Obama’s oratory and American civil religion

June 5, 2008

Senator Barack Obama at the College of Southern Nevada, 27 May 2008/Steve MarcusThere’s been so much emphasis on Barack Obama’s “pastor problems” and his quitting his church that a key religion element in his campaign gets overshadowed. Obama isn’t just a polished speaker. He’s shown he’s fluent in the language of American civil religion, the non- denominational set of beliefs that has been a source of inspiration for great U.S. orators like Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.

Andrea Useem has posted an interesting analysis of Obama’s oratory on her Religion Writer blog. Taking his speech in St. Paul at the end of the primaries as an example, she noted that he didn’t make any direct references to God. “But in speaking about hopes and aspirations as a defining political force, he somehow tapped that vein of civil religion, implying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that the greatest campaigns are those based on the inner human spirit.”

By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s “message of grit and sweat and labor obviously resonates with the ‘hard work’ ideal of America, but at the same time, that message may be too leaded, too rooted, to soar into the realm of inspiring political rhetoric.”

This raises an interesting question about American political culture. Do U.S. orators have to tap into this civil religion to be inspiring?


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I’m not convinced that tapping into the language of civil religion is necessary to be inspiring, but that tapping into a greater ideal that requires an element of faith (as in leaping into an unknown and trusting that events will be directed with wisdom and interest on behalf of the greater good) and vision — religious or not — are meaningful for people. It just happens to be that religious rhetoric lends itself most successfully to speaking this way. Additionally, I think that those who respond most positively to Obama believe that there is integrity behind his words; that he believes in what he is saying rather than saying it for political gain.

Posted by Emily | Report as abusive

I think the same idealism and blind faith that found all of us Americans on boats and planes to come live here is the same force that does make us respond to oratory like Obama’s. And I agree with Emily that his backers do believe he is sincere. I’m one of those.

Posted by Camille | Report as abusive

I agree with Emily. If the language of civil religion is the language of faith in the greater good and the avoidance of specific dogmatic rantings, then I think for that reason Obama has not only inspired hope in his many and varied supporters, but has the ability to inspire action to further that hope… and after all, isn’t the mark of a true leader to inspire rather than to manage, coerce or use force?

Posted by Rachel | Report as abusive

Everybody can wax poetic all they want about Obama, but he has no experience and no one has given me a good reason to vote for him. In a choice between someone who knows what he’s doing and someone who doesn’t, who would you let fix your car?
More so run the country. No way I’m voting for Obama.

Posted by George | Report as abusive

OK enough about experience George, he job is that of a figurehead and also a manager. He will have as all other USA presidents have a solid group of experts in every field know to human kind in the like of his cabinet. Bush’s son the one who is sitting in the white now can not compare on any level to Obama.He actaul had to take his own test in school, oh yeah he did show up at work and he can speak standard english “way”better than the current guy taking up space in the white house. Fellow Americans the standard has been lower for everything as it relates to the white house these pass eight years. Obama will bring back a level of repsect that is missing as of now. We cannot also forget the Bill Cliton mess which also lower the white house imagine. Cant find my glasses to review, please for give any and all mistakes!

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Obama’s win has been referred to as a ‘Symbol for Black Americans’. So if McCain wins, would that make him a ‘Symbol for White Americans’?

Posted by Elna | Report as abusive

Politics is authoritative allocation of values. it is who get what, where, when and how.I hope the world will learn from american’s election.

Posted by TEMI | Report as abusive

As a Brit and an atheist I would dearly like to see someone rational in the white house. I suspect that Obama is a liberal, a freethinker and only religious to the extent that America is too superstitious a culture to accept an unbeliever. More power to him, I only wish I was in a position to cast a vote.

Posted by Steve Bowen | Report as abusive

George -

Abraham Lincoln had THE SAME experience as Obama, and he mended a nation and is typically rated the best president in US history. Conversely James Buchanan had 20+ years experience in congress and was one of the worst. Political experience is a VERY poor measure of presidential success. Don’t believe me? The proof’s in the numbers:
http://www.electoral-vote.com/evp2008/In fo/experience.html
The best presidents (Lincoln, FDR, Reagan) are those that inspire the people to make the Country better. Obama does just that.

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

It is hard to answer the question of effectivness of ‘civil religion’. It seems that it might be called ‘humanism’. I take Barack Obama as being Christian as was certainly Abraham Lincoln. But yes, by avoiding mentioning the name of Jesus Christ one can describe the precepts and inspirations and create wonderful rhetoric which will translate positively without mixing politics and religion or disturbing any sensitive atheists. Barack Obama is a sheer genius in political science and diplomacy, but does he read Balzac in French? That bothers me.

Posted by Carole H. | Report as abusive

No – they certainly do not!

I recently tried to explain to two Jehovah’s Witnesses why I do not believe in God, but met with the same response: I must be possessed or something.

They left without their peculiar faith shaken and with their weird penchant for labelling people well and truly in order.

They seem happy to preach condemnation and tell people they were going to hell. If it gives them pleasure – fine.

But, if that’s religion – you can keep it.

Seriously, religion and governance DO NOT mix at all: look around at all the world’s examples. The Taliban is an extreme example, for sure, but you must get my drift. And the Pope STILL condemns the dirt poor to lives of multiple pregancies, appalling mortality rates in babies and infants, and life of misery for those denied access to contraception via papal edicts.

Why do you think the human rights laws conflict with many religions? It is obvious.

Religion is and always should be a personal right and choice – not a set of laws and edicts that society must accept.

AND we must all be protected against the negative aspect of of ANY religion – not just churches that are supposed to be based on the doctrine of Jesus Christ, but which have been subsumed by intractable dogmas that not only conflict with human rights laws – but even with the doctrine of Jesus Christ, de facto.

I hope Obama keeps religion OUT of politics.

It has its place and I respct anyone who is religious – but not in the Whitehouse, please!

Posted by The Truth Is... | Report as abusive

Maybe tapping into the language of civil religion is Obama’s way of confronting the politicism of the religious right. Using their language to bring the focus back to the issues we need to concern ourselves with as a nation?….it just might work!

Posted by Pat B. | Report as abusive

June 5th, 2008
11:58 pm GMT Everybody can wax poetic all they want about Obama, but he has no experience and no one has given me a good reason to vote for him. In a choice between someone who knows what he’s doing and someone who doesn’t, who would you let fix your car?
More so run the country. No way I’m voting for Obama.

- Posted by George
Reply to George

You have that right. You sound very angry, but I hope that back the right person. We cannot take eight more years of Bush/McCain policy. Now here is a question. If you were a Clinton fan and she ask to vote for Obama, what would do.

Posted by Jim Maddox | Report as abusive

Civil religion is complicated with no set definition.

Let’s keep things simple, shall we?

This is what I have time for…

Mr. Lincoln on November 19, 1863:
…that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Mr. Kennedy on January 20, 1961:
…we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change…Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty…

Mr. Obama on June 3, 2008:
…America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love…


Posted by Jack | Report as abusive