This past Sunday, the president did something he hasn't done since Easter: take his family to church. News media viewed the act as permanently answering mean Texas Gov. Rick Perry's accusation (made just last week, coincidentally) that Pres. Obama was waging "war on religion."
Poor Perry, of course, had made another Cowboy Rookie mistake, this time assuming that media rules for a politician's religion were no respecters of party affiliation. No doubt Perry could learn from Brent Bozell's bible on the subject.
Let that debate carry on elsewhere, however. The president also spoke upon the meaning of Christmas, and his remarks are instructive -- all the more so if one considers them in light of his campaign efforts to recapture alienated Christians without disgusting the other elements of his coalition:
This is the season to celebrate the story of how, more than two thousand years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among cattle and sheep. He was no ordinary child. He was the manifestation of God’s love. And every year we celebrate His birth because the story of Jesus Christ changed the world. For me, and for millions of Americans, His story has filled our hearts and inspired our lives. It moves us to love one another; to help and serve those less fortunate; to forgive; to draw close to our families; to be grateful for all that has been given to us; to keep faith; and to hold on to an enduring hope in humanity.
Service to others. Compassion to all. Treating others as we wish ourselves to be treated. Those values aren’t just at the center of Christianity; those are values that are shared by all faiths. So tonight let us all rededicate ourselves to each other. And, in that spirit, from my family to yours, happy holidays. Merry Christmas. God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.
Even for a man singularly gifted in the art of speaking a glorious nothing, these comments are remarkably bland. Obama makes sounds like Christmas sentiment that are somehow wrung completely free of it. His proclamation is thoroughly void of any wonder and joy of Christmas. Hark, the herald Barack interpolated. Yawn to the world. Let earth receive a thing.
This clinical whitewash of a Christmas speech, so superficial and un-Christmasy though swaddled in Christmas cheer, brings to mind Camille Paglia's criticism of Lady Gaga as a sex symbol curiously devoid of all sexiness. Paglia notes that despite Gaga's calculated use of sexual imagery ("showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution"), "Gaga isn’t sexy at all … a gangly marionette or plasticised android." In the "manufactured personality" of Lady Gaga, Paglia sees only "a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism."
Such a comparison begs explanation. Obama's public persona has been much remarked upon even by political allies for these same faults: calculated, artificial, not genuine, even strange and remote. His displays of religiosity have served to underscore them; consider last week's celebration of Hanukkah two weeks early, unconcernedly giving all appearance of a pro forma exercise in voter-bloc ingratiation.
So, too, there is much of the plasticized, automated sentimentality in Obama's comments on the meaning of Christmas. His opening imagery lulls with familiar and warming Nativity motifs: "season to celebrate," "child was born," "find rest only in a stable," etc. The president goes so far as to say the child "was the manifestation of God's love," following that with "every year we celebrate His birth because the story of Jesus Christ changed the world."
Thus far he has kept well within tradition, as is appropriate, for how else does tradition perpetuate? Furthermore, he has given prologue for an explanation of how "the story of Jesus Christ changed the world." What followed, however, was the Gaga-esque, antiseptic meaning of Christmas.
The president tells of a story that "filled our hearts and inspired our lives" to do, well, several nice things, keep faith, and in sum, hold onto hope in … humanity. Lest we forget, he then ticks off the nice things again in android fashion: "Service to others. Compassion to all. Treating others as we wish ourselves to be treated." Compute, compute.
There still remains the hint of Jesus Christ in this story and its inspiration, but Gabama is on it. Turns out those "values" aren't uniquely Christian at all; they "are shared by all faiths," you see.
"So," he says, moving to the logical consequence of the inspiration he's shared and proceeding to urge us to take action as only a man who once said "We are the ones we've been waiting for" could: "tonight let us all rededicate ourselves to each other."
On final reflection, there is nothing special to the Obama version of Christmas. It offers a nice story that gives the same values as any belief system. The figure of the child inspires reflection only on better interactions between people.
Those looking for real Christmas joy, the thrill of hope for a weary world -- that God and sinners may be reconciled, the hope of all the years! -- must travel on. When you find it, dear friends, please, repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy.