“A More Perfect Union”: Reflections on Obama’s Speech

Andrew Sullivan (a fellow Obama admirer/supporter): “I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history… I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy — not this man, his candidacy — and what he can bring us to achieve — is an historic opportunity.”

Andrew was evidently filtering Obama’s words through his own Christian faith, as well as through his deep and abiding love of America, but, in general, I concur. It was a speech with its own deep roots in Obama’s Christian faith, there is no doubt of that, but I did not find to be a particularly Christian speech. Rather, I found it to be a speech deeply rooted in the meaning, purpose, and promise of America.

To the extent that America is Christian — that is, to the extent that the Founders and their overarching deism were rooted in Christianity — the speech was undeniably Christian. And it may be that I filtered Obama’s words through my own non-Christian beliefs. But, to me, his speech was enlightened and liberal, like the meaning, purpose, and promise of America. It asked us to look back at what America was all about, before the political compromises that made the country so much less than what it was meant to be, a country built in theory on universal egalitarian principles, on Lockean liberalism and the political aspirations of that enlightened and liberationist age, that in practice enabled inequality and the abomination of slavery, and country that tore itself apart in civil war, a country that continued to enable segregation and racist public policy for a century after that war ended and slavery was abolished, a country that, however much progress has been made, and there has been much, continues to be a house divided against itself.

Obama understands this, just as he understands the complexities and nuances that lie at the intersection of race and politics in the United States. His speech yesterday in Philadelphia — and what a fitting location — was truly historic. It is being interpreted by many in terms of how it affects, or will affect, his race with Clinton for the Democratic nomination and, looking ahead, to a possible race with McCain. And that was indeed part of Obama’s intent, to address and diffuse a delicate and damaging campaign issue, the controversial remarks of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and to reassert his message of hope and transcendence, to reinsert it into a campaign — not his but the campaign generally — that has, of late, been playing out in the gutter.

But there was more to the speech, far more, than campaign politics. Obama said what has needed to be said for a long time, and, with a campaign ongoing, he stepped into the breach, addressing one of America’s most notorious wounds, and doing so with intelligence and sensitivity. This is not what most politicians do. It is not what we are used to.

While it may be true that he was forced to address Wright’s comments, and his own relationship with Wright, if not the racial tensions in the campaign itself, he was certainly not forced to address race and politics as sweepingly and as courageously as he did. Most politicians avoid race altogether, or address it with banal platitudes, or use it as a political weapon. The media are hardly any better. What Obama did was to speak truth to power, to the political and media elites who have but a superficial understanding, if one at all, of race and racism in America past and present, calling on them, and on the American people generally, to look into their hearts, as well as into the soul of America, into what America is supposed to be all about, what she was intended to be all about, before all those political compromises, before all those principles were pushed aside, the last best hope of earth, and to finish the work that was started well over two centuries ago. America was founded as an experiment in democratic self-governance and the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and she has been, ever since, a work-in-progress. Obama will not finish it, he is not so naive as to assume otherwise, but, as he put it at the end of his speech, in his moving story of young Ashley Baia, it is time to restart the work of perfecting this union.

And this — this is what he and his campaign are all about:

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”

The chatter from the chattering classes will continue, much of it filtered through partisan or otherwise political lenses, often only with regard to the here and now, to the race at hand. And so be it. Obama is running for president, and whatever he says and does may be placed in that context. But what he is asking Americans to do is of greater and more lasting significance than just this election or just his election cycles. He is asking them to talk about race and racism in mature and meaningul ways, to reach across America’s deep divides and to talk to and engage with one another, to focus on what is common, not on what is uncommon, to understand one other, to have compassion for one another, and to seek to perfect their union together, with a unity of purpose. He is asking Americans to work together to heal America’s wounds, and to do so by being honest and open with themselves about America’s dark and difficult history and her lingering and unresolved racial tensions, as difficult as that may be, and by rising above race in the pursuit of something far nobler, perfection.

Yes, there is something deeply Christian about the pursuit of perfection, but, in this sense, Christianity shares a great deal with liberal and enlightened hopes of perfection on earth, perfection achievable through human action. Of course, perfection may be, and likely, is unattainable. But it is the pursuit of perfection that matters, the willingness to seek more than the present lot, and, in this case, to seek the actualization of America’s full potential.

That is Obama’s challenge to Americans. It is time, at long last, to say “Not this time,” to demand better, and to work together to overcome.

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Glenn Greenwald: “I found the speech riveting, provocative, insightful, thoughtful and courageous — courageous because it eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter.”

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I have spoken often of Obama’s capacity for greatness. It is one of the key reasons why I support him. He hasn’t won anything yet, and there is still room for significant growth, but I believe that he has achieved greatness already. Win or lose, it is now just a matter of degree.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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  • cBc

    I hope enough Americans will really READ & understand these words for themselves, & not have them “filtered” thru media pundits. They are that important .

  • DLS

    “Yes, there is something deeply Christian about the pursuit of perfection, but, in this sense, Christianity shares a great deal with liberal and enlightened hopes of perfection on earth, perfection achievable through human action.”

    Even though Reagan is no longer in the White House, and there no longer is a Soviet Union to defend or to advance at the US and rest-of-the-West's expense, there remains a Religious Left in this country that is not limited to Democratic black churches.

    When I was in Upstate I followed the goings-on related to this event.

    http://stpatricksfour.org/?q=action

    Goofy, granola-head Ithaca, where I saw a frat house with a huge W with circle and slash over it back in late 2004 … your kind of place, Shaun. (It is scenic.)

    http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=19360