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At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama spoke of the atrocities committed by Islamic terrorist group, ISIS. However, not in the way you would expect from a President that needs to walk the boundary between the civil sphere and the religious external environment.

In The Performance of Politics, Jeffery Alexander explains that in order for a candidate to become a collective representation, he or she “must become not only a symbol of the civil sphere but also…a symbol of the spheres that form its boundaries – despite the paradoxical fact that these other spheres confine civil society’s most democratic aspirations.” (Alexander, 3)

In this way, Obama should reflect the civil qualities of equality, liberty and solidarity, while also referring to his inherent Christianity. He must acknowledge the American Civil Religion – the way in which the state makes use of religion and how citizens give religious meaning to the state. The U.S’s civil religion is the strongest out of the advanced democracies in the world – and arguably one of the strongest in the world. And this religion is inherently Protestant Christian.

At the National Prayer Breakfast, however, Obama states: “Remember that during the crusades and the inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” He made clear the distinction between Islamic faith and the actions of ISIS (Eilperin, Washington Post).

Conservatives, of course, responded very critically to this statement, angry that Christians were compared to terrorists. If this were stated during an election, Obama would probably be vilified as an “other.” As they did in the 2008 election, the Right would insist on Obama’s “religious disqualification,” and Obama would need to constantly defend his Christianity (Eilperin, Washington Post).

So what happened between 2008 and 2015?

Well, the obvious answer is that Obama is not in a campaign anymore, nor does he have the threat of reelection to worry about.

However, I think it is deeper than that.

There is a rise of secularism within the United States. The election of 2004 could be claimed as the last successful campaign of the religious right, as the unaffiliated voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. By 2013, the unaffiliated formed the second largest religious group in the US, according to Pew.

So, Obama must now walk the boundary between the civil sphere and religion by also appealing to the unaffiliated. I argue, that he does this by delving deeper into the civil sphere, and turning his religion into spirituality.

How I understood Alexander’s argument is that the boundary or line between the civil sphere and the external religious sphere is blurry. One must be a devout Christian and see all Christians as the promised people, while also committed to the complete separation of church and state and the free exercise of other religions. However, by Obama delving further into the ideals of the civil sphere as the only characteristics a leader needs and as the only characteristics the American people need, this boundary becomes more distinct.

This is Obama’s civil spirituality, as Diana Butler Bass explains in The Obama Doctrine: American Civil Spirituality.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama usually referred to the more traditional form of American Civil Religion during the 2008 election. He frequently called upon “biblical language and Christian theology” (Bass, The Obama Doctrine).

His tone changed during the 2012 election. His speeches spoke of a broadly applicable higher power – to appeal to a wider faith audience. Bass uses the example of the journey, an image present in many different faiths, as Obama’s way to speak to a wide array of religions (Bass, The Obama Doctrine).

Obama’s public God, “is a personal spirit, a presence of inclusion, community, empathy, justice and service…Thus, Obama opened the theological door of American civil religion toward atheists and humanists as well as those who hold to more conventional faiths” (Bass, The Obama Doctrine).

One of the first examples of this is found in his Second Inaugural Address.

During his first campaign, President Obama wanted to be judged by only the qualities he possessed in the civil sphere. However, since being religiously faithful is construed as essential for civil capacity as a very religious nation, he was also quick to profess his Christian faith and the deep hope he places in it to lead the county into a new era. I argue that, although still a Christian, he has slowly escaped from the idea that he must prove his loyalty to this one faith and this one God.

The line between the civil sphere and the religious sphere is slightly more separate.

His speech at the National Day of Prayer is insistent on the fact that the faith of Islam should be separated from the actions of terrorists. And the faith of Christianity should be separated from their history as well.

Once again this could be explained by his lame-duck attitude. However, I think it also speaks to a gradual change in which he does not feel the need to profess only the merits of Christianity. It could actually be argued that President Bush was the first to start this trend – especially with the way that he separated the Islamic faith from the terrorists of 9/11.

While I believe America is nowhere near electing a non-Christian President and civil religion does, and will continue to, have a major role in the American political psyche, the unaffiliated are becoming increasingly important. This means that the boundary between the civil sphere and religion could be slightly more distinct. There might not be as much of a need for future candidates to express their deep faith – at least not as much. A slightly drastic view, however, in 2016, we shall see whether the unaffiliated vote makes a big difference and how candidates react to this.

Works Cited

  1. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obamas-speech-at-prayer-breakfast-called-offensive-to-christians/2015/02/05/6a15a240-ad50-11e4-ad71-7b9eba0f87d6_story.html
  3. http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/01/24/the-obama-doctrine-american-civil-spirituality/30562
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