I don’t want to distract from this Friday’s inaugural festivities, but one final thought has come to me about the Obama presidency, and if I don’t share it now, it will be, as they say, overtaken by events.
It occurred to me the night that President Obama gave his farewell address, a week or two ago. I didn’t think too much of that speech per se, but his valedictory got me thinking about moments when I really did appreciate our 44th president, but may not have given due credit.
The main thing that came to mind was the president’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” in Charleston a year and a half ago, at the funeral for South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney was one of the nine black Americans murdered by a white supremacist at the end of a Bible study he was leading in the city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I remember hearing at the time that Obama broke out in song, and it certainly sounded special. But I don’t even remember watching it at the time — I’m not sure I actually watched it until a couple weeks ago.
It passed without much comment, let alone praise, from the right, best I recall. It bothers me that I was I was either so busy figuring out what was wrong with the president’s next tax proposal or the way he paints crime statistics that I didn’t notice what an amazing thing he did.
Really, it’s amazing:
The president of the United States — the country we worry is losing all touch with religious faith, with Christian values, with any spirituality at all — there he is, going solo in what might as well be a beatitude of the black church, singing a rousing spiritual, with AME clergy, in their purple robes and two centuries of tradition, joining him in heavenly praise.
Yes, it wasn’t exactly impromptu — but it was a cappella, and it was an exceptional spiritual moment on full display to a mass culture that has precious few of them. The words the president continues on with — “Clementa Pinckney found that grace, Cynthia Hurd found that grace . . .” — are no less beautiful. When a Christian says those words — when John Newton wrote them, and Obama sang them — it’s not about some kind of anodyne, humanistic grace. It’s about Grace. It’s the president of the United States proclaiming the beatific vision.
He who sings, Saint Augustine said, prays twice. I didn’t agree with much of what President Obama did in office, but I’m so glad he sang on that day in Charleston, when we needed at least double the prayers.