Yesterday I made the brief argument that Obama’s Tucson speech echoed many of the ideas of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Today I read Conor Williams’s take on it. He nails it.
Williams is on the mark when he says: “But the magnitude of the national crisis involved isn’t what matters in evaluating Obama’s speech. What matters is the depth of the wisdom behind it. What matters is the understanding of humans that this speech implies.”
Taking the podium in front of thousands (but really, millions) of scared, confused citizens, the President made a case for a deeply theological understanding of human beings. Start with sin. Obama repeatedly stressed that crises like the Arizona shooting are inexorable proof of the presence of evil in the world. For many of us—and perhaps progressives are particularly susceptible to this disease—we too-easily imagine that with one more legal or institutional tweak, we might solve many of our political problems for good. Americans are a can-do people (a truism, I know) which leads us to think of politics the way that we think of vaccines: with a change in strategy, we might end racism just like we ended smallpox. The President refused to indulge the audience in these sorts of illusions. This is not our final national tragedy. We will hurt and be hurt again.
But there is actually something reassuring about this, about recognizing that evil and tragedy are always with us, and are always part of us. Humans are proud, they are destructive, they are suffering creatures. Admitting this only leads to despair if we imagine that evil can be excised from life—that sin can be overcome and eliminated from human life. If we accept that evil is always with us, any happiness we achieve will be that much more secure. (As a sidebar, it’s worth noting that this message has long been a consistent thread in Obama’s public rhetoric.)
If this sounds deeply Christian, that’s because it is. When Obama listed Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher, that was an honest and revealing choice. Last night, Obama took it upon himself to remind us of the beauty and possibility of our condition.