No one who has watched Barack Obama’s meteoric rise in American politics in the last four years can fail to be intrigued by what he represents. More than his charismatic presence and eloquence, I think it is Obama’s deep understanding of the major themes of American culture that has given him an intimate connection to the American people. He has grasped these themes well, weaving them methodically into nearly every speech he has made.
Outside the state of Illinois, only a few knew who Barack Obama was before July 27, 2004. For more seven years he had been a state senator in Illinois when he decided to run for the US senate. The Democratic Party chose him to deliver the keynote at the convention that would proclaim John Kerry as the party’s presidential bet against George W. Bush.
On that day, all of America took notice — not of Kerry, but of the unknown young man from Illinois. Obama’s speech eclipsed everyone else’s. He spoke about John Kerry and why he should be the next president of the United States. But above all he spoke about himself and how his improbable presence in US politics affirms the authenticity of the American dream — the dream that in this land of promise, everyone can boldly hope to become what he sets out to be.
“I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation — not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy.
“Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is the true genius of America — a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles.”
I think the true genius of America lies in its ability to create a social order based on the plurality of races and cultures. Yet race remains an explosive issue. Instead of eliding it as others often do, Obama tackles the issue head-on, almost unmindful of the minefield that surrounds it. He does not ignore the residues of racial prejudice that still divide the American nation, but he chooses to harp on the unity that was meant by the nation’s founders to emerge from the diversity of its people.
“E pluribus unum. Out of many, one….There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America…. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America….I’m not talking about blind optimism here…I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores…The hope of a skinny kid with a funnyname who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”
This brings us to the other speech that launched Obama’s political star. Apart from its multiracial character, what Obama knows about America is its religiosity — an astonishing irony in a society that projects itself as a beacon of secular democracy. On June 28, 2006, two years after he won a seat in the US senate, he was invited to keynote a gathering of religious leaders, a perfect occasion to claim space on an issue that had been the turf of Republicans — religion in the public square. Before joining politics, Obama had been a professor of constitutional law. He was expected to articulate a robust secularism against the rising tide of religious fundamentalism. Instead, he expressed a nuanced view of the vital role of religion in society.
“[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day,
Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause….Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.”
Obama doesn’t leave the issue there however. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
Beside John McCain, who personifies an exhausted empire, the younger Barack Obama symbolizes an American nation that is conscious of its most basic strengths — faith in a time of despair, audacity in a time of uncertainty. America is lucky to have him as its next president.
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