Category Archives: President Obama

Obama is Definitely an American Exceptionalist

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President Obama’s views on American exceptionalism are famously nuanced. In almost all of his statements on exceptionalism, he stresses America’s need for partnerships with other nations as well as America’s past failures to live up to its stated ideals. Nevertheless, Obama insists that he believes in American exceptionalism.

Since visiting Selma last March, many have commented on Obama’s articulation of exceptionalism. Articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Hill, National Journal—and even one by an obscure writer over at Then and Nowanalyzing Obama’s unique strain of exceptionalism that is inclusive, impatient with hypocrisy, calls America back to its original vision, and animated by an objective articulation of justice.

Many on the right become frustrated with Obama’s views on exceptionalism because he does not leave room for American innocence—which I argue in my forthcoming book is a facet of an exclusionary and imperialistic brand of exceptionalism which hijacks Christian theological affirmations (closed exceptionalism), and has been articulated throughout American history. Perhaps one reason why Obama comes under such criticism from conservatives is because we became accustomed to Ronald Reagan’s version of exceptionalism. Reagan sincerely believed that America was morally regenerate. To point to one example among many, he said in his 1984 presidential nomination speech at the RNC in Dallas, “America is the most peaceful, least warlike nation in modern history. We are not the cause of all the ills in the world. We’re a patient and generous people.”

But Obama’s reflective version of American exceptionalism is not an innovation. The Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave us a patriotic tradition of what George McKenna called “anxious introspection.” This anxious introspection appeared in their jeremiads, their particular genre of sermon that called their communities to repent from their sins and return to what they believed was their covenantal relationship to God. In his excellent book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, McKenna argues that the Puritan tradition of anxious introspection has been handed down to every generation of Americans since the colonial period, and has been a distinguishable mark of American patriotism for centuries.

Today, Mr. Obama took to the podium to talk about the progress of the fight against ISIS. He made a salient statement in his remarks—“Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas and more attractive and more compelling vision.” Doubtless, many conservatives are sure to pounce on those words as being weak. But in making that statement, Obama again firmly situated himself in an American exceptionalist tradition. The idea that America’s real strength is moral, spiritual, and philosophical rather than military is one that was articulated by two luminaries of American exceptionalism: John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan.

Dulles served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to his death in 1959. No one has more consistently and strenuously articulated an image of America’s divine commission in the world than Dulles. He cast America’s confrontation with Soviet Communism in the early Cold War in cosmic terms of an eternal battle between good and evil. But he was confident in America’s final victory over Communism, because America was on the side of right. Furthermore, America would finally prevail over the Soviets, not because of superior arms, but by using the weapons of ideas. He said in his 1952 speech titled “A Policy of Instant Retaliation,” “Non-material forces are more powerful than those that are merely material. . . . We should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform us to moral principles.”

Reagan saw the Cold War in similar terms. In his famous speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in March 1983—the same speech in which he said that the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world”—he stressed that the way to fight the ideology of Communism was with the ideology of freedom and democracy. He said, “While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”

Obama’s insistence that he believes in American exceptionalism is undeniable. His brand of exceptionalism is more nuanced than Giuliani’s, and even Reagan’s, to be sure. But even when Obama is not making any overt references to exceptionalism in his rhetoric, he shows himself to be squarely within the historical tradition of open American exceptionalism. This open exceptionalism is a Lincolnian articulation that appeals to the “better angels of our nature” in order that we may more consistently uphold the vision of the Founders and renew our faith in the justice of that vision as we face any and every trial.

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Obama’s Selma Speech: Self Examination as American Exceptionalism

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This post appeared at Then and Now on March 11, 2015.

This past Saturday, March 7, 2015, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”–the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans.

His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.

