Three-year-olds can’t really know, but I tried to tell my daughters at breakfast what this morning really means: That anybody can grow up to be president of the United States. That anything really is possible. That pyramids can be flipped.
I know that he’s not president yet; that she (the first woman!) is not going to be president; and that many Americans are apprehensive about what just happened in the Democratic primary. Yesterday I spoke to a deeply Christian Republican in Indiana who grumbled about who Obama was hanging around with in Chicago. We all know the attacks are coming. He seems to have been so careful about what he did and who he hung out with and how he dressed and what he took from the different cultures of his life. How could he not have been more careful about who he hung out with? Didn’t he know it would come back to haunt him? As a Southerner, I’m afraid my personal theory is that he may not have truly understood the depth of the racism and resentment that would face him when he got outside of Kansas, Hawaii, Cambridge, New York, and Chicago. It’s different in the places where slaves used to life. It just is.
But that’s not the part of slavery that today is about: Today is about the triumph over slavery. Today is about looking at a situation in the world in which one is oppressed, or ghettoized, or despairing, or hopeless, and realizing that there is a rival narrative. There is an alternative. And make no mistake, that view — the central narrative of revolution, the central premise of America — comes directly from the Bible. Specifically, it comes from the story of Moses.
Moses is the one who created the template for how to escape from slavery. Moses is the one who wrote the script for how to stand up to tyranny, how to carve out a claim for human dignity and social justice, how to look up at an authority figure who offers no escape, reach out to a higher authority, and take the first steps to a better future. For 400 years, Americans have tapped into that story — Columbus quoted it; the Pilgrims invoked it; Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams proposed it for the seal of the United States; slaves sung it on the Underground Railroad; Lincoln echoed it; the Statue of Liberty reflected it; Martin Luther King tapped into it; and now Barack Obama is once more bringing it to the fore of American public life.
At times he has made his debt to Moses public — as he did last year in Selma — but last night it was more subtle. He stitched some wounds in St. Paul. Quoted the founders and Lincoln (the last at least twice, I believe). Brought up Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. He was trying to innoculate himself against the patriotism charge. He even wore a flag pin. But he didn’t, at least on my first read and hearing it live on television, quote the Bible. That’s another wound he has (the Muslim shadow and the Wright cloud), and my one criticism of an otherwise stirring, properly sternly delivered (impressive that he didn’t gloat), and emotional appearance is that he could do with a bit more biblical imagery. The kids in the audience may not recognize it; the punditry will surely miss it; and most people will not care. But a lot of people will hear it and take note.
So bravo to the return of the Exodus narrative in American life.
And more Moses, please, Mr. Obama.
BTW: For those of you who are new to FeilerFaster, the connection between Moses and America is the subject of my new book, AMERICA’S PROPHET: Moses and the Spirit of a Nation, which will be published early next year.