President Obama’s second inaugural address is already rapidly fading from public memory, but I hope that you will indulge one more comment on the president’s rhetoric. In previous posts, I have stressed the important symbolic role that presidential inaugurals play in our collective definition of what America stands for. I have also argued that, as Christians seeking to “take every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), we need to go far beyond merely counting the president’s references to God. Thinking Christianly and historically about such important rituals involves far more than parsing the president’s prose to determine whether he has paid sufficient homage to our purported Christian heritage.
Regardless of the terminology employed, we need to be evaluating the president’s rhetoric in light of scriptural principles. We shouldn’t just ask whether the president defines our nation as Christian. We need to be asking the far more difficult question of whether the statements that he makes are consistent with Christian precepts. This comes more naturally when scrutinizing specific policy proposals. Although devout Christians can and do disagree about the government’s proper stance concerning homosexual rights, women in combat, or governmental obligations to the poor, to name three examples, many of us will think through the president’s positions on those issues by measuring them against our own understandings of biblical teaching.
We’re not nearly as careful to scrutinize the tributes that the president pays to America and Americans. As I noted in my last post, we need to be asking of the president’s rhetoric—and of political rhetoric more generally—not only what it says about God, but also what it says about us. A knowledge of American history can help in this process, not by showing us how to evaluate what the president says, but by helping us more fully to see what he says, to be sensitive to claims that are so familiar to us that we have come to take them for granted and to accept them as self-evident.
Let me explain what I mean. One of life’s paradoxes is that many of the values that most shape our worldviews are often invisible to us. They involve beliefs that are so widely agreed on that we seldom hear them debated. Never hearing them debated, we come to see them as so obviously beyond question that there is little reason to think deeply about them. With little reason to think deeply about them, we soon stop thinking about them at all. And when we stop thinking about them, there is a sense in which we literally cease to see them. They may be shaping us, but they are invisible to us.
Here is where the study of the past can be so powerfully illuminating. In studying other times and places, we frequently come face to face with values that are very different from our own, held by people who would find our own views mystifying, illogical, or even repulsive. By exploding our reassuring conception of our values as unquestionable and unquestioned, the study of the past can make the present seem strange to us, helping us to re-evaluate what we have long taken for granted.
As a historian, one of the aspects of the president’s rhetoric that stands out to me is the praise that he heaps on the American people. Listen to what he tells us about ourselves: we are characterized by “our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility,” our “resolve” and “our resilience.” The members of our armed forces “are unmatched in skill and courage.” Our “possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.” We are the “most powerful nation” in the world, and it is our responsibility to be “a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, [and] the victims of prejudice.”
I notice these comforting claims because I have spent a lot of time studying a period in American history when statesmen did not invariably flatter the public. To draw from just one body of evidence, consider the arguments contained in the Federalist, the famous compilation of essays authored primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787-88 to support the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. In the Federalist we read about “the folly and wickedness of mankind” and the “ordinary depravity of human nature.” We are told that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”; that “momentary passions and immediate interests” control human conduct more than “considerations of . . . justice”; that “the mild voice of reason . . . is but too often drowned . . . by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.” Hamilton and Madison made no claim that Americans were exceptions to these generalizations. Instead, the authors of the Federalist essays reminded their readers that, even in America, self-interest was the predominant drive in the human breast and virtue was as uncommon as it was precious and fragile.
A familiarity with American history, in other words, can help us to see as strange President Obama’s repeated tributes to his audience. What we take for granted, the Federalist would have roundly denounced. “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,” Hamilton wrote in the opening essay, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” We now routinely demand of our leaders such obsequious homage, however, and we have done so for more than a century and a half. Writing in the 1830s, French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that no U. S. politician could long survive without paying a “tribute of adulation to his fellow citizens.” As he noted so trenchantly in his classic Democracy in America, “the majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause, and there are certain truths which the Americans can learn only from strangers or from experience.”
Or from history, I would add. But if history can make us more aware of the “tribute of adulation” that we demand of those we put in public office, it cannot, by itself, tell us whether such demands are “Christian” or not. We turn to scripture and to church teaching for that. We can only scrutinize carefully the values that we can see. History can help to make the invisible visible, but it rightfully wields no moral authority. As Christians, we must turn elsewhere for our standard of judgment.