I just saw an article on CNN.com — by a religion prof at Boston University — saying there were “echoes of President Ronald Reagan” in President Obama’s speech at the interfaith service at Boston’s Catholic cathedral on Thursday. Professor Stephen Prothero is correct that, on this occasion, President Obama expressed the “optimism and resolve” that Reagan had on a number of occasions; but I think that, in calling Obama “the Democrats’ Reagan,” Prothero slights the fact that both Reagan and Obama were channeling a deeper tradition of American civic faith. Reagan, after all, did not invent America’s sense of itself out of whole cloth. Prothero gets closer to the central truth when he says that “the heart of Obama’s speech” was the quotation from II Timothy 1:7: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”
That’s a pretty good summary of the American attitude, from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, down to the present day. Man is a fragile, fallen creature, and we will sometimes not live up to the better angels of our nature. But in general, we are able to resist the darker impulses, and not give in to fear. Indeed, the very fact that we had this interfaith service is a victory: a national reassertion of our basic character, as a people who protect and cherish the rights of people to be different, in the matter of religion above all. Our most powerful enemies today — those who fight for al-Qaeda and its protégés and successors — stand for the exact opposite impulse. They seek to impose their religion at gunpoint and turn the world into a barbaric prison of theocracy. At that interfaith service in Boston, America made that difference explicit, to our enemies and to the whole world. This weekend, at our own families’ synagogues, mosques, and churches, we can all take a minute to reaffirm the gratitude we feel, to be living in a country that stands, without fear, for freedom.