More on the Miller benediction

/ 26 August 2008

Overnight I’ve received a couple of inquiries from friends reading this blog, wondering to what I had objected so vehemently in Donald Miller’s benediction at the DNC last night. I suppose I owe them — and myself? — a more thoughtful reflection in the clear light of morning.

You can find both Miller's text, and a video of his presentation, at his website. I'll also add it here:


Let me start by pointing out that people make meaning with media in a variety of ways, and that this is my own interpretation, and may not be shared by anyone else. That being said, I would note that one of the most striking contradictions of the whole piece, at least for me, was the way in which he addressed the camera straight on. I gather that was because he was reading from a teleprompter, but if you're going to call what your words are a prayer, and then you're going to offer them in front of a national audience, I think it would make sense to consider what your body language conveys. He could just as easily -- and authentically -- have brought along a piece of paper to put on the podium in front of him, and bowed his head to read it.

His body language conveyed him speaking to us, not him speaking to God, or offering words on our behalf to God.

That message continued throughout his words. He started with the name -- Father God. That in itself jarred me. It's not that I can't find the metaphor of "father" powerful in relation to God. And it's not that I don't think Christianity can legitimately address God in that way, but it's very jarring in a multi-religious, deliberately inclusive setting such as this to invoke God in that way.

He then continued on in that vein, speaking as an authoritative speaker stating what he (that is, Donald Miller) thought we needed. First he asked -- on behalf of both individuals and the nation -- for God "to protect us from our enemies, but also from ourselves." And why from ourselves? Because we are so "easily tempted toward apathy."

Given that Michelle Obama had just given a ringingly authentic, impassioned and compassionate speech about engagement with the common good, it rang very false to me that he was asking to be moved beyond apathy. Everyone in that room is an activist, or they wouldn't be there. Ok, perhaps not everyone watching on the television screen (if it even aired? I was watching it live via the web), is an activist, but praying for a room of activists to move beyond apathy is a bit like a Sunday morning preacher preaching to the congregation to come to church on Sunday.

First and foremost, this benediction should have been aimed at his immediate audience.

He then offered a laundry list of good things that he prayed God might help us work towards (health care for all, pay for teachers, an equal opportunity for college, for a balance between economic opportunity and corporate gluttony, etc.). Again, I'm not necessarily opposed to any of these things, but is a benediction the moment to raise up policy issues?

He could quite easily and authentically have picked up a formal benediction -- there are some found in common in both Jewish and Christian circles at least -- and simply shared that.

There was no sense in his words that he was bowing his head -- either literally or figuratively -- to God. Instead he conveyed, at least to me, the arrogance of a preacher who knows what the nation needs, and calls on God to provide it. In the midst of that he also stated that "A lot of people don’t like us but that’s because they don’t know the heart of the average American." Right.

A lot of people don't like us because we have come to stand as a nation endorsing torture, a nation wreaking environmental havoc, a nation with little regard for human rights. On the other hand, there are people -- I've met many in my travels -- who differentiate between our current government and the "American people." Still, only God ultimately knows what is in our hearts, and to claim that if more people outside of the US did, they would feel better towards us -- which seemed to be Miller's implication -- is yet another arrogant notion.

Argh. The more I reflect on this piece, the more frustrated I become. I suppose my level of emotion is so high precisely because this was a moment in which many people outside of Christian circles "learned" something about Christianity, and this is NOT what I would hope for them to learn. Frankly, I think we would have been much better served by a Bruce Springsteen or U2 song to close it all out. (I suppose that's the Catholic in me coming out?)

If indeed the primary reason Miller was chosen, and the choice of his words, were to appeal to some unidentified "evangelical" voter, I am deeply disappointed and fear that his words may instead ring as a "pander" to such voters. The Christian evangelicals I know personally are much more committed to God being at the heart of it all, and to God's will being the primary force of their lives, than this prayer would suggest.

I could go on and on, I think, talking about his use of barely perceptible biblical metaphors, the extent to which these words must have offended MANY people, Miller's offer of thanks for "blessing us in so many ways as Americans," and so on. But enough. My own advice? Listen to Michelle's speech and end the video before Miller's benediction.