Andrea Useem thinks she may have identified the wellspring of Barack Obama's broadly acknowledged rhetorical brilliance. It isn't so much that he is superb speaker but rather that he seems to have an instinctive ability to speak the patois of American Civil religion.
From an article on her blog at "Religion Writer":
"[L]istening to Hillary Clinton speak last night at Baruch College, where she did not concede defeat, and then listening moments later to Obama offer his nomination victory speech in a St. Paul stadium, I wondered if Obama’s ability to speak the language of ‘American civil religion’ is what makes him such a powerful speech giver. (And what are candidates besides speech-givers?)
American Civil Religion is at once a concept that’s been ripped to shreds in academia and a concept so embedded in everyday culture that many people find it quite obvious. The idea, first presented by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, said that America has a special civil religion, one that is rooted in Christianity but national and democratic in its expression.
[...]To put it in [non] academic terms, Bellah quoted Eisenhower: ‘Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.’ Freedom of religion and conscience — combined with America’s long-standing religious diverisity — means that private expressions of belief, such as saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ during a presidential speech, are not appropriate for political leaders, but that political leaders must still be able to speak this language of civic faith. Bellah points to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, which was laced with references to God and the greater purpose of humanity, without any reference to his specific Catholic faith. And same for Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural address, and the Gettysburg address. And ‘In God We Trust’ on our coins, etc. etc."
You'll need to read the article below to see the examples that Useem gives of Obama's use of the genre. She goes on to compare it that of other candidates and suggests that Obama's comfort with the genre may explain the effectiveness of his speeches when heard by American ears.
Read the full article here.