Can you imagine President Bush delivering a speech to Muslims and quoting seamlessly from the Bible, the Quran and the Talmud? Any reconciliatory words from a born-again Christian who declared after 9/11, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," would carry no echo from Cairo.
"As-Salamu Alaykum," President Obama said Thursday, delivering the Arab greeting (peace be upon you) exactly one minute into a 55-minute speech in the Arab world's largest city.
Bush would've tumbled headfirst over those six syllables. But all stuttering and bumbling aside, he could not have pulled off what President Obama did in Cairo. Anything that Obama's speech may have lacked in substance (did critics expect a Middle East peace solution?) was outweighed by the religious openness he eloquently expressed.
"I come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect," he said to a rapt audience at Cairo University. "There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Quran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.'"
No Texan Methodist who swears by the literal interpretation of John 14:6 ("... The only way to the Father is through the Son.") could offer those words without sounding fake.
So I say today, Thank God (He of Judaism, Islam and Christianity; of Abraham) for Obama's mama. From her grave in Honolulu, Stanley Ann Dunham lives on in the enlightenment of the 44th President of the United States.
"... [F]or all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known," Obama wrote of his mother in The Audacity of Hope. "She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct. ... Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both."
As a schoolboy in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation, Dunham sent Obama to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school. Her firstborn son would study the catechism at one and learn about the muezzin's call at the other. In The Audacity Of Hope, Obama recalls that his mother might drag him to church on Easter or Christmas, but she also took him to Buddhist temples, Chinese New Year celebrations, Shinto shrines, and to ancient Hawaiian burial sites. She believed that a good education required a working knowledge of all the world's great teachings and religions. Christianity didn't occupy its own mantle.
"Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones," Obama writes. "Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three quarters of the world's people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation ¾ and who in the next breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary."
Stanley Ann Dunham is why Obama's presidency offers the world an opportunity that goes beyond failed Middle East accords and partisan bantering. She shaped for us a chief executive who shuns moral absolutism for a more inclusive perspective of God, goodness and the axis of evil.
It's why an Obama Administration presents Washington with an opportunity to replace the contradiction of compassionate conservatism with the genuine wisdom of ecumenical humility. Obama is a Christian, as he stated early in Thursday speech, but he shares a faith in all humankind.
"It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward. It is easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share," he said, finishing his speech. "There is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew."
Then he bridged the world's three most warring faiths with their own words.
"The Holy Quran tells us, 'O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.' The Talmud tells us: 'The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.' The Holy Bible tells us, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.'"
He exited the Cairo stage to a standing ovation.