Below is an article by a professor of mine, Jon Pahl, reflecting on President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. It was posted at the interesting blog “Religion in American History”. The president challenged us immensely during his first moments in the office. The debate on how religion fits into public life and politics will certainly continue. Jon Pahl offers a worthwhile contribution to the conversation.
Religion’s Role in the “New Era of Responsibility”
by Jon Pahl
Barack Obama’s inaugural speech signaled a fascinating new twist on an old role for religion in American culture. Platitudes of civil religious discourse, exploited so effectively by recent administrations–“sacrifice,” “God’s gift of freedom,” and the ritual invocation of God’s blessing on America–were present, but muted. Obama’s chief theme was that religions provide people with spiritual strength to be responsible citizens; to work for the common good.
This was not a speech about mystical union with some millennial destiny. Indeed, Obama’s clear articulation that “God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny” means that history is up to us. What America will be depends upon what we do, not what some hidden hand might provide.
This was a speech about the spirituality of work. “What is required of us,” the 44th President intoned, “is a new era of responsibility–a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.” The President here argued that it is through our common work that humans find spiritual fulfillment, this side of eternity.
No less than ten times Obama invoked “work,” “works,” or “workers.” “Everywhere we look, there is work to be done.” It is not in “worn out dogmas” that one can find the American spirit, he asserted, but “the faith and determination of the American people” is evident in “the kindness to take in a stranger . . . the selflessness of workers . . . [a] firefighter’s courage.” “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
The last line–an oblique reference to a Langston Hughes poem, might seem to invoke the old Horatio Alger version of the Protestant ethic. In fact, Obama’s religious foundation was intentionally pluralistic. ‘We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus–and non-believers.” Such a “patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.” But if and when people of faith commit to work together with unbelievers toward a vision of a more just and virtuous common good, we might see how “old hatreds shall someday pass;” how “lines of tribe shall soon dissolve;” how “our common humanity shall reveal itself;” and how “America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
“There is in such a vision plenty of the old American millennialism. But the stronger voice was this practical assertion: “greatness is never given. It must be earned.” And this pragmatic question: it is “not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
The world Barack Obama addressed with this speech was not just the American nation and its future. Invoking George Washington’s words at Valley Forge, it was “the future world” broadly envisioned that he had in mind. And that meant that Americans needed to “set aside childish things,” in the words of Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth. It was time to get to work enacting the substance of faith, hope, and love–beyond mere rhetoric of sounding gongs and clanging cymbals that had merely sustained the wealthy–“those who prefer leisure over work”–under a cloak of religious pretense.