There’s nothing new in all that. We’ve come to expect our presidents to use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches. Ronald Reagan was particularly skilled at portraying America in exceptionalist terms, being fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who famously said of Americans that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” in Common Sense. He also liked to use Abraham Lincoln’s descriptor of America as the “last, best hope of earth,” although Reagan often substituted “earth” for “mankind” in his use of the phrase.

But President Obama is considered by many to lack love for his country. Early in his presidency, at a press conference in Cherbourg, France on April 4, 2009, Obama himself watered down American exceptionalism by saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But Obama’s views on exceptionalism have evolved over the course of his presidency. In September 2013, in his address to the nation regarding a possible US military intervention in Syria, President Obama embraced exceptionalism by saying, “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. . . . That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” And speaking at West Point’s commencement in 2014, the President said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Unlike Reagan, Obama’s view of exceptionalism subtracts the idea of American innocence. Central to Obama’s patriotism is the notion that true love of country entails national self-examination in order to more sincerely pursue the highest ideals of the American liberal tradition. This notion comes through in most, if not all, of President Obama’s articulations of American exceptionalism.

His Selma speech is, at least to me, his most eloquent expression of this form of exceptionalism. Consider these lines from his speech–

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

American exceptionalism is a controversial idea because two political groups at odds with one another claim it–conservatives and liberals. What adds to the controversy is that both of these groups often seem to see their contention as going far beyond a simple political disagreement. They often seem to be at war with one another, with the complete destruction of the other as the shared goal between them. The question of what constitutes a true American? is thus a fundamental, existential question in today’s political and cultural discourse.

For many, a true American is specially favored of God, carrying out a divine mandate to spread the American way of life around the globe, situated on a sacred land, heir to a glorious heritage–and defined by an innate righteousness, no matter by what agency he uses in America’s name. For many, these are the aspects that define American exceptionalism.

But Obama’s conception of exceptionalism is the right one, both historically and practically. It is historically right because it is this vision of exceptionalism that has carried Americans ever closer to their stated ideals of individual rights, democracy, human equality based on innate dignity, and peace since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It is practically right because it fosters unity by eliminating the false dichotomy of the “Chosen” and the “Other,” a dichotomy borne out of racial, religious, ethnic, and class prejudices.

Read the transcript of the speech. Obama’s articulation of American exceptionalism is expansive, inclusive, and consistent with the canon of American civil religion: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to name a few texts in that canon. But most importantly, it is marked by self examination. Without self-examination, Americans cannot live up to their ideals. Without self-examination, America implodes.

Barack Obama: American Exceptionalist?

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There has been a lot of talk about President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. It was a topic of conversation in my Principles of American Politics class yesterday, as we were discussing the first five chapters of Democracy in America, volume I, by Alexis de Tocqueville. The buzz in social media, blogs, and news outlets continues even into this week. John Fea’s post on the subject from last Saturday is still, even today, generating conversation in the comments section. There are sixteen comments at this writing, with the most recent one posted just a few moments ago. And there will likely be more ink spilled on the speech before the week is out.

There is, indeed, much to say about the President’s speech. I’d like to focus on one aspect of the speech in particular in order to argue that Obama’s remarks fall squarely within the best tradition of American exceptionalism. Yes—American exceptionalism. From Barack Obama.

In case you haven’t seen or read the transcript, the President began by asking this question:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 

The President answered this question by calling on people of faith to exercise humility in their affirmations of truth. The exercise of humility is the necessary practical outworking of doing justly and loving mercy, as Micah 6:8 describes.

One of the aspects the President cited in the exercise of humility was thoughtful self-reflection. In speaking about self-reflection, President Obama articulated a specific American exceptionalist value.

Of course, the President is getting little credit for this. And perhaps he doesn’t deserve credit. Ross Douthat wrote in his New York Times column that “too often [his Niebuhrian style] offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” Perhaps Obama is guilty of utilizing sophistry to win political points. He is, after all, a politician and according to Gallup, the most polarizing president in the last sixty years. He plays to his base, no doubt about that—and no surprise, either. But when it comes to American exceptionalism, President Obama has come a long way. You might say, he has “evolved.”

