Amazing Grace Christian Civil Religion (Barack Obama)


The lion’s share of attention has gone to President Obama leading the congregation inside Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church singing Amazing Grace in his remarkable and perhaps historical eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Having heard about the eulogy before sitting down to watch and listen to it, I knew that the moment was coming. But how was it going to happen? I was curious about that transition. How was the President going to make the transition from word to song. On the Youtube clip, which you can see here, you can see and hear how it’s the word “grace” that serves as the pivot from one to the other. There was that deliberate moment in the eulogy, the long pause held between the word as the President began to sing his favorite hymnal, “the one we all know.” Then watch and listen to wave of surprise in recognition as the congregation took as one to its feet in something like a roar, realizing their part in the solemn ceremony led by no one other than President Obama.

The eulogy steeped in religion was about as moving a thing as there is to see in political life. Blurring the line between church and state in a sectarian church setting, the President of the United States spoke words from the pulpit couched in the thick concepts of “our Christian faith.” No thinned out civil religion, this was an intense and moving appeal to the Black Protestant Church tradition with direct appeal to the moving principles of “justice,” “our calling,” “the Bible,” “faith in things not seen,” “church,” “grace,” “service,” “anointment,” “sanctuary,” “flock,” “preachers,” the “mysterious ways of God,” “the power of God’s grace,” “Christian tradition,” “favor of God,” “bestowal of blessings,” “forgiveness,” “generosity,” “self-examination,” and “hope.” President Obama gave “all praise and honor to God” without once violating the cardinal rule of American public life. What makes the Christian frame of reference even more complex is that President Obama did so without evoking once the name of Jesus Christ.

He didn’t need to.

That Rev. P Pinckney chose both the pulpit and public service, both “individual and collective salvation,” President Obama reminds his listeners that “As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don’t make those distinctions.”

“We don’t make those distinctions.” Let no one deny two truths relating to the non-separation of religion and politics in this country. One is the resonant, universal power of American Civil Religion. The other is that the United States of America is a particularistic, Christian country down to the root. In response to the catastrophe of racism and its legacy, gun violence and its mayhem, the people and its leader turn to Christian religion not just for solace, but as a basis upon which to renew the work for justice and for the more perfect political union that only justice can bring.

Across the political spectrum, from right to left, there has been not a word of criticism that the President Obama delivered these striking words, these particular truths, “our Christian faith,” from inside a church, a “sacred space” not just for African Americans and Christians but for every American who cares about “liberty and justice for all” in this “big, raucous” place that is this country. No one seems to have paid much attention to the religious structural phrasing of these basic American values. The hegemonic Christian structure of this country is so basic that no one seems to have noticed it beyond the visceral assent that confirmed these words as they echoed from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church out onto mainstream and social media.

Social and cultural conservatives once could claim to hold a monopoly on public religion. In the age of Pope Francis and Marriage Equality, I think this is going to change. In another ten to fifteen years the religious discourse in this country is going to be unrecognizable.

You can watch the eulogy here and read the transcript here.  I’m pasting below in bold direct quotations from the eulogy according to rubrics that I believe best capture the theo-political import of this American liberal Christian creed:

Political theology

[Reverend Pinckney] embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long — (applause) — that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.


Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church.  The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — (applause) — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.  Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — (applause) — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.  They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — (applause) — and taught that they matter.  (Applause.)  That’s what happens in church. 


Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.  (Applause.)  God has different ideas.  (Applause.)  He didn’t know he was being used by God… The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.  (Applause.)  

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — (applause) — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.


Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.  (Applause.)  This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. (Applause.)  The grace of the families who lost loved ones.  The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons.  The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know:  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  (Applause.)  I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.  (Applause.)  According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace.  

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.  (Applause.)  He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  (Applause.)  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same.  He gave it to us anyway.  He’s once more given us grace.  But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Amazing Grace Christian Civil Religion (Barack Obama)

  1. dmf says:

    the being used by God bit was striking, and in general that this wasn’t a loose social-gospelish hegelian idea of the beloved community as agents of progress/moral-arc-of-history but one of a pretty interventionist god and grace as an active power(agent?) in the world, perhaps even a bit of spirited pneumatology at work? will be interesting to see if hillary does some preaching on the campaign trail.

  2. dmf says:

    about 1/2way thru richard sennett on the jewish (after primo levi) will to do good without hope of the future:

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