Obama’s Prayer and the Problem of Religious Leaders

The act of prying Obama’s written prayer from the Western Wall in Jerusalem and handing it off to an Israeli journalist was unquestionably an invasion of privacy. Forget the condemnation of the act as sacrilegious and as an affront to the relationship between a man and his god. Those criticisms only make sense, of course, if that god exists and the religious claims about him are true. In the event that Yahweh is fictitious, the piece of paper pulled from the Western Wall is nothing more than Barack Obama’s internal mutterings to an expansive fantasy. But they were his own and the privacy of the words ought to have been respected.

That said, their content is troubling. Obama wrote,

Lord — Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.

I’ve added the emphasis because the mainstream press hasn’t. There are two explanations for Obama’s words. The first is the cynic’s take. He knew the prayer would be leaked to the press and used it as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his faith to religious voters. Obama was raised without belief and so must make every effort to convince the nation’s faithful that he shares their reverence for things unseen. An expressed lack of such faith would mean the immediate failure of his campaign. But what if he’s not playing politics? What if he genuinely believes what he wrote? This second explanation, then, is that he was using the holiness of the Western Wall as other pilgrims do, to send a personal plea to the universe’s sovereign.

The possibility should deeply disturb all rational people. It ought, in fact, to make Obama’s more thoughtful supporters reconsider their November votes. To demonstrate why, we need only play a brief thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the god Obama hopes to be an instrument of doesn’t exist. This would mean that any guidance he thinks he’s receiving from that deity in fact is a product of his own mind. That, in and of itself, is fine. We want our leaders to act on their own thoughts. That’s why we elect one President over another. But if Obama is acting through his own volition but believes he’s acting on the will of his god, then no amount of evidence and argumentation will sway him from his path. What is evidence in the face of omniscience? What is argumentation in the face of omnibenevolence? This is a terrifying prospect. And it’s one we’ve already rejected when the instrument of divine will is George W. Bush. Why should we give Obama a theological free pass when his professed belief is just as dangerous? Let us not forget that we are currently in a war, justified or not, with fanatics who themselves act in accordance with the will of their god.