But in an attempt to be objective (note: not neutral), let’s just consider the President’s statements on national self-reflection, that which I am identifying as being consistent with an American exceptionalist tradition.

In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Is this statement historically accurate? Definitely. Ta-Nehisi Coates has provided clear evidence for this fact in his recent answer to the President’s conservative critics.

To bring up a profound moral failure on the part of American Christians, and to call them to self-reflection in the context of the National Prayer Breakfast takes courage. And why did the President do this? What was the purpose? Was the purpose to bash America? To bash Christians? Certainly not, at least not in this speech. The President’s purpose was to call us to a humility that rejects the notion that just because we are Americans, and just because we are Christians, we can do no wrong. Actually, we can do wrong, sustained wrong, systemic wrong, destructive wrong, wrong for which we as a nation continue to pay the dreadful consequences.

President Obama’s statement had the effect of exhorting American Christians to reflect on their past actions in order to call them to be true to their own values, specifically the value of humility. In this, he is firmly situated in a tradition that goes all the way back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) wrote the poem “God’s Controversy With New England” during a great drought in 1662 to call the people to return to faithfulness to the Lord. He wrote,

Whence cometh it, that Pride, and Luxurie/Debate, Deceit, Contention, and Strife\False-dealing, Covetousness, Hypocrisie/(With such like Crimes) amonst them are so rife/That one of them doth over-reach another?/And that an honest man can hardly trust his Brother?

Wigglesworth’s warning to the people of New England was that God was chastening them for their departure from their responsibility to be true to His moral commands. In the same spirit, Samuel Danforth (1626-1674) preached his 1670 election day sermon “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand Into the Wilderness” in Boston. He exhorted his listeners that “the Lord calls upon them seriously and thoroughly to examine themselves, what it was that drew them into the Wilderness” of America in the first place. Specifically, Danforth said, they were to “walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel.” But instead, Jesus’ question from Matthew 11:7-9, “What went ye out into the Wilderness to see?” was “a sad conviction of our dullness and backwardness to this great duty.”

Were Wigglesworth and Danforth resorting to anti-New England rants? Not at all. They were calling the people to recover their first principles through the act of humbling themselves and engaging in self-reflection. National self-reflection is a thoroughly American habit, most famously practiced throughout our history by the Puritans, abolitionists, woman suffragists, proponents of civil rights, and many, many others. Many of those who called Americans to self-reflection were accused of being false patriots, but history demonstrated them to be the truest patriots of all in calling Americans back to their first principles.

Ironically enough, the conservative evangelical tradition is thoroughly accustomed to calling America to remember her sins and pursue righteousness. Preachers frequently appeal to 2 Chronicles 7:14 in order to encourage Americans to “humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways” so that God would “hear from heaven” and “forgive their sin, and heal their land.” I have my issues with the exegetical propriety of using this passage to call America back to God—but the point is, doing so is consistent with a continuing exceptionalist tradition of national self-examination that is quite old. And conservative evangelicals, of all people, ought to be able to appreciate it when they see it—even from a President with whom they hardly ever agree.

It’s Dangerous to Dismiss an Incumbent President

Since October 3, President Obama’s campaign has been downhill skiing. On that date, the President was enjoying a 3.1 lead in the RCP poll average. Just a few days prior to the first debate, he was leading Mr. Romney by 4.1 in the RCP average. In several individual polls between the close of the Democratic Convention and the first debate, the President was ahead by 8, 9, even 10 points. In the battleground states, like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia for example, the President led by comfortable margins. In Ohio, where most political junkies believe will be the fulcrum of the election, the President was ahead by 10 points in mid-September. In Florida, the CBS/NY Times poll had him up by 10 during the third week of September. And in Virginia, the President was enjoying an average lead of between 3 and 8 points in September. Cenk Uygur of the Huffington Post declared Obama the winner of the election on September 28. “This thing is over,” Uygur exulted. “The rest is just running out the clock.”

