Monday, March 16, 2015

Religion at the Forefront in Presidents's Speech in Selma


Earlier this month, President Barack Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when Alabama state troopers attacked 600 people attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest their lack of voting rights. President Obama’s speech focused on honoring and recognizing these early champions of civil rights and expressing the ways where the country still can build on the progress it has made. It is important to note the role religion played in his speech.  President Obama chose to conclude his speech by quoting from the book of Isaiah:

“When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:

‘Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.’

We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”

Obama’s use of the passage in Isaiah and his references to God is an example of the complex relationship that government has with religion. The exact nature of what this relationship should be has been debated ever since the framing of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment wrote that the amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” In Everson, Justice Hugo Black invoked “the wall of separation” as a useful interpretation of the first amendment and added, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.” This idea of separation has surfaced many times in the Supreme Court, notably in the form of the Lemon Test.

If one were to hold a separationist interpretation of the First Amendment, one could logically come to the conclusion that President Obama violated the Establishment Clause in the speech he gave in Selma Alabama. Acting in the highest office in the land, Obama endorsed religion in a way that was not neutral to all religions or between religion and non-religion. The term, “Those who hope in the Lord,” asserts a certain element of exclusiveness. The importance of God seemed foundational to the speech and Obama did not seem to respect the wall of separation. And Obama would certainly not be the first president to beach this wall. Nearly all US presidents have invoked God in their inaugural addresses.

However, I believe that “the wall of separation between Church & State” is not a good interpretation of the First Amendment. Thirty-seven years after the Everson case, Justice Burger wrote in Lynch v. Donnelly that the wall of separation is a useful metaphor that reminds us that any kind of established church is prohibited but is not an entirely accurate description of the practical relationship of government and religion. Rather than separation, the first amendment “affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.” In the case of Obama’s speech in Selma, I do not believe that anything he said was hostile to a particular religion or lack of religion. His use of religion appealed to what Burger describes as “an unbroken history of official acknowledgement of the role of religion in American life from at least 1789.” While there are certain instances that I believe tradition should not be used as an excuse for establishing religion, Obama’s speech does not establish religion. Unlike cases of formal public school prayers or pledges, the issue here does not involve people being forced to partake in any kind of religious activity. While Obama was acting as an agent of the state, he still is an American who is protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. If Obama believes that America has a sacred promise, he has the right to express that belief in the same way other people have the right to disagree with it. Allowing politicians to talk about religion upholds neutrality between religion and secular beliefs. If we limit what presidents and other employees of the US government can and cannot say, we are beginning to create a state that restricts ideas and judges what constitutes as religion.

Do you think President Obama overstepped his bounds and established religion in his speech at Selma? Please respond in the comment section below.

10 comments:

Nneoma I. said...

President Obama's speech in Selma, Alabama did not establish any religion. I believe that the president is allowed the rights to have personal views of his own. For example, many people vote for presidents based off their religious preference and views. The president still is an American citizen and still holds these rights under office. However the issue begins when government officials entangle government or law with religion. In this speech, Obama neither advances or inhibits religion. He merely reads a quote from a religious source. His quote from the book of Isiah is used as metaphorical text for his speech. He used this religious book for secular purpose. I see no "excessive" entanglement to where this directly affect, hurt, or advance the lives of others. The key point is that religious materials should be used for secular use.

Brandon Farrell said...

I agree with Nneoma, the president is merely quoting the book of Isiah for the purpose of his speech. As Peter mentions, many presidents have invoked God in their inaugural addresses in earlier years. The president reserves his right to freedom of religion just like every other American citizen. I see no establishment of religion in his speech at Selma because he is just referencing religious doctrine.

Adam Drake said...

I agree with Brandon and Nneoma that President Obama did not violate the Establishment Clause. I believe that his use of scripture could be seen as a tribute to the civil rights movement. Leaders like MLK relied heavily upon Christian texts and beliefs throughout their campaign. The relationship between church and state is a complex one because there is no denying that our country's roots are religious in nature. In this case, the President did not affirm these beliefs, but rather just quoted some common verses.

Courtney W. said...

I agree with the authors of the previous comments that President Obama, in referencing and quoting Isaiah, did not violate the Establishment Clause. He, just like us, is a citizen of the United States and he has the right to reference religion in a speech if he so chooses. He did not mandate that any religion was the correct religion or even mention that anyone had to believe what he was saying. He simply used verses that would help to get the point of his speech across.

Nina N. said...

I don't think it established a religion. But I do think it was inappropriate on his part. The president is the ultimate representative of the state and although as an individual he does have the right to freely exercise his religion and speech, I don't think this fully applies to his role as president. Quoting this part would be fine if it included solely secular references from it but a phrase like "For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise" seems to violate this secular use.

Trevor T said...

I agree that President Obama did not violate the establishment clause during his speech in Selma. Obama used a scripture to express the hardships faced by the people on "Bloody Sunday," and how the Americans must keep moving forward to provide a better America for the generation to come. I hold anaccommodationist view that establishment of religion is a blurred line rather than a fortified wall. Using the scripture as a useful comparison to speak on a secular issue is by no means establishment. Obama is a free American just like anyone else and has the right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. Politicians' religious beliefs are a pivotal part of their following and play a role. Obama is not attempting to advance religion or entangle it with government, he is attempting to conclude a moving speech with a metaphor to promote a secular movement.

Ben K. said...

I do not think that Obama violated the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause by quoting a religious text within his speech. Political figures have throughout history appealed to religion. The clearest example of this is the common phrase “God Bless the United States of America” that many politicians end their speeches with. In my own belief, in order to violate the Establishment Clause, there must be substance behind the words spoken by President Obama. If the President stated that he wished for all public schools to teach the Bible and there was a political policy to achieve this present, than we have a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, if Obama is merely quoting a religious text at a ceremony, there is no breach of the 1st Amendment.

Nate Hunter said...

Even though I don't think it was a direct establishment of religion, and that Obama did have the right as an American citizen to invoke a higher power for the purpose of dramatic effect in his speech, it was inappropriate for him to imply a singular deity or higher power. I think that could potentially alienate certain americans who don't proscribe to the monotheistic dogma that dominates the united states religious preferences. The highest office in the government shouldn't affiliate itself with or endorse any sort of religion in any way(in my opinion). So even though he had the right to use the passage, and say the things he did, and that he was protected by his constitutional rights, it didn't sit well with me. As someone who doesn't align himself with those religions that dominate popular culture, it is upsetting.

Emily C. said...

I agree with Peter and the previous commenters that Obama's religious references do not constitute an establishment of religion, and that he had every right to make these comments. The text that Obama referenced is not exclusive to one religion, and he is not suggesting that all Americans accept this passage as true, therefore it cannot be deemed an establishment of religion.

Furthermore, I disagree with a few commenters who argue that Obama's actions were inappropriate. He invoked ideas that the protestors held true and principles by which demonstrators were guided. Obama was using the same ideology to which marchers prescribed. Additionally, I agree wholeheartedly with Peter's statement regarding the restriction of government officials' speech: it is essential that Obama be able to utilize the same First-Amendment Rights that all citizens can. He was elected to office by citizens who understood his religious beliefs, so the fact that he wishes to express them should not be surprising or condemned.

Kristen B. said...

I also agree that Obama's religious references did not create an establishment of religion. When traumatic events occur most people look to religion or somewhere outside of themselves to help find meaning and Obama used religious references to help unify everyone during his speech. Obama wasn't trying to convert people. He was trying to read a passage that he believed Americans could relate to in order to make his speech more moving and meaningful.