David Gelernter responds to Conor Friedersdorf

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has posted a critique of Professor David Gelernter’s Power Line post “What keeps this failed president above water?” Friedersdorf takes issue with Professor Gelernter’s assertion that Obama “is post-religious: he took his family to a church where the religion seemed to be America-hatred. There are no biblical echoes in his speeches, as there have been in the speeches of so many presidents, left and right, and such other American leaders as Martin Luther King….” Friedersdorf gives his post the title “This is your brain on partisanship.” Professor Gelernter has forwarded his response to Fridersdorf’s post. I thought readers might be interested in the exchange. Here is Professor Gelernter’s response:

I appreciate Mr Friedersdorf ‘s generous references to my work: many thanks.

But he hasn’t shown me that Obama isn’t “post-religious.” Mr Friedersdorf is absolutely right that instead of writing “There are no biblical echoes in his [Obama’s] speeches,” I should have written that are almost no biblical echoes: I apologize to Power Line’s readers and to Mr Friedersdorf. Of course the president refers to religion and Christianity occasionally; he is an American politician and no idiot. It’s the gratingly superficial nature of these references that makes Obama seem as if he doesn’t give a damn about Christianity or the Bible. And I’ll return to that word “seem,” which Mr Friedersdorf calls a weasel word.

Here are Mr Friedersdorf’s examples from what he calls “the two biggest speeches of Obama’s career.” First, his four cites from Obama’s 2004 Convention keynote, with the judge’s ruling in each case: do these excerpts cite or echo the Bible or do they not? (Full disclosure: I’m the judge.)

“…our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is the true genius of America, a faith…”

No. This is of course a quote from Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration. In the Bible there are no “inalienable rights,” there are duties, to God and man.

“It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work.”

Yes: a reference to Cain and Abel in Genesis. (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”)

“The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

No, unless it’s the adjective “awesome”—which has seen an awesome lot of traffic in recent years.

“Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.”

No. This is Obama’s speechwriters, not the Bible. Unconditional hope in the future is certainly not Christian; Christian eschatology tends to be distinctively negative in tone (Dies irae, dies illa—days of wrath and of doom, from the requiem mass; or look at the face Michelangelo gave Jesus in the Last Judgment; and then there is Puritanism….). Jewish eschatology is sometimes universalist and optimistic; often not. In much of the Hebrew Bible, there is no eschatology; and one of the deepest of all biblical statements on man’s fate is the story of Moses, who dies at the very edge of the Promised Land without ever setting foot in it.

Of course the Israeli national anthem is HaTikah, The hope, based on a Hebrew poem by Naphtali Herz Imber. But somehow I doubt that Obama was basing himself on that particular national anthem.

Now, the inaugural address.

• …in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Yes: childish things. The “God-given promise that all are equal” sounds like another reference to the Declaration. The “full measure of happiness” echoes Lincoln’s last full measure of devotion.

• “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

No. (What does it mean, anyway?)

• “Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.”

No.

Mr Friedersdorf accuses me of using “weasel words” when I write that Obama “took his family to a church where the religion seemed to be America-hatred [his bold, to show where I am weaseling around].” But there’s nothing weasly about “seems” when you are reporting an impression instead of a fact. Why seems it so particular to thee, Mr Friedersdorf? And that’s precisely the point: Obama seems to have no religion, to be “post-religious.” I don’t pretend to know the man’s inner life. But having known many religious Jews and Christians, I can say that Obama doesn’t sound like one to me.

Consider the sheer superficiality of his biblical and religious references. “God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.” Does that make you Christian or Jewish? Or is it the mere automatic repetition of phrases that are said on a million occasions without a second thought? Irving Berlin wrote a song called “God Bless America.” Does that make him religious? He also wrote that he was dreaming about a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know. Of course he was a Jew, of sorts. He was born in Russia and grew up on the Lower East Side.

Politicians say lots of things to win us over. Our jobs are to judge whether these things are sincere or mere song lyrics designed to be catchy. Obama’s references to Christianity strike me as song lyrics. My guess is that lots of people agree, and that this explains the public’s amusing difficulty in deciding whether he is Christian or Muslim. Jimmy Carter was one of the worst presidents in American history, as bad as Obama (almost); but no one doubts his perfect sincerity when he speaks of his Christian faith.

Finally: Mr Friedersdorf quotes Obama’s speech on race from the 2008 campaign. One sentence includes a string of biblical cites: “I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones.” Of course those weren’t Christians in the lion’s den, that was Daniel and he was a Jew. I don’t get the impression that Obama has either the Bible or Christianity in sharp focus.

I want to thank Mr Friedersdorf again for the generosity of his references to my work.

David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of America Lite.

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