President Obama’s Democratic convention speech last week was noticeably God-centered, with blatant references to God, to the “Creator,” to “Providence,” to “churches and charities,” a beautiful Lincoln quote on prayer, and even, alas, anchoring his call for “hope” in a verse from Scripture. “Providence is with us!” shouted Obama in a soaring crescendo, as the delegates jumped up and down in a rapturous joy. “We are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth! God bless you! And may God bless these United States!”
I have no doubt that Obama’s overture was a carefully crafted response to the very revealing move by the Democratic delegates to exclude God from their party platform—a PR disaster for the president.
That said, in truth, Obama has not been shy about invoking his faith throughout his presidency—and, naturally, with no protest from secular liberals who went wild every time George W. Bush mentioned God. Obama has invoked his faith in support of everything from his healthcare initiative to his advocacy of gay marriage.
And yet, no other aspect of Obama’s faith has struck me quite like his repeated use of the phrase “my brother’s keeper,” the signature line for his public expressions of faith. I know of no other phrase that Obama employs more in talking about his faith and about our faith. For that matter, I know of no other president who has so often used the phrase. My colleague, Dr. Gary Smith, author of the authoritative Faith and the Presidency: from George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press), reports that the phrase has been used 81 times by presidents since Teddy Roosevelt, with 57 by Obama alone.
“I am my brother’s keeper,” said President Obama in Atlanta in March. “Each of us is only here because somebody somewhere was looking out for us. It started in the family, but it wasn’t just the immediate family…. Our story has never been about what we can do alone. It’s what we do together.”
For Obama, this is an exhortation to help one another, from our literal brothers to our brothers in the wider community and world. The Presidential Papers reveal 17 instances of Obama using the phrase over the last 12 months, 11 of them at fundraisers.
That said, the “brother’s keeper” passage is an odd choice. It comes from the Old Testament remark of Cain after he murdered his brother Abel. God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
It is a bad moment, filled with disturbing implications about the nature of man, man’s relationship to man, man’s relationship to God, and more. Given the roots of the phrase—the first murder, of a sibling no less—I find it a strange formulation for making the case of helping our brother, or our neighbor, or the needy. I see a phrase like “love thy neighbor,” a favorite of George W. Bush, as far more preferable, and certainly derived from an infinitely better source.
But even stranger is a situation that has developed between Obama’s literal (half) brother, George Obama, and conservative author Dinesh D’Souza. George is interviewed in D’Souza’s film “2016: Obama’s America,” written and directed by John Sullivan and produced by Gerald Molen of “Schindler’s List” fame. (For the record, I make a brief appearance in the film, speaking about Frank Marshall Davis, a mentor to young Obama in Hawaii.)
As D’Souza’s film shows graphically, George Obama lives in a shanty house in Nairobi, Kenya, surviving on a few meager dollars a month. A couple hundred extra dollars per year would be a relative fortune to George.
George apparently took a liking to D’Souza. Remarkably, he recently phoned D’Souza from Kenya. It was an emergency situation. Obama’s brother needed some healthcare. He explained to D’Souza that his young son was at the hospital, ailing from a “chest condition.” He needed a quick $1,000 for the medical bills.
“Since George was at the hospital I asked him to let me speak to a nurse,” says D’Souza, “and she confirmed that George’s son was indeed ill.” D’Souza immediately sent the money via Western Union.
But here’s the kicker, which cuts to the heart of that “brother’s keeper” thing. As D’Souza states, “Before I hung up, I asked George, ‘Why are you coming to me?’ He said, ‘I have no one else to ask.’ Then he said something that astounded me, ‘Dinesh, you are like a brother to me.’”
That’s touching. In fact, however, D’Souza is not a brother to George Obama. Barack Obama is. And Obama surely makes more money as president of the United States than D’Souza makes as president of King’s College. Obama is a multimillionaire, one of those “wealthy millionaires” he talks about all the time.
Why didn’t George go to his real brother for support? Better, why doesn’t Obama go to him?
Sure, Obama is obviously incredibly busy. But George is family. Other presidents have had brothers, half brothers, estranged brothers—and downright bizarre brothers. Recently, there was Bill Clinton’s troubled brother, Roger. There was Billy Carter, Jimmy’s brother. And these presidents were their brother’s keepers, no matter how problematic. These brothers did things to embarrass their presidential brothers. Jimmy’s brother was on the front of everything from the New York Times to beer cans. Nonetheless, Jimmy, the Georgian Baptist, was his brother’s keeper. And neither of these two presidents flagrantly employed the phrase “my brother’s keeper” as the crux of a constant faith-based message.
Who’s President Obama’s brother’s keeper? Right now, it’s Dinesh D’Souza—not Barack Obama. And that’s why, for many of us, the president’s talk about God, charity, prayer, Scripture, and, above all, being his brother’s keeper, falls a bit flat.
Paul Kengor’s books include “God and Ronald Reagan”, “God and George W. Bush,” and “God and Hillary Clinton.” His latest is “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, the Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.”