President Obama delivers his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-OBAMA-FAREWELL, originally published on Jan. 11, 2017.

In farewell, Obama urges faith and political engagement

CHICAGO (RNS) In his final speech as president of the United States, President Barack Obama spoke of his faith in American democracy and warned his supporters not to retreat into despair.

Obama had returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago for his farewell address Tuesday night (Jan. 10) at McCormick Place.

RELATED: The Obama presidency: 'War on religion' or 'Amazing Grace'?

It’s the city where his political career began — where he had given his victory speeches on election night in 2008 at Grant Park and in 2012, also at McCormick Place.

And it’s the city where, he said Tuesday, he "began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss."

“This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it,” he said.

That’s not just his belief, he said. That’s “the beating heart of our American idea,” and it’s a theme the president returned to throughout his speech.

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Obama touted what he saw as the successes of his presidency, including those that have received pushback from the religious right: the Iran nuclear deal, marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act.

His statement that he rejected discrimination against Muslim Americans drew prolonged applause and cheers. President-elect Donald Trump, during the election campaign, had proposed a registry for Muslims and a ban on Muslim immigrants entering the country.

The outgoing president also encouraged Americans to try harder, to pay attention and listen, to realize that “science and reason matter.” That’s important in a time, he said, when it’s “become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses or places of worship or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

President Barack Obama gives his farewell address

President Obama gives his farewell address Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at McCormick Place in Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Religious reactions

The Rev. Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network’s Live Free Campaign, called Obama’s farewell address “a primer on resistance.”

That resistance is a holy act, McBride said, as it’s resisting “evil” and the things that “war against the soul” and enacting justice instead. The president, in particular, had said ISIS would not defeat America, nor would Russia or China match its influence, if Americans did not betray the Constitution, their principles and what they stand for.

“Our resistance must be grounded in hope and in the power of possibility in a future not yet determined and the wisdom of our ancestors and sacred texts,” McBride said.

For Christian author and blogger Kathy Khang, who came to the speech from the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two of her three children, the president’s encouragement for ordinary Americans to get involved in democracy was “very much in step with my faith, that it does matter how I believe, the choices I make or the actions that I take.”

“Not everybody in that room necessarily shared my religious convictions, but they heard from our president that it isn’t just our rhetoric, it’s our behavior (that is important),” Khang said.

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Obama also addressed what Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, director of the Social Action Commission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, called “the despair and anxiety people have about rhetoric which appears to take us back to a day in the past that was not so pleasant.”

Dupont-Walker said that for her, as someone of African descent, as a woman and as a person of faith, the current political climate is “a moment of letdown,” and many may be tempted to hopelessness. But as a Christian, she said, she remembered Scripture’s encouragement to take her burdens to God.

“I don’t know yet why this happened, but I know it will be revealed. In the meantime, I need to be focused on what it is I’m supposed to do,” she said.

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Obama had warned in his speech against disengagement, urging those listening to do the work of democracy, maybe even to run for office, and always to assume the best of others.

That can be risky, he said. It can disappoint.

But, the president said, “More often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.”

“That faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change – that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined,” he said.


  1. To bad that Mr. Obama failed to show faith in God. His legacy will be how he endorsed immorality, Sad man.

  2. Presidents and other well-known individuals serve as Rorschach Tests (ink blot tests): people see in them what they want to see. Obama inspired the best people and infuriated the worst people. For the first African-American President, I would have much preferred one who would do more to infuriate the white racists, like Al Sharpton or Keith Ellison, but the mild-mannered Obama probably would have infuriated those types very little less.

  3. President Obama’s farewell speech was brilliant, great. He showed that he was in tune with the vast majority of decent Americans across the religious spectrum. What a contrast to the whiny ignorant arrogant narcissist who will follow him, the who fell nearly 3 million popular votes short. — Edd Doerr

  4. “But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion.” This is what I’ve seen too, and why I remain hopeful in the face of the pres-elect. This great nation will probably lose some ground, but our arc is always toward progress, toward equality, toward our common humanity. I believe that will continue.