What has happened during the month of October is something that few people–perhaps nobody–expected. Romney won the first debate, according to well, everyone. Obama was viewed as the winner of the last two debates, but Romney held his own and didn’t make an idiot of himself. Which was all he had to do. The VP debates were seen as a narrow victory for Biden, but he was a bull in a china shop, and while it didn’t hurt substantially, it certainly didn’t help. The Benghazi incident of September 11 has undermined the President’s key argument that Al Qaida has been dealt a mortal blow and is on the run. These have all combined to sink Obama’s fortunes considerably.

Romney turned his fortunes around in the first debate. He was being written off by many in his own party. Since then, his campaign has been nursing a continuing lead. Instead of being behind in the majority of nationwide polling, he is ahead, and he has been for a few weeks. The current RCP poll average has Romney ahead by 1 point. The Electoral College data has been fluctuating between assigning Romney 191 and 205 votes (North Carolina is the reason for the fluctuation, but Romney has been consistently ahead there for some weeks). These improvements have given conservatives cause to rejoice. Andrew Ferguson wrote yesterday about how Obama’s late October campaign was a stark reminder of his days advising Bush the Elder in his failed 1992 bid during the same time period. Josh Jordan thinks the Obama campaign “has seen the writing on the wall.” And Peggy Noonan is convinced that the American people have finally weighed the President in the scales and found him wanting.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Obama campaign is finished, and that Romney will be elected the 45th president. But it is foolhardy to count the President out in this election.

Incumbent presidents are famously hard to fire. Only a comparative few incumbent presidents have been shown the door in American history, even fewer since World War II. And consider this particular incumbent. How many times has he been counted out, by both his allies and friends, since he declared his candidacy for president in 2007? He has overcome long odds in the past five years on a number of occasions. Team Hillary underestimated him. The Tea Party thought he was through after the mid-term elections in 2010. In the fall of 2011, his approval numbers were at their lowest. And some commentators were doubting his ability to survive this election as early as May of this year. And still, Obama rebounded again, and again, and again, and again.

The election is almost over (God be praised). Barring any hanging chads, we will know all the answers in 10 days. Romney is ahead, but his lead is paper thin and as fragile as mist. The RCP Electoral Map showing the states as they stand today has an Obama victory of 290 to 248. And keep this in mind–in the 2000 election–the closest election in recent times–Gallup had George W. Bush ahead of Al Gore between 2 and 13 points from mid October to election day. We have been consistently seeing spreads this month between Romney and Obama to be much narrower than those Gallup was showing in 2000 during the same time period.

Don’t count Obama out just yet. The ghosts of 1948 may yet grace us with their appearance.

He’s the President

Who is President Obama? He’s the President. That’s all you need to know.

Evangelical Christians are often conservatives, politically, socially, and economically. Conservatives, philosophically and historically, are respectful of authority and guard the primacy of authority in the community. Evangelical Christianity takes seriously the biblical admonition to obey rulers and authorities (Romans 13) and to pray for those who rule the community (1 Timothy 2).

These same conservative Christians are Americans. They are not Europeans. In fact, Americans in general are quite distinct from Europeans and consider them to be backward in many ways. Americans, particularly Americans who have a basic understanding of how our political process works and why, know that authority is limited. The power to govern has been delegated to the institutions of the government and to the people who were elected to fill the offices that represent those institutions.

Barack H. Obama was elected president by a clear majority on November 4 in the year 2008. Every citizen over the age of 18 who was registered to vote at that time had the opportunity to have their say. Obama received 69,456,897 votes. His opponent received almost ten million fewer votes than Mr. Obama. Out of 270 electoral votes needed to win, Obama received 365. Presidential power was transferred peacefully from George W. Bush to Barack H. Obama on January 20, 2009. These things happened according to the very specific guidelines established by the U. S. Constitution and other laws passed by local, state, and federal legislation.

