Last Sunday, at a high school in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama gave one of the most extraordinary speeches of his presidency. In a room full of grieving family and friends of the victims, full of traumatized first responders, and, importantly, full of interfaith officials from the community representing the old book, the new book, the book after that, and other magical books of fables and spells, Obama revealed the limits of faith. Take the nods to biblicism for what you will (I don’t take them for much), the absolute center of the Newtown speech is Obama’s admission that Corinthians 4:16 or Matthew 19:14 are quite useless to a president like him.
Funerals can be fascinating affairs. They are to human experience what “limit cases” are to certain kinds of math or science: classes of events or occurrences where extreme phenomenon reveal previously hidden truths. Funerals are moments where we confront ourselves, our thinking, and the limits of our beliefs. They are like epistemological twilight zones, experiential dramas where we get to glimpse the edge of life and death, but also the edge of belief and the contours of thought itself.
Death brings pain and anxiety so extreme, so profound, that we need answers. If you’re a true believer you throw your hands to the heavens because this death, like all deaths, is just part of “his” plan, God must have a reason; he always does. But if you’re burdened by a brain, dealing with the irreversibility and the senselessness of death is also known as an existential crisis.
Most of the time the existential crisis triggered by death is internalized (the depression of the mourner). It’s an intimate crisis, private and personal. It includes all of the normal questions: Why God? Why did this happen? Why did you let my loved one die? But it includes all of the truly big questions as well: Why death? Why her? Why now? Why not me? Why am I alive? What is the purpose of my life? What is the purpose of life itself?
Funerals push this private crisis to the fore. By externalizing inner reflection they are like existential public spectacles. That’s what makes them fascinating. The vehicle for the externalization is the funeral oratory by the lay: we all know what the priests are going to say, it’s what the regular person says in these very mystical proceedings that is far more interesting. Every word by the mourner is a chance to peer inside that mourner’s mind and find out what they really believe in.
Last Sunday in Newtown, the president let us peer into his mind.
The entire country—and the entire world—has been transfixed by the absolute horror of the deaths in Newtown. The crime is so ghastly, so absolute, so senseless, and the victims so young, so truly innocent, so helpless... It’s hard to say anything in the face of this kind of terror, but people must, and they do. And it’s now, in times like this, that those words become so important.
The president chose his words very carefully.
The interfaith vigil address was, from all accounts, written by Obama alone. It begins and ends where you would think it would: in the Bible. It starts with 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Scripture tells us... ‘do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away... inwardly we are being renewed day by day;’” and it ends with Matthew 19:14: “‘Let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’" But these biblical bookends aren’t important in an analysis of Obama’s thinking; it’s a standard rhetorical move in most funeral oratory, everyone thumbs through the Bible for an appropriate passage to make themselves sound spiritually literate.
But Obama’s Newtown speech isn’t biblical exegesis. It’s not about those passages, it’s not about the Bible at all, or faith more generally, or heaven, or hell, or any of that stuff.
The heart of Obama’s Newtown speech is godless.
The first section is about the people of Newtown, the survivors, the principal, the teachers, the police, and the rest of the community. It’s about their heroism, their courage, their ability to come together as a unified community in a time of great need. Obama applauds these people, he applauds the things they did that awful day, and the things that they are doing together in its aftermath.
Obama: “As a community, you've inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for one another, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered.”
And then he pivots: he switches from the tone and rhetoric of your basic funeral oratory, to a completely different discursive planet altogether.
Obama: “But we as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. [...] Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children—all of them—safe from harm?” [...] I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change.
To Obama—President Obama, not Barack Obama—God is a bit player in American life, life that increasingly includes shootings like the one in Newtown. In the face of those evil deeds, God is powerless. He doesn’t do anything: nothing bad, and nothing good either. He’s just there, on the sidelines, stroking his beard. He didn’t kill the children in Newtown, that wasn’t part of his grand plan, but he couldn’t stop the killing either. In Obama’s epistemology, God is ineffectual. More ineffectual than Speaker Boehner.
The president, the community of Newtown, and the country can be useful, and that’s what the president is doing now; that’s why he is finally going to take action, why he’s going to reform gun laws in the country, why he’s going to take as many guns away as he can.
Remarkably, at the end of the speech Obama actually articulates the fundamental existential dilemma that he has been wrestling with...
Obama: “All the world's religions—so many of them represented here today—start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?” [...]
His solution to these “big questions” is simple, material, and hippy...
Obama: There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have—for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace—that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger—we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that.
I don’t hear a lot of God in Obama’s words. I do hear a lot of Mr. Rogers though.
Thank Rogers for that.
Previously - David Frum Is (Still Just) a Canadian Conservative