Last night, President Obama gave what may have been the best speech in his career at the Democratic National Convention. Better yet, Obama took us to church.
Obama in full preacher mode here.
— jelani cobb (@jelani9) July 28, 2016
Busy channeling Lincoln and bringing rhetorical thunder, Obama did drop into “full preacher mode,” more than once. It was a speech peppered with ringing crescendos, dense pauses, and those inimitable Obama casual asides.
But Obama’s most recent DNC speech didn’t merely show off the oratory skills that have characterized all of his great speeches on that stage. Every major speech the President has given has shared those hallmarks, but what happened last night was different. Obama did take us to church: he took us to the Church of America.
Obama’s speech was imbued with a faithful, steely sort of determination not to bend to the rhetorical fire-and-brimstone of the darker, fearmongering RNC speeches of Giuliani and Trump. What Obama preached, that is, was faith. Faith not in a God (though not at all exclusive of that kind of faith) but in America itself. As much as it is a real place, a nation, America is also a concept. America is a constellation of ideas that buying into requires a degree of faith. Americans, generally, have faith that equality and justice can prevail even when we see it failing. We believe the American dream is real, or, if we don’t, we belive there’s a grain of truth to the idea behind it. We tend to believe in American exceptionalism. We have near-religious reverence for phrases like “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. (All this is what sociologist Robert Bellah means when he refers to “civil religion,” as we mention in our manifesto.) Last night, in the face of fear and darkness, as a response to unprecedented disruptions of some of our most basic tenets about freedom and equality from the Right, our President got on stage and tried to remind us of our faith in the idea of America.
The President of the United States is literally making the case for democracy over authoritarianism. In 2016.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) July 28, 2016
Last night we saw Barack Obama defend his legacy. We saw him endorse Hillary Clinton vociferously, give special and earnest credit to the organization and passion of Bernie Sanders supporters, and we saw him take a some shots at Donald Trump. We even saw Obama, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out, defend democracy over authoritarianism. But in one critical respect, Obama’s speech was about far more than national electoral politics, or electoral politics at all.
The president delivered an endorsement: an endorsement of America as a concept. And he delivered a reminder that it’s OK to want to improve the U.S. while also believing in its ideals. Obama’s speech was a declaration of faith that such an abstract, ideal America exists (somewhere) and our real world is capable of progressing–even incrementally–toward that ideal. And that faith is nourishing; it sustains us. Because the American experiment requires a kind of faith: it isn’t always easy to believe the best about this nation, for a million reasons we all know and don’t need to list here. And when we begin to lose that faith, in the face of hatred and fear and violence, sometimes we need to go to church. I can only speak for myself: these days, it’s been a while since I had been to church. It was nice to pop in.