If you were listening closely at this year’s Freshman Assembly, you may have heard three different people speaking at once during University Chaplain Jerry Streets’s opening prayer. Obviously, there was Streets himself, who began with the words “Awesome God” instead of his customary “Holy God”. But behind that choice was Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, who, just weeks before, had brought the Democratic National Convention to its feet by declaring “We worship an Awesome God in the blue states.” He, in turn, was drawing on the late Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins, whose best-known work is a thunderous modern hymn called “Awesome God.”
Those two little words made some strange bedfellows. Obama is one of the Democratic Party’s new leading lights, whereas Streets has been relatively apolitical during his Yale tenure. Mullins’ Celtic-tinged folk-rock would feel out of place in Streets’ church, the proudly traditional Church of Christ in Yale. Obama’s core audience of urban liberal Democrats has little overlap with Mullins’ core audience of white evangelicals. But again, a closer listen reveals why these disparate voices could speak in unison from the stage of Woolsey Hall.
The story begins with Mullins’ 1987 hymn, which anyone under 40 who has ever attended a white church event has probably heard. Contemporary Christian worship CDs are a constant presence on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, but no song off any of them has ever attained the seeming omnipresence of “Awesome God.” This song has even crossed the American church’s fearful color line: it gets played in black churches, and Kirk Franklin covered it with his choir. In a country where the most segregated hour of the week is still Sunday morning, the song’s crossover between white and black gospel should make anyone who cares about race in America take pause.
So when Obama used the words “Awesome God” in his keynote speech in Boston, he was deliberately drawing on one of the few great stories of racial reconciliation to come out of the Reagan era. His peroration’s thesis, stated straightforwardly as “E pluribus unum, out of many one,” could not be more perfectly illustrated than by a Kirk Franklin cover of a Rich Mullins song backed up by a Latin-funk bass line. He probably knew that, too: as a transplanted Kansan he’d have to know the original, and as a South Side legislator he’d have to know the cover.
Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan has suggested that when Obama said “Awesome God,” he was using coded language to appeal to evangelicals, much the way George Bush does with his regular references to Scripture and hymnody. That analysis is correct but incomplete. When Bush talked about the “wonder-working power” of the American spirit in his 2003 State of the Union address, it was playing straightforwardly to his base. The Baptist hymn he quoted there would almost never be heard among non-Baptists. An equivalent move for Obama would have been quoting a hippie icon like John Lennon or a contemporary gospel heavyweight like Fred Hammond. By taking Rich Mullins as a moral center, however, Obama was reaching out to a constituency not his own, declaring his allegiance to its faith values. He was trying to enact the unity of national spirit his phrase declared.
The response to Obama’s nationally-broadcast speech was overwhelming. His campaign blog received hundreds of “Obama-for-President” posts, including dozens from self-identified conservative Republicans. The candidate himself seems to agree: during a subsequent speech at the Boston convention, a reporter heard him begin, “When I’m Pres- I mean, when I’m a Senator,” drawing laughter and applause. Political junkies who populate campaign blogs might be expected to notice a good speech, so might Chaplain Streets, whose job description includes a lot of oratory. But if their enthusiasm reflects the national response, Obama may have achieved something of the unity he was after.
And, most of all, he achieved that unity by putting his own spin on the rhetoric of the American state church — you know, the one whose God blesses our troops and hates Communism. It’s acceptable, even expected, for American politicians to pay lip service to a vague monotheism. Yalies sitting through freshman or baccalaureate convocations must endure a stage full of faculty doing the same. Obama piggybacked off that expectation, but instead of the usual platitudes, he delivered a piece of honest identification with religious values. Mullins’ Franciscan faith, as expressed in both “Awesome God” and the rest of his work, has serious political implications, requiring both worship of a creating, redeeming God and identification with the powerless. By working a Mullins shout-out into state-religious observances, Obama via Streets opened a door, long-closed in such settings, to both Christianity’s real unifying potential and its unsettling truth-claims. As an evangelical liberal Yalie, I’m thrilled to see the Democrats and the Chaplain’s Office taking them seriously. I just hope they understand that you can’t have one without the other.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College.