The Corner


Obama’s ‘Amazing Grace’

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.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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