Union University
Union University Dept of Language


"I Left My Heart in San Francisco"

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

April 14, 2008 - Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama has drawn fire for his recent comment about Americans who are experiencing economic hardship. “It's not surprising then,” Obama said, “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Let us be fair. The nature of a twenty-first century presidential campaign is such that there is likely a law (Boyle’s? Murphy’s?) that the probability of a lapsus linguae increases exponentially as a function of the product of the number of speeches one gives per day times the average number of words per speech. To err is to be a politician, to forgive is humane.

Thankfully, the same breathtakingly endless horizon in political discourse that creates the very possibility for such rhetorical gaffes also opens space for interpretative redemption. Among the jaded, this is known as “spin.”

Obama was presented with just such an opportunity during a recently televised townhall meeting called The Compassion Forum. When asked to explain what he intended by these puzzling remarks, Obama began with a reference to Scripture. “Scripture talks about clinging to what’s good,” Obama said.

Explaining his own deep empathy for the significance of religious faith, Obama continued, “Religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren’t going well.” Thus, he concluded, “What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is – they’ve got family, they’ve got their faith, they’ve got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren’t bad things. That’s what they have left.”

Principles of rhetorical charity obligate cautious exegetes to give greater weight to these latter, more judicious, remarks when interpreting Obama’s earlier, more potentially inflammatory explanation for the manner in which blue-collar Americans cope with bitterness brought on by economic hardship. And undoubtedly many – mesmerized by the sincerity with which the explanation was offered – will accept Obama’s interpretation as canonical.

The difficulty is that the interpretation offered makes no sense. For “religion” was only one among many things to which people “cling” when “they get bitter.” And while Obama may sincerely believe that “religion” is among the “good” things about which Scripture tells us we ought to “cling,” surely he cannot think that the same is true of “guns” or “antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.” Are we really to believe that these latter things are among the “traditions that have been passed onto” people that Obama describes as bulwarks – good things to which we cling when life throws difficulties our way?

The wisdom literature in Scripture is filled with admonitions about taking care in our speech. (See for example: Proverbs 10:19, 12: 18, 13:3, and James 3:2.) Such scriptural prudence is not merely aimed at the occupational hazards of public life. For Paul warned Timothy that even in the church many in the last days would “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (II Timothy 4:3). And perhaps more foundationally, Jesus drew attention to the deep connection between what we say and who we are when he said, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart” (Matthew 15:18).

Regrettably, the state of political discourse in our culture is such that it is nearly impossible to ascertain, with any reasonable measure of definitiveness, what Obama initially meant. And of course, anyone who asserts otherwise will immediately be accused of partisan politics, which – as our culture would have us believe – is rooted in blind power rather than truth.

This reality should give Christians pause. For in order to take Scripture seriously, either in and of itself or where it speaks about prudence in talk, we must first take language seriously. Yet, taking language seriously is no easy task in a culture where politicians, pundits, and the occasional preacher seek to obscure meaning by sheer volume of words. Truth is not always served by more chatter.