A Graceful Eulogy

I alluded to the president’s eulogy in Charleston in the last post, but it obviously deserves some special attention. As an exercise in civic–or if you will, political–rhetoric, the best analysis of this remarkable address is from James Fallows at The Atlantic:

Here are the three rhetorical aspects of the speech that I think made it more artful as a beginning-to-end composition than any of his other presentations:

— The choice of grace as the unifying theme, which by the standards of political speeches qualifies as a stroke of genius.

— The shifting registers in which Obama spoke—by which I mean “black” versus “white” modes of speech—and the accompanying deliberate shifts in shadings of the word we.

— The start-to-end framing of his remarks as religious, and explicitly Christian, and often African American Christian, which allowed him to present political points in an unexpected way.

I’ve always thought the best speeches are those that appeal to multiple audiences simultaneously. That’s especially true of a televised eulogy, in which you must absolutely be in the moment and speak to the mourners directly, but also find some way to draw more detached viewers and listeners into that moment. Using quite probably the hymn best known to Americans, religious and irreligious alike–one that as Fallows suggests banishes any thought of self-righteousness or exclusivity–Obama was able to do just that, even as he modulated his words and his tone and his diction to alternatively appeal to his different audiences, pulling it altogether with an allusion to the phrase “God shed his grace on thee” from “America the Beautiful.”

But however many disparate heart-strings Obama pulled in living rooms and work stations around the country or indeed the world, this was also, as Fallows noted, a Christian eulogy, and it’s my hope that a significant number of conservative evangelicals–many of whom have been taught to believe that Obama is either Muslim or secular–watch the video. It will be difficult for them to come away with precisely the same preconception of Obama. But beyond that, the theological content of the eulogy may provide them with a concept of grace that is both more inspiring and more reverent than the joyless and divisive legalism with which the term has so regularly become associated in the American Calvinist tradition.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.