When I watched the presidential candidate forum at Saddleback Church the other night, I took notes with a certain perspective in mind: which of Obama
August 17, 2008

When I watched the presidential candidate forum at Saddleback Church the other night, I took notes with a certain perspective in mind: which of Obama’s responses were going to be used against him by the right? Maybe I haven’t been reading enough conservative blogs lately, because I didn’t see the angry response to this remark coming:

Obama went on to explain how (and why) we can reduce the number of abortions in this country, and why he’s pro-choice.

And yet, it was that “above my pay grade” line that seems to be getting all the attention. To hear Obama’s conservative detractors tell it, there’s no one above a president’s pay grade, so the answer didn’t make any sense.

Maybe the right is being deliberately coy here, and looking to manufacture another controversy, but I thought it was pretty obvious Obama was referring to God

Over at BeliefNet, Steve Waldman understood the message, but seemed to think Obama’s response was confusing.

[Gary Bauer] hated Obama’s line that determining when life begins is “above my pay grade.” I agree that this was a poorly framed answer. If he was going to make this argument, he should have been more direct and say, “Only God really knows that. But since we have to pick someone to make this choice, I believe the choice should rest not with the legislature or the courts but with the women in consultation with her pastor.” He was too clipped and cryptic.

Maybe. Obama has a bad habit of treating voters like adults, and not talking down to them. He assumes, perhaps incorrectly, that Americans want to be spoken to as if we’re grown-ups. He doesn’t spell things out for us, because he believes his audience is fully capable of understanding what he’s saying.

But given the response, that’s apparently not the case. When dealing with weighty philosophical, scientific, and moral questions such as when an embryo or fetus is a “person,” with “human rights,” Obama suggested God knows more than a policy maker, but went on to talk about abortion policy in a more practical way.

Ann Althouse criticized Obama’s response on Sunday, but took a more measured line today. (emphasis in the original)

[T]hinking about it this morning, I’m pretty sure he meant to refer to God.

“Above my pay grade” is an expression of humility and submission to God: I don’t purport to answer the question that belongs to God. He’s trying to be folksy, coining a phrase akin to “the man upstairs.” When someone says “the man upstairs,” you don’t start railing about how we’re on the top floor, but that’s because we know we’re dealing with a folksy expression. People are too touchy on the subject of abortion to process the less common “above my pay grade” as an expression.

Obama may have thought that, in a church, talking to a pastor, with religion hovering around every question, listeners would understand that he was putting himself beneath God. But I didn’t pick that up last night….

How did all of you perceive this when you heard the line?

Can you help us out?

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