Why Obama Gave a Christian Speech Without Mentioning Jesus

In a nation built on the separation of church and state, the line a Christian president walked at a ceremony for a murdered Christian preacher

Concluding page of Epistle to the Hebrews, from 1611 edition of the King James Bible. President Obama began his recent "Grace" speech with a passage from this book. (Wikipedia)

Over the weekend I explained why I thought Barack Obama’s “Grace” speech, in eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others, was so rhetorically and politically effective. Yesterday I quoted readers on what they liked and didn’t about his presentation.

One who objected was an evangelical Christian. I had said I was struck by the president’s easy use of explicitly Christian language and references in the speech. The reader said he was struck by the absence of one word in the speech: Jesus.

Other readers reply on that point. First, from someone who asks that she be identified as “another reader with an evangelical background”:

Having been spellbound by the sermon Obama preached in Charleston on Friday, I've been following closely the analysis of it and am grateful you chose to weigh in, and also to publish readers' views on its impact. I wouldn't have written in myself, but I did want to bring up something in connection with your evangelical correspondent's observation that Obama did not explicitly refer to Jesus Christ in his sermon, and your observation that he was comfortable enough with Scripture to reference his text without citing it.

I noticed that Obama accomplished three things by alluding to Hebrews 11 as his text to preach from (and I can't think of his speech as anything but a sermon or his performance as anything but preaching, because that's what it was).

1) By likening the Nine to the heroes of faith who "did not receive what was promised but saw it from a distance," Obama invoked the spirituality of the struggle of black American Christians and asserted its legitimacy -- an assertion that was understood by his immediate audience and introduced to the wider audience.

2) He brought into the picture the preceding sequence in the letter to the Hebrews that leads up to this passage, which is a densely-argued case for the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all other powers and authorities. Again, in the struggle of black Christians in America, Jesus' supremacy is vital, first because it comes from his suffering (and his presence with them in their suffering), and also because Jesus' supremacy surpasses all the other supremacies that are currently acting as the oppressor. Jesus is Lord, which means nobody else is.

Obama doesn't need to invoke this explicitly -- he's come among the congregation of Mother Emanuel without the credentials of all those pastors behind him. He's not going to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. Nor is he going to test the attention span of those who don't know or care about Christian theology. But he's surely aware that this passage is a double-edged sword (also a phrase from Hebrews) and presents a challenge to those who know Scripture and might say "Jesus is your Lord, and I am too."

3) And lastly, he reminds his biblically-literate hearers of the passage that follows directly from Hebrews 11: "Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw aside all weight, and the sin that clings so closely, and run with patience the race that is set before us. Let us look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God."

He did all that without any heavy-handed exegesis, which is remarkable in itself. His aim, or one of them, was to refresh the spirits of grieving and struggling Christians, and to articulate their state of grace in the presence of all the people. So your evangelical reader may think his motives for preaching are discredited by his failure to use directly the name of Jesus Christ -- but even without that direct reference, the Gospel was most certainly preached, which as Paul tells the Philippians, is all that matters.

When I wrote back to ask the reader how she would like to be identified, she mentioned her church background and added:

I'm increasingly grateful for the drilling in Scripture I got in my childhood, though I no longer share most evangelicals' theological outlook or hermeneutic. And I've been following Obama's speeches very closely from the beginning.

I was struck very forcibly in this case by the distance between Philadelphia and Charleston, from the seat of the Revolution to the seat of the Rebellion, from "let's have an honest conversation about race" to "we don't need more talk." It's arguable whether that's progress, but I think it was always going to get worse before it got better, and it's certainly a transformation, not least in Obama himself.

From another reader who identifies herself as a Christian, on the absence of “Jesus” in a Christian speech:

As a Christian, I think it’s really hard to claim that Obama's speech is not deeply Christian. I know a lot of Christians through my mom’s (liberal) church, and some of them talk primarily about Jesus, some of them talk primarily about God. For Obama, especially in a context where his speech is intended to speak directly to this audience but also to everyone, regardless of religion, it makes sense to talk in terms of God—making the speech much more universal than, and just as valid as, talking about Jesus.

A lot of people will immediately tune out if Jesus is mentioned, because suddenly the speech will seem Christian in an exclusive way. Here, Obama delivered a deeply Christian speech that included rather than excluded non-Christians.

From another reader on the same theme, about this “wonderfully crafted eulogy”:

We see that now was the recurring coda, both the extended chorus and the lesson derived from Amazing Grace. You would be hard pressed to discover as powerful a discursion on grace outside of Divinity School. Personally, Obama's running narrative about the intrinsic value and power of grace reminded me of those two great purveyors of redemptive grace in fiction--Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac.

And, finally for now, from a reader who identifies himself as a “culturally Jewish atheist” on the Christian tone of the speech:

I was not surprised by the supportive comments, as this was no doubt the finest speech I've heard by a president (I'm 63, so that gets me back easily to Nixon, a bit of a stretch and we can include Johnson). But the comments by the evangelical Christian and the born southerner who has worked in politics reminds me that no matter what Obama says or does, he'll be criticized. ("Sure he walks on water, but did you see how much he splashes?")

Regarding the failure to mention Jesus Christ in the eulogy: yes, he was eulogizing a preacher, but he is still the President of the United States and while his comments may have been incredibly personal, they are inseparable from his position as president.

As much as evangelicals may think otherwise, we are not a "Christian nation". We grant no special recognition to any religion. Obama walked an incredibly fine line with his theme of grace and God's role in grace.  That he was able to speak for over 30 minutes on this theme and not offend your atheist writer (or me, a culturally Jewish atheist) is a tribute to the balance he struck. Had he brought in Jesus Christ, he would have been excluding all the atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and on and on.

As to the southerner [the final reader I quoted previously], I don't even know where to begin. Obviously this writer hates Obama and everything he stands for. He hates him so much that he couldn't accept your praise for one of the finest pieces of oratory in modern American politics.

As to his listing of Obama's failures, he seems to forget that the President doesn't rule by fiat (as much as Republicans claim he does). Blaming Obama for the Great Recession, income inequality, job losses - all these would be laughable if they were not so tragic….

As to the claim that the traditional advocates for the poor have stilled their voices rather than "help Republicans", what Republican efforts on behalf of the poor is he talking about? Cutting back welfare? Eliminating food stamps? Denying Medicaid expansion?

I'm utterly baffled by the segue to James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Jon Steward. (Correctly spelled here.) I guess Obama is to blame for America going to hell in a handbasket, right down to who our progressives are. But if he doesn't think that Jon Stewart stands up for the "left behind", he really hasn't been paying attention. Sure, Stewart makes a lot of money and no doubt lives in a nice house or apartment, but anyone watching the show can't miss his empathy for the dispossessed. His efforts on behalf of 9/11 first responders humiliated Congress into doing the right thing. His criticism of the VA system has communicated the problem better than any other news source in America…

It's too bad these writers couldn't set aside their agendas long enough to marvel in such a remarkable speech.