Politics & Policy

When Obama Invokes Holy Writ

(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
There can be little doubt that the president believes that he is right.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Last night, the Lord was apparently on the side of President Obama’s executive order halting deportations and granting select documentation to 5 million immigrants illegally living in the United States. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger,” the president said in his address, paraphrasing verses from Exodus. “We were strangers once, too.”

Over at The Federalist, D. C. McAllister notes that the commandment recorded in Exodus 23:9 is surrounded by a number of others that the president is likely not inclined to promote — summary execution of sorceresses, anyone? — and is clearly situated in a particular “linguistic and historical” context. To take only the most obvious point: The situation of the Jews under Pharaoh — rounded up into slavery, infant male offspring drowned in the Nile — was somewhat different from that of illegal immigrants in America, who have been known to adorn the cover of Time magazine.

But those finer exegetical points are irrelevant when the Spirit moves you. “America cannot wait forever,” said the president. Of course, that was in August, more than a month after announcing he would pursue an executive action halting deportations by Labor Day. Just after Labor Day, he delayed any action until after November’s midterm elections. Moral imperatives have their limits.

Nor was that the first time the Spirit’s promptings were quashed. In 2009, Barack Obama took office with commanding Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, and at his back an extraordinary tide of public goodwill. He had already told supporters across the country that “immigration reform” is “my commitment to you. . . . That is a priority I will pursue from my very first day.” Instead, he expended his political capital on a cap-and-trade bill that died in the (Democratic) Senate, and on Obamacare, which lost Democrats the House and has never been out of the headlines since — and not for the reasons the president hoped. When circumstances to “do the right thing” were ideal, he did nothing. The Lord apparently had other priorities.

But one can go back even further. In 2007, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, working across the aisle with Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, had nearly forged a coalition large enough to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Writing at the Wall Street Journal three years later, William McGurn (who was in the Bush White House at the time) observed that despite Barack Obama’s campaign claims that he had “reached across the aisle in the Senate to fight for comprehensive immigration reform,” he had in fact been instrumental in backing amendments that helped to kill it. His own amendment, which sought to replace education and skills as the criteria for green cards with blood relations, discouraged on-the-fence Republicans, as did his support for an amendment from North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, who hoped to eliminate the guest-worker program. Over Kennedy’s objections, Dorgan’s amendment passed — by one vote. “A lot of the senators who think and say most strongly that something has to be done to reform immigration are the ones voting for these killer amendments,” said ABC News’s Charles Gibson at the time.

To be fair to the president, who despite his holier-than-thou sermonizing is no cleric, the grubby nature of politics requires give and take, compromises, calculations. He can’t spend his days on the street corner preaching truth to power. But it is a not inconspicuous coincidence that the president always reaches his moral apogee precisely when it is most politically convenient.

There can be little doubt that the president, whether on health care or climate change or this immigration executive order, believes that he is right. The problem is that, when it comes to Barack Obama, it is never clear what that means. This is, recall, the man who defined “sin” as “being out of alignment with my values.”

McAllister points out that the usual separation-of-church-and-state crowd has been remarkably quiet about the president’s invocation of the Old Testament, that bloodiest and most patriarchal part of holy writ. “No scathing posts. No statement from the Freedom From Religious Foundation. Oh, right,” she says, “this is a Democratic president, so it’s okay.” True enough. But this president specifically has exhibited the special moral flippancy inevitable when values are “my” values and nothing more.

The secular Left is unconcerned that the president quoted the Bible because they are reasonably certain that he does not believe in it, at least in any substantive sense. They are convinced that for him invoking Scripture is the equivalent of invoking Shakespeare or Yeats — an homage to good advice by some wise dead guy, and a nice rhetorical flourish. Right-leaning critics would be hard-pressed to believe differently, for they, too, have seen how the president’s “values” tend to “evolve” at just the right political moment.

There are serious moral considerations to be made concerning our immigration policy. But Barack Obama has made clear that he is not possessed of the intellectual seriousness required to engage them, and the guile that has accompanied his moral reasoning heretofore is good reason not to listen if he did.

He wants what he wants when he wants it, and will say what is required to justify it. The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but the president does not.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

[Editors Note: This piece incorrectly identified former North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan. It has since been corrected.]

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