Clearly, President Barack Obama knew that if he was going to speak during a public memorial service in Dallas, it would be wise -- metaphorically speaking -- to bring a Bible and to quote it early and often. Obama did precisely that.
After all, former President George W. Bush was also going to be speaking during this event and, since he is a native who speaks Texan, you just knew that he would be quoting scripture. Sure enough, he did.
But if you are looking for news reports that explored the biblical elements of this important Obama address you will need to do some digging. In fact, there are fewer biblical references in the relevant news reports than there were in the early hours after that speech, for a very interesting reason. Hold that thought.
At the top of the news media food chain, the current version of the New York Times report on the speech at least mentions, vaguely, that the Bible played a role in this interfaith memorial rite:
DALLAS -- President Obama said on Tuesday that the nation mourned with Dallas for five police officers gunned down by a black Army veteran, but he implored Americans not to give in to despair or the fear that “the center might not hold.”
“I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem,” Mr. Obama said at a memorial service for the officers in Dallas, where he quoted Scripture, alluded to Yeats and at times expressed a sense of powerlessness to stop the racial violence that has marked his presidency. But Mr. Obama also spoke hard truths to both sides.
Now, after reading that, I expected to see some biblical quotations in the news coverage. However, they didn't make the cut into the final version of the Times story. Yes, there is a reason for that -- as noted by one M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway.
Here's a hint, in the report at NBC News:
Invoking scripture and the nation's long civil rights struggle, Obama urged all of them to remember their shared goals of justice and peace.
He quoted from the Gospel of John: "Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth."
An earlier version of the New York Times report contained a similar passage about the Obama text, she noted, writing at The Federalist.
Now it's gone. Why?
... What is the precise passage from the Gospel of John to which he refers? You won’t find it, because it’s not from the Gospel of John but from an entirely different book of the Bible: The First Epistle of John. It has the same author as the Gospel of John but it is, again, an entirely different book.
I know that sounds somewhat challenging, but I teach Sunday School to Junior Kindergarteners and each year I have them memorize the names of the books of the Bible, both Old Testament and New. So my four-year-olds are aware that “John” and “1 John” are different books, placed at opposite ends of the New Testament. There are three epistles of John, so there are four Bible books total with “John” in their title. Five if you refer to Revelation as the Revelation to John or the Apocalypse of John.
In any case, it’s a great passage that is part of a beautiful, if brief, section (that you should go ahead and read right now, you will thank me later) on loving one another in the face of hatred from the world.
This is an explicitly Christian passage, spoken to Christians, about believing in the name of Jesus Christ, following His commandments, and trusting that God is greater than our weakness. If a Republican had quoted such an unabashed Christian passage in the context of a presidential speech, one wouldn’t be surprised to hear major media push-back. ...
Now, it is interesting to note that the scribes at the White House -- when posting the president's text -- offered a clear reference to the fact that the president either (a) misread the text or (b) read an error that had been written into it. Here is what that looks like in practice:
... I'm not naïve. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence. 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 see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been. And so I’m reminded of a passage in *John’s Gospel [First John]: Let us love not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth. If we’re to sustain the unity we need to get through these difficult times, if we are to honor these five outstanding officers who we’ve lost, then we will need to act on the truths that we know. And that’s not easy. It makes us uncomfortable.
The final Times report simply made the biblical material vanish.
Hemingway, doing that mirror-image thing that GetReligion folks do, wondered what would have happened in a Republican had made a similar kind of mistake, while speaking in a Bible Belt setting of this kind (as opposed to Obama, a liberal Protestant Democrat).
Actually, there is no need to speculate, since the Republican-at-the-moment Donald Trump famously did you know what during an appearance at Liberty University:
Earlier this year ... he referred to the second epistle to the Corinthians as “2 Corinthians.” It’s usually, but by no means always, said as “Second” Corinthians. Scottish Christians, such as Trump’s mother, say it the way he did when he read the speech written by Tony Perkins, whom he blamed for the error.
CNN said it was a “mistake that raised questions about his biblical knowledge as he courts evangelical voters.” NPR said he “mispronounced a book of the Bible.”
Even People magazine made fun of him, saying he “flubbed a Bible reference.”
Now, it's hard not to poke fun at Trump attempting to use biblical references while trying to speak Bible Belt. (Take it away, Eric Metaxas, writing in The New Yorker.) Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., also noted that the 2 Corinthians firestorm may have been blown out of proportion.
So what happened to the press coverage of the Obama error? Yes, mirror-image imagine if Bush had made this kind of error of biblical proportions (or even, heaven forbid, former Vice President Dan Quayle).
To this thought let me add this: Watch the entire Obama speech. Note the remarks that drew reactions from the crowd/congregation, including the choir folks behind him. How could reporters cover this speech and NOT include doses of the religious content?