Signs And Portents

Signs And Portents

Steve already noted the brouhaha over Obama’s decision to observe National Prayer Day in private. This is an instance of something that generally bothers me about many discussions of politics: the assumption that political figures are not doing things for normal human reasons, but should instead be seen as communicating in a sort of code. Everything they do has a symbolic meaning: it’s a symbol of disrespect for this, or craven obedience to that, or whatever; and if we want to understand them, we should not try to figure out why some comprehensible human being might have done what they did, but try to crack this code.

This is, in my view, silly. It’s what leads to things like outrage over Obama’s shaking hands with Hugo Chavez: if you view that handshake as the normal civil response to someone’s extending his hand to you, it seems completely innocuous; but if you see it as a Fraught With Meaning, it looks like a sign that Obama thinks that Chavez is a wonderful guy.

Likewise in this case. I would think that people of faith, in particular, should be wary of politicians holding ceremonial observances of National Prayer Day. For one thing, one’s communications with God are intensely personal. If you think of God as a person, and not as a political weapon, the idea of having a ceremony of this kind would be like observing National Have A Serious Talk With Your Spouse Day by having such a talk in front of TV cameras.

Of course, prayer is not entirely like having a serious talk with your spouse. In many religions, there is such a thing as communal prayer; whereas communal serious talks with one’s spouse are generally a sign that something has gone badly askew. That said, to a person of faith, communal prayer is a religious act, not a political one. The idea of politicians using it to send political messages, or to score political points, ought to be repugnant to people who take faith seriously.

I have absolutely no idea what led Barack Obama to decide not to have a public ceremony in honor of National Prayer Day. I do know that having a nice ecumenical service would have been the path of least resistance, politically, and the idea that he was “giving in to his left-wing base” is ludicrous to me. (We all know that he’s religious, and most of us are fine with that.) Possibly the thought that prayer is private, and not something to be used to score political points, had nothing to do with it.

That said, though, it’s an obvious possibility. And anyone who thought about why someone might not have such a ceremony, and who was thinking of that person as a human being, rather than as a Speaker in Code, should have considered it.


There are, obviously, occasions when the symbolic meaning of some act is worth taking seriously. I imagine, for instance, that on some occasion, Obama might feel like skipping a state dinner for some visiting dignitary and watching a movie with his family. Presumably, he’d go to the dinner anyways: skipping out, however comprehensible, would be a gesture of great disrespect, and one that he should avoid unless that is a message he actually wants to send.

But I think we should try not to multiply those occasions beyond what’s strictly necessary. If we insist on taking everything any politician does to be some sort of coded message, we give them no incentive to act like actual human beings, and cannot complain when they turn out to have neither character nor personality.

Moreover, finding symbols everywhere constrains people’s actions in undesirable ways. On this occasion, it simply means that Obama cannot decide for himself how he wants to pray, but has to choose between holding a ceremony he might find religiously objectionable and sending the signal that he doesn’t care about prayer. This is a recipe for the multiplication of ceremonies: every time you add one, you are sending a signal of respect to some constituency; every time you stop holding one, you send a signal of disrespect. Go too far down this road and you’ll end up holding ceremonies non-stop. This is a bad way for Presidents to spend their time.

But it’s worse in other cases. Consider the Chavez handshake again. When Chavez stuck out his hand, Obama had various choices. He could have refused to shake Chavez’ hand, which is a serious insult. He could also have indicated real enthusiasm for Chavez, e.g. by throwing his arms around him and saying “Soulmate!” But he also had the option of doing something essentially meaningless: shaking Chavez’ hand.

If we wish to construe anything other than clear expressions of disdain or horror as “legitimizing” Chavez, we deprive politicians of the option of being basically civil and non-committal. Is there any earthly reason to suppose that narrowing their options in this fashion would be a good thing? That it would advance America’s interests, or those of anyone other than people who thrive on perpetual outrage? I can’t see how.