President Obama had barely finished his latest speech on the recovery plan before a friend of mine was harrumphing about it on Twitter: “We are not a Christian nation, but the Sermon on the Mount should guide our economy. Oh well.”
You’ll have to forgive her skepticism. She’s a journalist, and a talented one at that, so it’s her job. She’s also Jewish, hence wary of intrusions of Christian theology into public discourse.
Given my friend’s reaction, I was prepared to find Mara Vanderslice’s fingerprints on the transcript of Obama’s remarks. Vanderslice is all about framing economics in moral language, and she has a thing for Matthew’s gospel.
But to my surprise, I found Obama’s speech less wrapped in evangelical concern for the “least of these” than a gritty, Lincolnesque determination to hold things together.
The Sermon on the Mount citation came about halfway through his speech:
There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house…it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”
Obama then went on to list “five pillars” of a strong economy: an effective regulatory scheme; investments in education, energy, and health care; and savings in federal spending.
This, let us say, is hardly visionary stuff. With the exception of cracking down on Wall Street—and that only modestly—this could have the economic platform of any president from Reagan on. But that the president could have gone much farther with his plans does not completely obviate his point. A strong economy will need these things, and perhaps more.
More interesting for our purposes, Obama returned to Jesus’ words at the close of his speech. In a characteristic rhetorical strategy, he chastised the “impatience” of Washington, dismissing preemptively easy fixes. Then, acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, he called the nation to a higher vision of what it might be:
It is that house upon the rock. Proud, sturdy, and unwavering in the face of the greatest storm. We will not finish it in one year or even many, but if we use this moment to lay that new foundation; if we come together and begin the hard work of rebuilding; if we persist and persevere against the disappointments and setbacks that will surely lie ahead, then I have no doubt that this house will stand and the dream of our founders will live on in our time. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
This, not coincidentally, is a post-partisan ideal. It recalls Lincoln’s famed “house divided” speech, which in turn drew upon Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”
So the president is calling for national unity in the face of crisis. It’s possible that this is a signal that Americans should expect controversy, and lots of it, as his economic program begins to unfold. Or he might be wrapping his rather humdrum agenda in the language of moral urgency.
The spoil of the poor is in your houses; what do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?
It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.
Or Obama might have exegeted Amos, chapter 5, a passage much beloved by Martin Luther King:
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!… They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
…In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
For all the length of these scripture selections, the point here is simple. Obama could have gone along with the economic emphasis of the Bible, which is justice. Instead, he chose a passage to emphasize a message of firm foundations and solidarity in common cause.
That message as I say is fine, as far as it goes. Given the talk of secession, perhaps it’s even appropriate to the moment.
But I suspect that President Obama, like his hero Lincoln, will discover soon and very soon that a pragmatic position with national unity as its highest value cannot escape the very issues of justice it seeks to set aside. Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, but he wound up emancipating the slaves. Obama wants a solid basis for the economy. He may find that to do that requires far more than the same technocratic increments that have been tried and found wanting over the past three decades. It will take a determination to root out the legalized corruption and oppression that undermine our system.
Obama wants a house built on the rock. That’s all well and good. Paradoxically, though, it means that he will have to build his house on the waters of justice, over and against those who “trample the poor,” “take a bribe,” or “push aside the needy.” Until he (or somebody) is willing to confront the wrongdoers and push for an economic system that is more transparent, more equitable, and more fair, our national house will be geared toward exploitation, not the production of wealth or communal well-being.
In other words, we’ll all be sitting on a sandbar, just waiting for the next storm to blow the whole damn place down again.