Many Americans were upset at President Obama’s use of the mass murder of Christians at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon as yet another occasion to demand further restrictions on Americans’ right to bear arms. The move was quite rightly seen as disrespectful toward the victims as well as unseemly in its political opportunism. Perhaps the most distressing part of this sad saga is how well it demonstrates our current president’s utter tone-deafness when it comes to the calls of faith. As with so many tragedies in the past, he chose to ignore the need for prayer and reconciliation in favor of an ideological call to action.
It is unfortunate that President Obama’s disdain for religious reflection, particularly in recognition of losses suffered by families of police officers and professing Christians, reflects a growing trend in American public life. Rare indeed are the moments people can share in these times where tragedy is recognized and transmuted through faith. Perhaps the greatest gift Saint John Paul II gave to Catholics, and to the world, was the witness of a good death. Millions were able to see how a truly holy man prepares to meet his maker, and to take heart that it was not the end for him, or for us. President Obama, on the other hand, recognizes only some tragic deaths, chiefly those that fit into his own vision of a world dominated by brutal authority figures and their powerless victims. And his response is a consistent call to “sensitize” police, empower bureaucrats to do the sensitizing, and disarm citizens. That is, his responses, like his choice of tragedies to recognize, center on political issues rather than the reality of tragedy and the need for reconciliation with it. Even Jeb Bush, for all his many flaws, recognized the existential nature of evil like that of the Roseburg mass murderer, though he failed to formulate his response in a coherent manner.
It is not that there is no meaning to the deaths of the Roseburg victims, for all our lives and deaths have meaning, especially if we are murdered for our faith. But the president and the mainstream media have worked so hard to make the murders about guns that little room was left for mourning, particularly in the full sense of calling on God for succor. Of course, a renewal of faith within our culture will not end all violence. Then again, neither will disarming the populace, just as our government’s various hubristic national programs to “end” poverty, racism, and inequality of various sorts are doomed to fail.
The false, ideological belief that if only we had the “right” program we could end suffering of various kinds is childish. What is worse, substituting faith in bureaucratic programs for the hard work of faith, hope, and love undermines the communities and various associations utterly necessary for any meaningful common life—associations not coincidentally far better at providing for people’s needs than faceless programs with their abstract rules and categories that can only be made flexible and humane by undermining the rule of law.
Contemporary Americans increasingly are told to have faith in mechanical programs. (The British at least call them by their proper name: “schemes.”) This political faith undermines the real faith necessary to bind peoples together in the ways necessary for us to look out for one another as we should, and as we used to do. I am no fan of civil religion. The idea that we should love the nation as if it were the embodiment of God’s will is disrespectful to God and degrading to the people and communities that make up the nation. However, there is a role for statesmen to play in pointing the people toward their duties to God as well as one another. President Obama, not surprisingly, has utterly rejected this role, turning even his participation in the National Prayer Breakfast into a partisan attack on America’s Christian heritage by dismissing Islamic extremism with a historically illiterate reference to the Crusades.
Rather than try to parse Obama’s many false words, I would like to merely provide an extensive quotation from an earlier president who understood the role of religion in public life. No orthodox Christian, let alone fundamentalist “crazy” as secularists would have it, John Adams recognized the need for the people in times of need to recognize their dependence on God, to come together to rededicate themselves, not to some ideological program, but to the seeking of wisdom, and the strength to act on that wisdom.
In proclaiming May 9, 1798 a day of fasting and prayer, Adams addressed the needs of the nation as it faced what seemed an inevitable war with France:
As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety, without which social happiness cannot exist, nor the blessings of free government be enjoyed… and as the United States of America area, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation … it has appeared to me that the duty of imploring the mercy and benediction of Heaven on our country, demands, at this time, a special attention from its inhabitants.
Adams begins, then, with an acknowledgment that nations as well as persons and communities by their very nature are dependent on God for their existence and flourishing, and have a duty to recognize this fact. How? Through public religious action:
I have therefore thought it fit to recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next be observed throughout the United States, as a day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer; That the citizens of these states, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies, agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming: That all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before GOD the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation; beseeching him, at the same time, of his infinite Grace, through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by his holy spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction; That it be made the subject of particular and earnest supplication, that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it; that our civil and religious privileges may be preserved inviolate, and perpetuated to the latest generations; that our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period; that the American people may be united in those bonds of amity and mutual confidence, and inspired with that vigor and fortitude by which they have in times past been so highly distinguished, and by which they have obtained such invaluable advantages.
Adams is issuing no order for the people to bow down before any national god or engage in any predetermined national liturgy. He recommends to religious communities that they join in their traditional religious observances.
And finally I recommend, that on the said day; the duties of humiliation and prayer be accompanied by fervent Thanksgiving to the bestower of every good gift, not only for having hitherto protected and preserved the people of these United States in the independent enjoyment of their religious and civil freedom, but also for having prospered them in a wonderful progress of population, and for conferring on them many and great favours conducive to the happiness and prosperity of a nation.
Adams recognized and proclaimed the people’s need for humility and thankfulness and the need to get right with God, and the need to get the nation and culture right with God as well. A president should remind the people of these spiritual facts. He must not himself preach either religion or theology, but call for unity and piety among the people. Perhaps a return to an older understanding of the president’s unifying role as a moral guide rather than a hectoring politician liable to lecture the people, then seek to rule them by decree, might help restore faith in our constitutional order.
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