Sometimes, Barack Obama can give a really great speech. Other times, however, President Obama merely ends up giving a speech that sounds as if it were written in front of a mirror, with Obama imagining himself giving a great speech. At these times, what at first sounds like eloquence reveals itself as little more than puffed up babble, the political equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card.
This was the case with Barack Obama’s address to the nation this week, given as always on Saturday. This week, Obama focused on the meaning of Easter, and so he brought out his inner preacher, and gave a sermon about all the wonderful lessons that all the world’s religions teach us, simultaneously, somehow.
Twisting theological metaphors into great swooping knots of rhetoric, Obama started by conflating Passover and Easter, and then threw these holidays them into a great global religious mishmash. Obama declared,
“These are two very different holidays, with their two very different traditions, but it seems fitting that we mark them both during the same week, for in a larger sense, they are both moments of reflection and renewal. They’re both occasions to think more deeply about the obligations we have to ourselves, and the obligations we have to one another, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what faith we practice. This idea, that we’re all bound up, as Martin Luther King once said, in a single garment of destiny, is a lesson of all the world’s great religions, and it has never been more important for us to reaffirm that lesson than it is today, at a time when we face tests and trials unlike any that we’ve seen in our time: An economic crisis that recognizes no borders, violent extremism that has claimed the lives of innocent men, women and children from Manhattan to Mumbai, an unsustainable dependence on foreign oil and other sources of energy that pollute our air and water and threaten our planet, the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons, the persistence of deadly disease, and the recurrence of age old conflicts.”
Let’s start with the start. Yes, Easter and Passover are very different holidays, but they both come from the same tradition. If it “seems fitting” to Barack Obama that the two holidays come at the same time every year, perhaps he ought to reflect that Easter is an historical outgrowth of the celebration of Passover. In most languages, Christians call Easter “Passover”. So, is it really a great surprise that Christian Passover and Jewish Passover are at about the same time? They coincide, but this timing is not mere coincidence that reveals some kind of deeper universal truth – it’s an artifact of the history of a very small group of people.
How can President Obama jump from the particularities of Passover and Easter to the general lesson that these two holidays join in with “all the world’s great religions” to show that we have obligations to ourselves and other people “no matter who we are, where we come from, or what faith we practice”? The Easter story has been used for centuries as a justification for anti-semitism by Christians who love to rant that the Jews killed Jesus, and preach that salvation can only come to those who accept Jesus as their lord, with everyone else damned to eternal torture. Those Christians who would preach that it doesn’t matter “what faith we practice” are in a shrinking minority within their religion.
The Passover story is no more inclusive. It’s the celebration of divine biological warfare, a deadly plague inflicted by God against little babies of the Egyptians, but not the Jews. In the story of Passover, it matters very very much who you are, where you come from and what faith you practice. In what “larger sense” does Barack Obama think that story teaches us all a lesson about obligation to each other in spite of our differences?
If Barack Obama is going to use the Presidency to engage in religious sermons, then I’d really like to hear him expound upon the idea of what our destiny is. What destiny are we “bound” to, Mr. Obama, and how do you know what this destiny is? Have you been reading Nostradamus?
Then comes my favorite phrase of the sermon, the one that tells us that this is “a time when we face tests and trials unlike any that we’ve seen in our time”. This time when we’re seeing things we’ve never seen in our time, Obama says, is characterized by the persistence of deadly disease, and the recurrence of age old conflicts. How is it possible to have persistent diseases and age old conflicts that we’ve never seen in our time?
What’s President Obama going to tell us next? That the future has already begun? It seems that Obama has a little difficulty distinguishing between now and then, forever and never before.
Spare me, President Platitude. you can take your garment of destiny and shove it.
I would have a more charitable reaction to Barack Obama’s slippery incoherence if this sermon of his had not come just one day after Obama sent his lawyers out to declare that he has the power to imprison people without the most basic of legal rights, habeas corpus. How, I wonder, does depriving people of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution fit into the idea that we all have obligations to one another, no matter where we come from?