By now most Americans have watched, read, or heard about President Biden’s Inaugural Address. They remember its bleak depiction of the “cascading crises of our era” including, an economy on life-support as well as a “once-in-a-century virus” which has already killed more Americans than did our enemies during World War II, and whose “toughest and deadliest period” is yet to come.
Mr. Biden also reported “a cry for racial justice” to finally defeat “systemic racism”, and another cry, this one “from the planet itself.”
The Inaugural Address is also memorable for its theme of “unity” which appeared 11 times in the speech. Mr. Biden’s message was this: We must set aside politics and face these crises together as one nation, not as members of warring tribes or of a particular political party.
The content of the address was nonetheless intensely partisan. Mr. Biden envisions a country made in his party’s image. It’s the America that the political left has made. Mr. Biden’s America is a blue state.
I am not talking about controversial legislative proposals. Mr. Biden offered none.
I mean rather that Mr. Biden envisions the American people as a multitude of atomistic, isolated individuals, inhabiting a secularized land. This is surely not the America of Gen. George Washington, President Abraham Lincoln, or Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom Mr. Biden referenced. It is not even the America of Ronald Reagan. It is a desiccated devolution of the American way of life that has achieved a certain hegemony during Mr. Biden’s lifetime of public service.
It is our new president’s operating system, his narrative of America.
At the same time, Mr. Biden peppered the address with words evocative of religion: “hallowed ground,” “sacred oath,” “heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion rest in eternal peace.” He referenced the Bible and called us to pray for those felled by COVID-19.
There was, however, no religious substance in it. The holy words were mood music. Mr. Biden implored Americans to do what most of them think they need God’s grace to do, namely, convert their wills, open their souls, and treat their perceived enemies as their brothers and sisters.
The president never asked God’s help for this gargantuan task, or asked us to ask for God’s help. He never used the word “religion.” Mr. Biden made no reference to the people’s churches, synagogues or temples, much less to their belonging to these communities of meaning, of solace, of grace. The speech shimmers with a holy glow, which illumines nothing of the transcendent.
The new president appealed to the examples of three great Americans. But he shaved the religion off of them, bleaching them white as sepulchers. Mr. Biden said he took “an oath first sworn by George Washington.” He made no mention of the Inaugural Address delivered by Washington, who said that “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States.”
Mr. Biden invoked Lincoln several times, including the Great Emancipator’s own first Inaugural Address in circumstances far bleaker. Mr. Biden did not mention that Lincoln expressed that day his hope that impending war could be averted by “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land.”
Mr. Biden also hearkened to King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered on the National Mall in August 1963. Perhaps no one in American history faced more hateful division than did King. He did so — on the mall, in the Birmingham Jail, and everywhere else – in a spirit of prayer and by appealing to the religious-based generosity of the American people.
This Protestant minister was an apostle of Christian non-violence. His speech that steamy day in 1963 soared precisely because it brought together America’s political ideals and the Christian Gospel. That synthesis supplied its power. It is why King is in our pantheon of heroes.
Mr. Biden even managed to bleed the religion out of a fourth-century Catholic bishop. The President said that “many centuries ago, St. Augustine … wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”
The new president led one to infer that somehow Saint Augustine approved or endorsed these other loves. Augustine was not saying anything about what is good or right or sublime. Augustine was simply making the factual point that you can tell what people are about by what they value most highly. His main point was that only a society whose love is rightly ordered — to God first then neighbor with reference to God — can in any way call itself “just.”
The loves listed by the president are respectable enough. But none involves God. None cultivates or transmits grace.
Our president would lead us into the fiery furnace of existential trial. He called for nothing less than a national conversion, an effervescence of willingness to sacrifice one’s own for the good of others and for the whole. He looked into this dark night of the American soul for what he (following Lincoln) called our “better angels.”
Yet the speech never got aloft, never made God more than a rhetorical gesture. He nearly begged that we smash the barriers separating us. Yet the president did not seek the transcendent perspective which enables us to recognize the beauty and the presence of God in each other. The best way to break down separation between people is to seek that transcendent perspective.
While his predecessors asked us to look to God, Mr. Biden would have us transcend our individuality by looking at each other.
Yes, Americans and their religion have changed considerably over the last half-century or so. The president is not to be faulted for taking account of those changes. But we are not yet a secular people living each on his or her own island. There is no chance whatsoever for the renewal of American spirit which Mr. Biden says is essential for survival without a frank and full partnership between our political leaders and our religious leaders, and them with us, under God.
Instead, Mr. Biden’s plan for unity is strictly political. There is not a word the address about how non-governmental institutions such as churches, private (especially religious) hospitals, community charities, fraternal and other neighborly organizations, or any group of people organized under non-governmental auspices figure into solving the “cascade of crises.”
There are no mediating structures, no Burkean “little platoons,” nothing about the family. Mr. Biden fails to recognize that the American way has always been to build up to national community by layering the many more intimate and vital loyalties of family, church, locale, one upon the other.
The American way has been to synthesize unity out of these particularities, not to ignore them and force community upon us from the top down.
His approach is also strictly national. There is not a single reference to state, cities, towns or any political organ besides the national government. There is no apparent political community other than the nation. In Mr. Biden’s world, there is one people, one government, one president. There is a multitude of individuals, and a federal leviathan with Mr. Biden at its head.
• Gerard V. Bradley is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and Trustee of the James Wilson Institute.