that I needed to watch Obama’s farewell address. To lure me to watch it, she wrote, “He was excellent. More of a Christian than a president. It was lovely.”
So I tuned in this morning. She’s right, he was channeling a lot of faith in his speech!
I’ll start by saying the man is a gifted orator. I find his candor and tone quite compelling. I might sound like a fanboy, but I do learn something just about public speaking from him. And the sermon he offered, because I do think it is a sort of preaching, was well-balanced, organized, had a good introduction and nice conclusion. Watching him is like taking a class in homiletics.
He began by articulating his main point: “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” He stays on that point the whole time. His whole speech kept hitting that point.
Obama clearly articulated the “theology” of the United States. He quotes the sacred scriptures of the land, particularly the Declaration of Independence. He called the U.S. exceptional and heralded the nation as the “wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.” After listing his accomplishments (diplomacy with Iran, health care, marriage quality, killing terrorists) he praises the people of the nation for accomplishing them along with him.
He articulated his vision and understanding for the United States clearly. His language is so grandiose it’s not a stretch to say that he declared the United States a Messianic messenger ready to save the world. The bulk of his speech was about threats to the salvific power of democracy. And even though I disagree with his premise, it is noteworthy that he is channeling faith and salvation as the basis of his speech.
I found myself agreeing with many of the threats of democracy that he listed. He names greed and income inequality as sins that threaten democracy. Though he puts more trust in Adam Smith’s invisible hand than I would, he did say, “stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.”
Though he praised the racial progress that the U.S. has made, he was decidedly dissatisfied with the state of things. I agree with him. Racism is still a sin whose film covers everything in the United States. Jesus is transcending the identities that Barack is trying to bridge. My favorite line from his speech: “laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.” He’s right. We need a transformation of our hearts, minds, and bodies to bring about the Pauline vision of the New Humanity. He was trying to unite the U.S. diverse population with a call to empathy, speaking to all sorts of people. Granted, he was binding them as Americans, instead of one in Christ, but he did offer this simple truth: “We have to pay attention and listen.”
In his own words, he told us to resist a “post-truth” society. He pushed back against partisan “selective sorting of the facts.” I was happy to see him deconstructing postmodernity, but less than happy when he spoke about the “order” of the United States that is so readily threatened by others.
He minces no words: the United States is the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. It’s “an order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.”
He clearly articulates the content of the vision he has for the U.S. It’s very telling to me. And he names the foreign governments that are threats to it. And his solution to these problems and to these nation allude to militarism. He praises the fact that he’s killed “tens of thousands of terrorists” (no mention of the innocents he killed, or his extensive drone program, or even after singing “Amazing Grace,” his administration recommended death for Dylan Roof).
The thesis of his speech is simple: what holds the U.S. together is faith in it. In an era where people are rightfully losing hope in the institution of democracy, in the sacred text of the Constitution, Barack, in his final address, is trying to bring them back. The biggest threat to democracy he said is “whenever we take it for granted.” He went to praise the Constitution and George Washington, and he called on the people to “preserve” the truth of self-government with “jealous anxiety.”
He’s trying to preserve the institution. He’s offering an elaborate apology for U.S. liberalism and democracy, in an era where people are losing hope in it. He praised citizen as the most important office in democracy. He told us that he needed us to participate, organize, and even run for office. He railed against cynicism against his civil religion and its institutional structures. The faith he articulates is placed in “ordinary Americans” to bring about change (his world for “salvation”).
It was a truly heartfelt speech. And like I said I learned a lot. Obama’s named some great evils that Christians should be interesting in fighting too. His point, of course, was that the best way to fight those sins was to preserve the democracy that we had, one that might be crumbling.
I don’t share the same hope in the state or in its institutions. My trust and pride is in Jesus, in his Church, and his Body. I appreciated Pastor Obama’s sermon to the nation, trying to get them reengaged in the mission of the country. As a pastor and a Christian, that little speech taught me a lot.