Obama's Moving Eulogy: God, Guns and Grace

Obama's Moving Eulogy: God, Guns and Grace
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During a powerful South Carolina eulogy made especially memorable by President Obama’s a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the president began his remarks with God, worked his way through race, and ended with guns.

Speaking at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Charleston, who was shot to death with eight others during a church Bible study class June 17, the president used a theme of God’s grace to encourage racial tolerance, economic opportunity and an activist citizenry willing to break “a comfortable silence” to change society for the better.

Earlier this month, a day after the massacre in the oldest black church in the South, Obama sparked a political debate when he said the ease of access to handguns was one factor behind a U.S. trend of mass deaths committed by young men. The massacre in Charleston was yet another example, he said. 

In the White House briefing room, alternately somber and agitated, the president last week lamented that his own and Vice President Biden’s efforts to galvanize support for additional gun restrictions died in Congress in 2013. He said the political cards appeared stacked against legislation in the near future.

But the man standing before Pinckney’s flower-draped casket at the College of Charleston, in front of rows of Washington lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, appeared more at peace and purposeful about his authority to influence racial injustice in America, and to find receptive ears. Obama’s surprise singing was an indication that in his second term, with a week of legislative and judicial victories behind him, he felt “fearless,” as he described himself last week during a podcast interview in California.

The pastors and mourners around him at first appeared startled and then delighted when Obama began to sing the familiar gospel lyrics. The Rev. Norvel Goff, the presiding elder with the State Conference of the AME Church, quickly dubbed him “the Reverend President.”

Obama pointed to South Carolina’s sudden reversal about the appropriateness of flying the Confederate flag, and he praised Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for “her eloquence” in endorsing the flag’s removal from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation,” he said to applause. “We see that now.”

After snapshots turned up of suspected killer Dylann Storm Roof, 21, holding the flag as a symbol of his racial hatred, other states and major chain retailers followed South Carolina’s example to remove the “painful” symbol. Merchants boxed up Confederate flag materials from store shelves nationwide in the last week, and the National Park Service asked its vendors to cease selling Confederate keepsakes in park gift shops.

Obama said the willingness to see the flag as a symbol of America’s slave-owning history – and then to act decisively to make it a relic – was part of “God’s grace.” When it comes to race, such actions, not words, are what is needed, he suggested.

“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says, `We have to have a conversation about race.’ We talk a lot about race,” Obama said. “There's no shortcut. We don't need more talk.” 

Gun safety measures won’t prevent all tragedies, he said. Returning to his theme that God’s grace opens eyes, the president repeated his belief that “the vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners, want to do something about this. We see that now.” 

There are sophisticated public opinion surveys that support Obama’s point: 84 percent of Americans support requiring gun background checks in 2015; 63 percent support banning assault weapons; 60 percent back the idea of banning the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines, and the differences between gun owners and non-owners is negligible, according to researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which surveyed attitudes in January.

Nevertheless, White House aides this week said there were no plans for Obama to rekindle his push for legislative gun controls at the federal level.

 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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