First Lady Michelle Obama made a sustained analogy between black voters supporting President Obama and the black church practicing the Christian faith last week, before concluding that supporters of her husband can carry the “legacy” of Biblical figures who had faith in God.
“And I want you to think of the stories in the Bible about folks like Abel and Noah; folks like Abraham and Sarah, and the verse in Hebrews that says, ‘All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised. They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,’” the first lady told the African Methodist Episcopal Church Conference on Thursday. “Through so many heartbreaks and trials, those who came before us kept the faith. They could only see that promised land from a distance, but they never let it out of their sight.”
Mrs. Obama merged that distinctly-religious heritage with support for her husband’s political endeavors when she told the AME that “if we’re once again willing to work for it, if we’re once again willing to sacrifice for it, then I know — I know — we can carry that legacy forward . . . and finally fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our children.”
The blending of religious precedent and political goals developed throughout Mrs. Obama’s speech. “It’s kind of like church,” she said in an early analogy. “You see, living out our eternal salvation is not a once-a-week kind of deal. And in a more literal sense, neither is citizenship. Democracy is also an everyday activity. And being an engaged citizen should once again be a daily part of our lives.”
President Obama made a similar kind of argument to the Congressional Black Caucus last year. After recalling the Biblical story of the three men in the fiery furnace — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — who had a “good crazy” kind of faith in God, Obama made his pitch. “We’re a good kind of crazy because no matter how hard things get, we keep the faith; we keep fighting; we keep moving forward,” he said, before telling his audience to “press on” for good jobs and other policy positions.
The rhetoric of “the promised land” and other Biblical tropes are not alien to American politics, although it’s difficult to imagine a Republican candidate such as Rick Santorum escaping public outcry for speaking so theologically.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned against making “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” as he called for a push “toward the promised land of racial justice” in his letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Dr. King invoked that same story of the fiery furnace to justify civil disobedience against unjust laws. “[T]here is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake,” he wrote in 1963. President Obama, on the other hand, used the story to rally support for his administration.
And King wrote as a pastor to other religious leaders about their duty to fight unjust laws, whereas the President and First Lady are speaking in their official capacity to crowds they hope will propel him to victory this November.
Given that political emphasis, the language might feed what Yale University’s Philip Gorski calls the “messianic hopes invested in Obama.”