Are the Obamas closet Quakers?
I watched Michelle Obama’s speech from the Democratic National Convention Wednesday afternoon while I was boiling water for spaghetti in my tiny kitchen. I’m not one for watching conventions; usually, they feel like a three-day-long theatre production, and as a busy mom and wife, I’d rather listen to music or read, maybe catch up with a few headlines the next day.
But Wednesday wasn’t a typical day. My almost-three-year-old daughter headed back to preschool, while my son started kindergarten at Media-Providence Friends School. His steps onto the school bus that morning marked the end of a months-long journey for my husband and me: researching schools, visiting, filling out financial aid paperwork and fretting over whether we could afford it, then managing our work schedules so we’d be available for pick-ups and drop-offs for both children. In addition to our worries and expectations was my son’s anxiety about not knowing anyone at his new school, about growing up and leaving old friends behind. It was a highly charged, emotional, but very good day, and hearing Michelle Obama’s convention speech was the icing on the cupcake.
At a certain point, I recognized that a lot of what I identified in her speech were what I would consider the values and testimonies of my Quaker faith, the principles of self-reliance, integrity, honor and appreciation of diversity that led me to the Religious Society of Friends four years ago, when my son was still an infant. Michelle Obama talked about how these values are the ones she and her husband learned from their families from a young age, and how they try to carry out that same vision today:
“We learned about dignity and decency — that how hard you work matters more than how much you make; that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. We learned about honesty and integrity — that the truth matters — that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules; and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square. We learned about gratitude and humility — that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean. And we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.”
Her speech was about honoring her own personal journey and her family’s journey, a motif that I hear over and over again from Friends who write for the Quaker magazine where I work. The Friends I know struggle to be guided by their own convictions even when it’s difficult and unpopular. It is heartening when we realize the same goes for our president:
“As President, you’re going to get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people. But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as President, all you have to guide you are your values and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.”
Michelle Obama’s speech was about embracing diversity and acknowledging the dignity and value in everyone, regardless of his or her background. It was about embracing your own inner voice, shutting out the noise, and pursuing your values and your testimonies:
“Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. No, just like his grandmother, he just keeps getting up and moving forward—with patience and wisdom, and courage and grace.”
And it was about stewardship, helping others:
“He believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Not only that, but it was about the biggest Quaker testimony of all — finding God in everyone:
“[Barack] knows that we all love our country. And he is always ready to listen to good ideas, he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.”
At some point, I started wondering if Michelle and Barack were like a lot of others — closet Quakers who don’t really know they’re Quakers — but then I remembered that their daughters are going to Sidwell Friends School. Whether they’ve been to meetings or not, the First Family is touched by Quaker values and philosophies, and it is highly likely that these same values have helped guide them all through a difficult yet rewarding four years.
It’s no coincidence that I had this realization on the same day my son started at a Friends school, or that I grew teary over and over again throughout Michelle’s speech, reminded of my own family’s history, the struggles of a single mother and a strong grandmother, a grandfather who broke his back (literally) to feed a family of eight. Or the scrimping and saving of my in-laws, who worked long and physically exhausting hours so they could pay for their kids to go to college and graduate school. Now my husband and I are paying tribute to that longstanding tradition of love and sacrifice. We’ve selected a school for my son — and eventually my daughter — that will help him grow confident, believe in himself, feel special and respected, be curious and passionate and faithful and help others who are less fortunate.
At the end of the day, though, I know it’s not only about what school my kids go to. Michelle’s speech spoke to my heart because it reminded me that, as a parent, the thing I want most for my children is for them to be happy and succeed — and by success, I’m talking about integrity and character, health and mental well-being, the ability to love and give the best of themselves, the wisdom to do the right thing.
The First Lady knows this, and she knows that she is not alone.
“Those are the values that Barack and I — and so many of you — are trying to pass on to our own children. That’s who we are.”
Jana Llewellyn is a former English teacher and writer of fiction and nonfiction, and she serves as associate editor at Friends Journal, a monthly magazine about Quakerism and spirituality in Philadelphia.
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