January 24, 2009
Obama's Curious Inaugural RhetoricBy Paul Kengor
Something quite notable was said before an audience of tens of millions of Americans on January 20, 2009. And although I wasn't the only one who noticed, the full implications seem to have been missed.
Alluding to the American founders, President Barack Obama, in his Inaugural Address, stated: "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." This seemed to be a reference to the Declaration of Independence, or at least to the principles in that sacred political document.
The moment I heard those words, I immediately noticed -- as did others who quickly commented -- that Obama neglected two crucial things from the most famous line not only in the Declaration of Independence but in the essence of the American founding: 1) He left out the unalienable right to "Life;" and 2) He left out the words "created" and "Creator" -- the God who "endows" that "Right," a right which is a "self-evident" "truth."
This slight was significant for a myriad of reasons. Chief among them, it is patently clear -- as it was to the American founders -- that one must have life before one can even begin to entertain liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is why that quintessential right is so fundamental and unassailable, as theologians and political philosophers alike have long pointed out in their admiration of the founders and their Declaration.
When I say "founders," I mean founders, since Thomas Jefferson himself wrote that very line, which was then preserved and approved in a series of edits and revisions to Jefferson's text by John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the entirety of the Continental Congress.
Even that, though, does not get to the heart of what Obama pronounced. Whether the new president -- and his speechwriter and staff -- realized it or not, he appears to have inter-mixed the core of the Declaration of Independence with the core slogan of the French Revolution: "liberty, equality, and fraternity." He seems to have integrated the guiding document of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, with the guiding document of the American Revolution.
There, too, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the emphasis on "life" is replaced with "equality," as it was in the new president's Inaugural Address. In the French manifesto, the word "life" is non-existent, as are the words "God" and "created" or "Creator."
That was no accident by those who spearheaded the French Revolution. The revolution of Robespierre and his Jacobins was secular, militantly atheistic, socialistic, even communistic. (On the communistic: some historians have called the Jacobins the "first communists," and Vladimir Lenin called his Bolsheviks "glorious Jacobins.") The American founders, who read the French documents, saw the dangers endemic in the words of the French revolutionaries. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, expressing his trepidation for the French Revolution, "I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists."
The American founders understood what we need to understand: that words and ideas matter. We should read them carefully, and consider them. What Obama said in his address is, presumably, an expression of his view of America, of government, and, yes, literally of "Life."
So, how can it happen that such a mangling of the most famous quotation in American history could take place before the (supposedly) largest crowd at the most hyped inaugural ever, and with such a profound, far-reaching twist of language, and few noticed or care? The answer is American education, from K-12 to higher education, which is a human disaster.
Consider one anecdote as an example:
In Cupertino, California, in November 2004, a fifth-grade teacher, Steven Williams, was barred by his school from giving students historical American documents that mention God, including the Declaration of Independence. "It's a fact of American history that our founders were religious men, and to hide this fact from young fifth-graders in the name of political correctness is outrageous and shameful," said Williams' attorney, Terry Thompson. "Williams wants to teach his students the true history of our country."
The teacher's mistake was to teach the truth -- an inconvenient, unwelcomed truth. Ironically, it was the objection to this truth, and the prevention of the teacher from teaching this truth, which produces Americans incapable of recognizing the political-historical butchering on display before them in Obama's Inaugural Address.
Compounding the problem, in the case of Obama's inaugural, is that even fewer Americans -- needless to say -- learned anything about the vicious secular-atheism that was the thrust of the French Revolution.
The rare institutions where students study such things, such as Grove City College, its Center for Vision & Values, and its programs, like the American Founders Lecture Series, are a mere drop in the sand in the arid desert that is American education.
Thanks to decades of terrible teaching, we are now reaping the desiccated fruit. It doesn't taste good, and a long period of wandering is now upon us.
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).