If you call yourself a conservative, you are bound by your profession to guard authority as it is defined in the U. S. Constitution. If you call yourself an evangelical Christian, the Holy Spirit commands you to obey and pray for your leaders–not just the ones you agree with or like. We all must show deep respect for President Obama, whether we like him or agree with him or not. It is time for another election, and we must bear this in mind as we prepare ourselves for what everyone says is going to be a brutally disrespectful campaign (who could doubt this after having witnessed the political dialogue over the past three years?).

Who is President Obama? He’s the President. But wait–isn’t he a Muslim?

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.

Wasn’t he born in Kenya?

No, Hawaii. And he’s the President.


Isn’t he a socialist? A Marxist?

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.


Doesn’t he violate the Constitution?

Perhaps. Make your case. But he’s the President.


He always uses a teleprompter.

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.

He’s always taking vacations.

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.


He’s gutting our military!

He is the Commander in Chief of the U. S. military. He’s the President.

He allowed gays into the military! He’s pro-choice! He’s for gun control! He likes broccoli!

It doesn’t matter! He’s the President.

If you do not approve of the President’s policies, then speak up–write your congressman, write the President, and vote for his opponent in the next election. Or, you could do what my brother did and run for office yourself. Then you will see that the job of political officeholder ain’t nearly as easy as it seems. 

I am a committed conservative and I am an evangelical Christian. I agree with very little that the President has done in his first, and hopefully only, term as President. I plan on voting against the President in November. But as a conservative, I am very interested in guarding his, and every American constitutional officeholder’s, authority. As an evangelical Christian, I am praying for the President, for Mrs. Obama, for their family–for their health and vitality, and that God would give him wisdom in his decisions. I am going to show him the utmost respect while it concerns me to do so. When I speak of the President, I am going to give the man the benefit of the doubt. I am not going to question his integrity unless there is evidence it needs to be questioned. I will not attack him on the basis of his religion, whatever it is, because the Constitution requires no officeholder to have any particular religious article of faith to be eligible to hold office (U. S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3). I’m going to do my best to stick with my understanding of the issues, and keep the irrelevancies and absurdities down to a minimum.

No hoping he fails; no comparisons to Adolph Hitler or Karl Marx; no references to socialism when his name is mentioned; no speculations on his faith commitments; no musings on the place of his birth. He is my President, and yours too. He is the President of the United States, just as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and the forty-one previous occupants of the office before them. He is our President, not Charlton Heston, or whomever the NRA president happens to be.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison on January 30, 1787, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” One of the beauties of our Constitution is that it provides for a little rebellion against the legislature every two and six years, and against the president, every four years. It’s called an election. If you are a conservative who is against President Obama’s policies, go into your polling place and let your voice be heard. But remember to separate the man from the office. Don’t hate the man. If you are a conservative and you hate the man who holds the office of President, you are, logically speaking, on your way to treason. If you are a Christian and you hate the man who is the President, you are on your way to treason as well as murder (Matthew 5.21-22) and hypocrisy.

Let’s keep our tone civil and respectful this election season. He is the President.

Evan Lenow’s Letter to the President

Evan Lenow, Assistant Professor of Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a fine word to President Obama at his blog, “Ethics as Worship”, concerning how his compromise solution to the contraception issue does not settle the religious liberty question.

In part, Dr. Lenow writes,

I humbly request that you rescind the current contraception regulation proposed by Secretary Sebelius and rescind the insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act. These actions are a violation of your constitutional authority, and the contraceptive mandate is a violation of my guaranteed right to freedom of religion. I would like to remind you that the Bill of Rights was written “in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the federal government’s] powers” (Preamble to the Bill of Rights). The current mandates are both a misconstruction and abuse of powers. The First Amendment trumps these mandates.

You can read the rest of his letter here.