Dallas speech reveals Obama as a theologian-in-chief

President Obama's vision of hope amounts to a form of faith, and his Dallas speech showed the theological underpinnings for it. 

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
President Obama (c.), his wife Michelle Obama, and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings sing during a memorial service Tuesday following the multiple police shootings in Dallas.

Again and again as president, Barack Obama has played the role of consoler-in-chief.

On Tuesday in Dallas, he incorporated another familiar role more conspicuously than usual: theologian-in-chief.

Speaking at first with a somber and quiet tone, Mr. Obama immediately invoked an idea central to monotheistic faiths, especially Christianity: In our sufferings, there is glory.

“Because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope,” Obama said. “Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see. Right now, those words test us because the people of Dallas, people across the country are suffering.”

That suffering was not simply because of the numbing aftermath of killings in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana last week, he said, but because of the seeming intractability of the tensions beneath them.

“We wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged,” he added. “We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”

In his speech, Obama sought to maintain a vision of meaning, even in the midst of confusion, doubt, and uncertainty – an assertion of faith.

On Tuesday, he offered a glimpse into the theological underpinnings for that faith – a belief that great things are often achieved over periods greater than human lifetimes and that the duty of each individual is to act, soberly and wisely, even in the face of enormous odds.

In Obama’s foreign policy, this longer-term view has often resulted in criticism that he has lacked urgency and “led from behind.” At home, critics have said the president promised more “change” than he delivered. 

But on Tuesday in Dallas, Obama sought to turn his religious views into a rallying call: The fight to overcome racial tension is long and the progress slow, but the need endures.

“I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence,” Mr. Obama said in front of some 2,500 public and law enforcement officials meeting in the city’s symphony hall to commemorate the five Dallas police officers shot and killed last week. “And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency.”

“I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” the president continued. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been. And so, I’m reminded of a passage in John’s Gospel, ‘Let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.’ ”

Frustrations and hope

At this point in Obama’s presidency, facing a polarized Congress, words are increasingly the only action left to him. By all accounts, he has poured himself into the task of his speeches, writing and revising much of them himself, as he works with his speechwriters.

And Tuesday was the 17th address he has given as president to console the nation after a mass shooting.

Yet even the frustrations inherent in that fact speak to Obama’s theology – and the basis for his hope.

As a senator in 2007, Obama expressed admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr, an early 20th century theologian. Explaining his attraction to Niebuhr, Obama told The New York Times:

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

The tension between hope and frustration, between unity and doubt, cascaded through Obama’s 40-minute speech, providing both a coda to the remaining months in office for the country’s first black president and a loudspeaker for the inner turmoil many Americans now feel as they seek to find a way forward.

But he always returned to exhortations for personal actions – to the need to reject “cynicism and inaction.” Both the nation’s law enforcement officials and Black Lives Matter activists, he said, must forge consensus and find the will to change.

“Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?” the president asked. “Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.”

Obama sought to show this spirit by inviting Sen. Ted Cruz, one of his fiercest Republican critics, to travel with him on Air Force One to the event in Dallas, where former President George W. Bush also made a rare official appearance.

America as a crucible for progress

In his book, “The Irony of American History,” Niebuhr wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

President Bush echoed some of the same ideas.

“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose,” he said. “But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit – by shared commitments to common ideals.”

Indeed, Obama cast America itself as a crucible for an intense inner struggle.

“We don’t always have control of things – not even a president does,” Obama said. “But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control or how we treat one another.”

“America does not ask us to be perfect, precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law,” he continued. “A democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like. America gives us the capacity to change.”

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