    I think the only president of my time who has shown equal integrity was Jimmy Carter. As much as President Obama’s avowed enemies showed vicious opposition, they could never find anything to hang on him due to his high standards of ethics and morality. They could only resort to racist attacks, legislative immobility, fake news and innuendo.

    The Obama family is very good people and I feel very proud of them. I think we will miss them more than we realize at this time.

  5. I want to add that there are things I wish he would have done. I wish he would have gone straight to single payer health care. I wish he would have found a way to close Guantanamo despite the opposition’s efforts to keep it open. Most of what I wish for he would have had to accomplish before the Party of No gerrymandered themselves to a congressional majority.

  6. Satan is Christianity’s best recruiter!
    Without nonsense fear mongering, where would Christianity be?
    How would it be able to assume political power?
    Fear of Hell replaces moral thinking for Christianity, making it a great enabler of really nasty stuff.

    Of course if one thinks through the idea of an all loving God who created everything, then Satan fills a role of an agent of God. The one who tests resolve, the adversary who forces people to prove themselves.

  7. He has been replaced with a serial fraud, cheat, adulterer, and liar. So whatever immoral legacy you think can be assigned to President Barry will pale in comparison for what is coming. 🙂

  8. When Trump has an affair in the WH, then you can talk. I don’t know about Trump, but some people learn from their mistakes, Spud – especially when under the limelight.

  9. “When Trump has an affair in the WH, then you can talk”

    So that will be on day one of his administration. I am picturing LBJ level shenanigans on the horizon.

    “I don’t know about Trump”

    You live in a cave?

    Maybe you should learn about him when casting aspersions as to the moral fiber of those in the White House.

    “But some people learn from their mistakes”

    All signs point to that statement not applying to Trump either. What you would call “his mistakes” is better called “standard operating procedures”.

  10. yawn. Thanks for sharing you delusions with us. (edited)

  11. Agreed. Whether one agrees with Obama’s politics or not, I think most of us will eventually miss the generally positive, mature and intelligent presidential rhetoric we’ll likely not see for some time to come. Trump doesn’t speak like a leader, but rather as a schoolyard bully desperate to validate his insecurities.

  12. Barak Obama should be honest and just counsel faith IN political activity, rather than his slick combination of faith AND political engagement. His aim has always been to co-opt religion to serve his political ends. He proved perfectly capable of using religion when it served his purposes–like getting elected, but otherwise his own walk and talk of the Christian faith is rather anemic.

    Some will say the evangelicals were co-opted by Trump, which may be true, However, a preponderance of the American public quit buying the faith-in-service-to-politics package as a substitute for an active faith in God. This is well illustrated by the fact that white AND black mainstream Christians didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to push Hilliary Clinton over the top! (Other writers: Please spare me the sermon about Hilliary winning the popular vote! The electoral college has been our system for eons, and all the candidates knew the rules going in, and conducted their campaigns accordingly.)

  13. As an aside people are right to question the veracity of the story concerning Trump and the Russian hookers. We know its not true because it is well established that Donald Trump never pays for professional services of any kind.

  14. Does he have any plans to close Guantanamo after pledging he would for 10 years?

    He certainly made capital punishment look appealing with his expanded use of drone strikes.

    Obama is the worst two-term president since W.

  15. Obama tried to close Gitmo but the GOP Congress blocked him.

    Obama’s drone strikes have been far less harmful than W’s insane wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The 3rd sentence is just dumb. Obama is the only 2 termer since W.

    Edd Doerr

  16. Libya, Syria, racial divisions?

    I think you’re confusing my sentence with your old science fiction stories.

  17. Bullshit. Obama is the commander-in-chief, and he could have closed Guantanamo with an executive order.

  18. W’s invasion of Iraq set the stage for Syria. Libya? We joined with the UK and France on that one. Racial divisions? Obama worked hard to reduce them.

  19. Obama campaigned on reversing Bush’s policies. His own interventions were a disaster.

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