Paul Kengor on President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech

My friend and Director of the Center for Vision and Values, Paul Kengor, wrote an analysis of President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech. As I listened to Obama’s speech, I was distracted in a positive way by his reference to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. However, I also noted the President’s references to civility and hope he means it as more than rhetoric. And like Paul, I loved the reference to the Imago Dei – seeing the Face of God in each other.

God and Man at the National Prayer Breakfast

By Dr. Paul Kengor 

President Obama spoke yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast. I’ve long studied the sitting president’s remarks at these breakfasts, particularly President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President Ronald Reagan. I note this to hopefully lend a little credibility in putting my observations into historical context, while also not avoiding the current political climate—as Obama certainly did not.

This is an ecumenical gathering, and Obama was precisely that, warmly acknowledging the different faiths assembled. On the other hand, Obama was so ecumenical that he never once mentioned “Jesus” or “Christ” or called himself a follower of Jesus Christ or a Christian. It wasn’t as if the president was pinched for text; this was a 2,000-word oration, with numerous figures mentioned.

The most common figure in this speech was Barack Obama. In a 17-minute address, one that included the word “humility,” Obama referred to himself 30 times. He thereby continued the brisk pace of at least one self-reference per minute on rapid display in his lengthy State of the Union address the previous week.

On the plus side, the president several times referred to “God,” including “God’s grace,” “God’s mercy,” and the phrase “for the grace of God go I.” He also used the word “Christian” once—in reference to the truly God-sent abolitionist Wilberforce. This section was excellent. Obama stated: “Remember William Wilberforce, whose Christian faith led him to seek slavery’s abolition in Britain.

Here was a poignant reminder by Obama, one the angry secular left—which voted for Obama stronger than almost any group (see “I’m Pagan and I Vote”)—needs to hear repeatedly, as it blames Christianity for every sin under the sun over the last 1,000 years. For Obama to highlight the indispensable role of Christians in ending slavery is a splendid rejoinder to the “God-Is-Not-Great” crowd. Bravo, Mr. President.

Unfortunately, where Obama went next in the speech troubles me somewhat. He spoke of “crimes of conscience that call us to action.” No doubt, my bias studying Bush and Reagan reflexively leads me to expect moving words to follow on the sanctity and dignity of human life. That was my inclination when I heard President Obama speak of “common humanity,” “denied … humanity,” and “life’s most sacred responsibility.” In this speech, however, the “right to life,” or the essentially dignity of all life, was not mentioned.

Of course, this is not a surprise. President Obama did likewise in his Inaugural, heralding “liberty and equality” but not “life and liberty”—words akin to the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man but not the American Revolution’s Declaration of Independence (see “Viva La Revolucion”).

Instead, Obama headed to the theme of his address. The progressive president, immediately after underscoring “crimes of conscience,” spoke of “progress” three consecutive times; indeed, “progress” or “progressive” appeared five times in this speech. (Click here for our upcoming conference on progressives.) That’s fitting, given that it’s Obama’s progressive agenda that is defining his presidency and has drawn the lines of distinction between him and his opponents, and has naturally fueled the political-ideological division enflaming the current landscape. Such divisions understandably arise when one charts a sharp new course, an unmistakable agenda of “change.”

Yet, instead of accepting the differences, Obama went back to a tried-and-true political tactic he has used artfully. He repeatedly preached an end to “division” (three times), the need to find “common ground” (twice)—a brilliant tactic he has employed with Religious Left progressives, including those breathtakingly naïve Catholics at Notre Dame who invited him to speak—and urged “civility” (eight times).

President Obama has employed this rhetoric incessantly while (in practice) never veering from a hard-left agenda. This means that common ground can be found only if the other side comes to his side. It’s a common ground that occupies only one side of the fence.

And yet, Obama said much more. He denounced the practice of demonizing opponents. This raised a few eyebrows. Consider:

Barack Obama is an ardent disciple of Saul Alinsky, his fellow Chicagoan and the father of community organizing. He learned and honed the craft from Alinsky’s own manuals, which Obama studied and taught. Among Alinsky’s core tenets in his landmark Rules for Radicals—a book Alinsky literally dedicated to Lucifer (no kidding, click here)—is to isolate the target at hand and “demonize” it. In Obama’s first year as president, the target assumed various forms, from institutions and industries, to banks and health-insurance companies, to the recurrent demon: the Bush administration.

In this speech, however, Obama offered the faithful an olive branch—at least in rhetoric—when he closed: “progress doesn’t come when we demonize opponents….. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God. That we might do so—that we will do so all the time, not just some of the time—is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world.” 

Amen. I hope the president will lead that charge. That would be a refreshing change.

— Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include “God and Ronald Reagan,”“God and George W. Bush,”and “God and Hillary Clinton.”