Last Wednesday, in anticipation of the Fourth of July, Time magazine published a pair of mini-essays on patriotism -- one by Barack Obama, one by John McCain.
Given the holiday, the mainstream venue, and the fact that we're kicking off the general election of a presidential campaign, you know, without even asking, that -- no disrespect to Time magazine -- this was a set-up deal. You know that the feature wasn't conceived as a "point-counterpoint." You know that Time simply asked each campaign to provide a brief, eloquent ode to patriotism -- no harm, no foul -- and that both sides more or less played along by the same unspoken, feel-good rules.
This wasn't a place to pick fights.
Recalling a time, during his childhood, when he lived overseas with his mother, Obama wrote that
one of my earliest memories is of her reading to me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, explaining how its ideas applied to every American, black and white and brown alike. She taught me that those words, and the words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the brutal injustices we witnessed other people suffer during those years abroad.
Soon thereafter, he observed that "the true genius of America" is
a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles. It's the idea that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted.
To say that these are the kinds of rhetorical chestnuts we have come to expect from Obama is not, in any way, to diminish their significance.
Still, in reading Obama's meditation for Time, one couldn't help but be struck by how little it had to do with the specific, persistent attacks on his own patriotism. Attacks which often have been fueled by false, fear-mongering speculation about his religious faith. Attacks which thus invite -- even demand -- from a former professor of Constitutional law a vigorous defense of patriotism on the First Amendment grounds of religious freedom.
So when word began to circulate this past weekend that Obama would cue up this week with a major address on patriotism -- and that the goal of the speech was to launch a counter-narrative that would be able to unseat months and years worth of anti-Obama smear emails on this issue -- the question was obvious: Having created the opportunity to say exactly what he wanted to say about patriotism -- and now unbounded by the pleasantries of a joint feature with John McCain in Time magazine and by the artificial constraints of the column inch -- would Obama do what he had not done in the Time essay?
Would he get to the religious heart of the matter?
...at certain times over the last sixteen months, I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for. [emphasis mine]
In every generation, it seems, America has had its retinue of self-appointed secular priests who have sought to impose a religious litmus test for patriotism --- to all-but-insist that any true patriot must attest to and practice the tenets of orthodox Christianity, as these priests define them. This is ironic, of course, given that the very quest for religious freedom was a key impetus for the country's founding.
The effort to define patriotism in religious terms finds its latest incarnation in the suspicion -- if not outright xenophobia -- that continues to be directed towards this country's Muslims, in the wake of 9/11.
Indeed, the attempt to cast Obama himself as a closet Muslim -- as if being a Muslim were somehow un-American -- lies at the deepest, darkest heart of the most persistent attacks on his patriotism.
Whatever else Obama did with his speech yesterday, he needed to find a way to acknowledge all of these impulses and push them back -- hard. To make this one thing perfectly clear: that being a patriot requires that one defend religious freedom to the utter hilt.
He didn't even try. Not really.
Obama needed to declare that being a patriot does not require that one subscribe to any one religion, or to anyone's particular interpretation of that religion. He needed to say that there are Christian patriots and Jewish patriots and Muslim patriots and Buddhist patriots and Hindu patriots and patriots who -- because freedom of religion includes freedom from religion -- do not subscribe to any religion at all, organized or otherwise.
Obama knows this. He believes this. He needed to say this. He didn't.
Instead, he offered only the most generic platitudes. Two, to be precise:
...for me, patriotism is...loyalty to America's ideals....I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one. [emphasis mine]
...what makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better....our revolution was waged for the sake of that belief --- that we could be governed by laws, not men; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want and assemble with whomever we want and worship as we please.... [emphasis mine]
Was this a good speech? Yes. It was a very good speech. But on the issue of religion -- potentially the most threatening instrument of attack on his patriotism -- what we needed from Obama yesterday was a patriotism of real Constitutional grit.
We didn't get it.
Perception, they say, is reality. And after a week during which Obama was criticized as having sold out his brand on everything from FISA to gun control to capital punishment, yesterday's speech was an opportunity for him to reclaim his brand on patriotism and religion.
Instead, he punted.