Obama's Spirit of '76
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 03:55:09 PM EST
President Obama's Second Inaugural Address accomplished something I have not seen any other major politician even try:  To make clear that the Religious Right does not own the definition and meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  

This was an important moment because the Religious Right has increasingly relied on the Declaration as a source of justification for their views, since having lost the argument that God is in the Constitution and that separation of church and state is not.  

The Declaration, a revolutionary manifesto that was read aloud in town squares to rally people to rise-up against the King of England, included some explicitly religious language, albeit generic for its day and very far from any variety of orthodox Christianity.  But as we consider all this, it is important to recall that the Declaration was a political and not a religious document (although the Religious Right does attempt to construe it as a justification for Christian Nationalism.)   And although it embodies the thinking of the revolutionary leaders of 1776 and contains inspired language that resonates down through the ages, the Declaration also has zero legal or Constitutional significance.

Throughout the speech, Obama references, echos and updates the Declaration's memorable phrase, revolutionary for its time, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."  I have seen many comment on the significance of the president linking the civil rights struggles of women, African-Americans and LGTB people, but no one I have seen has discussed the hitching all of these struggles to the guiding star of the words of the Declaration:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

One does not have to believe that the declarative, aspirational language of the Declaration means that we are or have ever been anywhere near the kind of equality that many of us would like to achieve. Obama certainly doesn't. (The notion that all men are created equal, was too revolutionary, even for most of the revered Founding Fathers.)  Obama's presidency is an obvious historic achievement in moving beyond some of the worst aspects of our history, and offering hope for a better future in this regard.

In any case, the words and ideas of this ancient revolutionary manifesto are of continuing significance -- as is the Religious Right's largely uncontested effort to cast itself as the inheritors of the intentions and values of the Founding Fathers.  (The antiabortion movement's use of the Declaration's phrase "right to life" is an excellent example.)

While I think it is fair to describe Obama's second inaugural speech as an updated, and even distinctly liberal Christian approach to what used to be called civil religion, (as Diane Butler Bass did in The Washington Post) I think there is much more going on, as Obama contends for the meaning of American history broadly, and specifically a living interpretation of the Declaration.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."  

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.  For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.  The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.  They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.

Obama also invoked the words of the Declaration to highlight, albeit obliquely, the problem with the contemporary political alliance between theocrats and plutocrats and to add dimension and meaning to the notions of equality that live beyond ancient, cursive script on parchment.  Obama recognizes that while we have come a long way together, we have a long way to go, both in terms of advances in equality, and in recognizing the nature of massive resistance and the ongoing struggles.  

He went so far as to call the Declaration "our founding creed" and went on to tell us the meaning of that creed and how we should not substitute cramped literalisms for a more transcendent spirit:

We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.  We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
 



Display:
Of a lecture that Melissa Harris Perry once gave where she point out how Thomas Jefferson held his own children in inter-generational chattel bondage, and wrote the Declaration of Independence which says that all men are created equal. I think that it is a nice reminder that even great people in history that we admire were very much human and a product of their time.

by Hirador on Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 09:01:15 AM EST
Jefferson was fiercely anti-slavery as a young man, and called for abolition in his draft of the Declaration -- but that part was edited out by his fellow Founding Fathers. If you follow the link in the text, there is a long article form Smithsonian magazine about Jefferson and slavery and why later in life, he went silent on the subject.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 01:20:28 PM EST
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