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Jerry Weissman Headshot

Obama, the Preacher, and the Devil

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Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish film director, made a film called The Devil's Eye, which opens with a scene of Don Juan in Hell. The legendary lover is about to seduce a woman, when suddenly, another woman bursts into the room in a fit of jealous rage. Brandishing a knife, she accuses Don Juan of infidelity. He stands up, bares his chest, and says, "Go ahead, stab me. My chest will open to your blade, just as your legs once opened to my blade."

The woman drops the knife and falls submissively into his arms. Don Juan swoops her up and is about to make his second conquest, when suddenly, the door opens again. This time, the Devil enters and stops the seduction.

Hell for Don Juan is being unable to practice his specialty.

Barack Obama's specialty is oratory. 24 hours after he delivered his stirring Inaugural Address to an audience of almost two million people on the Washington Mall, nearly 40 million on global television, and countless millions more on an overloaded Internet, the tables turned and he found himself in the audience to a speech of a very different character.

The new president attended a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, where the main sermon was delivered by the Reverend Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Reverend Watkins, to put it mildly, is no Barack Obama.

Watch her sermon on YouTube and you will see an example of someone who is trying too hard. In an effort to sound dramatic, she rises and drops the pitch of her voice as steeply as a roller coaster, and she punctuates her cadence with erratic stops, starts, and stretches, giving it the staccato of a Morse code ticker. "... our individual well- be--ing depends on a wo-o-rld in which liberty and jus--tice prevail. (Pause) This is the biblical (pause) way. It is also (pause) the American way." She accompanies her words with a vigorous flapping of her arms which, clad in her billowing clerical robe, make it appear as if she is about to take flight.

Barack Obama gestures to express himself, and he gestures quite often, but he usually keeps his movements contained. During the Inaugural, his gestures stayed within the width of his body. A report in Time observed, "He's famed for his oratory, but watching him speak, you suspect he leaves about 30 percent of the emotion on the table, wary of playing the Pentecostal preacher."

What the devil was Barack Obama thinking as he sat there listening to that preacher in the Washington National Cathedral?