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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Is Obama’s Real “Faith Asset” His Ability to Speak the Language of American Civil Religion?

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Last June, at the Wharton Leadership Conference, Richard Greene, a well-known public speaking coach, offered his prediction that Barack Obama would win the Democratic nomination on the basis of his amazing strengths as an orator. Glossing over the fact that Greene said Romney would win the Republican nomination for the same reason (great speaking skills), Greene has been proved right. At the time, Greene argued that making great speeches is not about giving a performance, it’s about connecting with others. Of Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention, Greene said,

It didn’t sound like a normal political speech. He spoke from a place of pure nakedness, as if he were saying, ‘I’m not even giving a speech; let’s just connect.’

Greene is not the only one to point out Obama’s oratorical gifts. Juliet Eilperin wrote in Slate magazine back in January that Obama’s smoking habit, which deepens his already resonant voice, “could win him the presidency.” But listening to Hillary Clinton speak last night at Baruch College, where she did not concede defeat, and then listening moments later to Obama offer his nomination victory speech in a St. Paul stadium, I wondered if Obama’s ability to speak the language of “American civil religion” is what makes him such a powerful speech giver. (And what are candidates besides speech-givers?)

American Civil Religion is at once a concept that’s been ripped to shreds in academia and a concept so

Sociologist Robert Bellah
embedded in everyday culture that many people find it quite obvious. The idea, first presented by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, said that America has a special civil religion, one that is rooted in Christianity but national and democratic in its expression. He wrote:

Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.

To put it in less academic terms, Bellah quoted Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Freedom of religion and conscience — combined with America’s long-standing religious diverisity — means that private expressions of belief, such as saying “Jesus is Lord” during a presidential speech, are not appropriate for political leaders, but that political leaders must still be able to speak this language of civic faith. Bellah points to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, which was laced with references to God and the greater purpose of humanity, without any reference to his specific Catholic faith. And same for Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural address, and the Gettysburg address. And “In God We Trust” on our coins, etc. etc.

Interestingly, the discussion in this campaign about religion has hinged mostly around “specific” religion rather than “general” religion. That is, how good of a Methodist is Hillary Clinton, how does Mitt Romney explain his Mormon faith, how does Barack Obama relate to the black liberation theology of his former pastor? Yet what’s been lost in this discussion, perhaps, has been attention to the candidates’ command of this more elusive, more general faith language.

Obama’s speech last night in St. Paul certainly had elements of this “general” faith. He said (according to the text of his prepared remarks):

And because of what you said - because you decided that change must come to Washington; because you believed that this year must be different than all the rest; because you chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations, tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another - a journey that will bring a new and better day to America.

And then later:

In our country, I have found that this cooperation happens not because we agree on everything, but because behind all the labels and false divisions and categories that define us; beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington, Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes. And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.

True, these words do not contain 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.

Sen. Clinton at times disparaged Obama’s rhetoric as empty, saying in February:

We need to make a choice between speeches and solutions, because, while words matter greatly, the best words in the world aren’t enough unless you match them with action.

Clinton at Baruch College on June 3
But it seems like she bet wrong — speeches do matter, especially when you’re a candidate and speeches are pretty much all you have to offer. And at her speech last night at Baruch College, she offered rhetoric that remained very much rooted in the everyday life of working people, and indeed, this has been her strength throughout the campaign. She said:

Even when the pundits and the naysayers proclaimed week after week that this race was over, you kept on voting. You’re the nurse on the second shift, the worker on the line, the waitress on her feet, the small business owner, the farmer, the teacher, the miner, the trucker, the soldier, the veteran, the student, the hardworking men and women who don’t always make the headlines, but have always written America’s story.

And later:

I see you, and I know how hardworking you are. I’ve been fighting for you my whole adult life, and I will keep standing for you and working for you every single day.

Because in your courage and character, your energy and ingenuity, your compassion and faith, I see the promise of America every day. The challenges we face are great, but our determination is greater.

This 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.

I don’t mean to pile on here, now that Sen. Clinton has basically lost, but I do wonder if in all the punditry about religion in the campaign we’ve missed the obvious question, in asking, who has the strongest command of our most powerful language, that of American civil religion?

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  1. [...] 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 [...]

  2. [...] Is Obama’s Real “Faith Asset” His Ability to Speak the Language of American Civil Religion? : … “American Civil Religion” as an explanation for Obama’s rhetorical excellence. (tags: 2008 election obama) [...]

  3. [...] 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 [...]

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