Andrew Finstuen on Obama’s Civil Faith

Over at Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Andrew Finstuen offers a response to the spiritual tones within President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, noting that the president summoned a unifying “civil faith” to lead the country through challenging times. Finstuen is author of Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety, just published in December. An excerpt from his thoughtful essay:

Many Americans share Obama’s faith in the American spirit, and thus they share in his American civil religion. Such a faith is in the tradition of the oldest political-religious narrative in American history. It is a variation on Puritan John Winthrop’s call for the settlers of colonial Massachusetts to be a “city on a hill” and a beacon to the world. Obama provided his most passionate articulation of this civil faith at the end of the speech, the only moment when the chamber fell completely silent, no doubt in homage to the “sacred” values of America. He noted that American leadership overseas “advances the common security and prosperity of all people,” and the United States takes such initiatives “because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores. But we also do it because it is right.”

Preaching this civil faith is a part of being president, and Obama is among the few presidents to preach it with a measure of humility. Like all good preachers, he implicated himself and his party in the sins that have led to the gridlock of Washington politics, prohibited the exercise of the American spirit, and reduced the federal government to a place “where every day is Election Day.” He also distinguished himself from some of his predecessors by explaining that the greatest realizations of the American spirit came as a consequence of making sacrifices in the face of enormous crisis.

This humility notwithstanding, President Obama’s civil faith in America clouded his judgment at a crucial point in the speech. He highlighted national security as the greatest source of unity in US history and lamented that the unity achieved after 9/11 “has dissipated.” It is one thing to suggest that war and armed conflict are permanent fixtures of history, as he did in his Nobel speech. It is an altogether different thing to champion the national cohesion that comes from it.

Read the full text of Finstuen’s comment at Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.