Questioning Obama's religious rhetoric

Most news stories I have surveyed on President Obama's speech Tuesday on the economy (among other things) have mentioned his use of the biblical metaphor of the nation's economy being built on a rock, but few have gone beyond the message's surface. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.) For starters, none of the stories I read mentioned that President George W. Bush used a lot of religious metaphors and was at times criticized for using such language.

Obama has used the Sermon on the Mount before in his political rhetoric, (namely to express his support for civil unions), but this is one of the first times that I remember where biblical passages have been used for an area outside the social issues:

Here are the actual words of the speech, which, interestingly enough, are prominently highlighted on the Whitehouse.gov Web page with the headline "'The House Upon a Rock.'"

Now, there's a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock."

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity -- a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: Number one, new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking -- (applause); number two, new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive -- (applause); number three, new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries -- (applause); number four, new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and number five, new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. (Applause.)

That's the new foundation we must build. That's our house built upon a rock. That must be our future -- and my administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network appropriately notes that the "rock" spoken of in these passages is anything but the economy. In fact, that "rock" is Jesus. Whether Obama's speech writers (or Obama himself) intended the speech to convey that type of message is unlikely, but it does raise questions reporters must ask, as reporters did for President Bush, about whether or not this type of language is appropriate.

Of course, looking closer at the use of language is necessary to understand the difference in its usage. Obama is being very explicit about his use of biblical language. Bush was not always so explicit and often left reporters confused. Some even acted surprised when the language was "revealed."

Here a non-Christian analyzes Obama's use of biblical imagery to make his political points:

In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians' arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. "The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees" is an appeal to biblical authority. "Let's not copy Moses' mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it" is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I'm not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama's speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc... His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it's urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it's a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we're dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way still make sense if the speaker's religion were different from the quotation's?

Reporters should not allow this one to slide because it is a significant speech and a significant use of biblical imagery.

While the story is still fresh, questions should be asked about why Obama decided to go to the Bible to assistant in his explanation of his economic plan. (See here for an example of good questions asked regarding Bush's use of religious rhetoric.) Is it just a convenient well-known story that people understand or is there a deeper meaning to Obama's multiple uses of the Sermon on the Mount in his police rhetoric?

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