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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.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 06:55 PM PST.

Also republished by Pro Choice and Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  You make excellent points, and offer a really (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson

    unique perspective. Thank you, and I hope a few more people see this very worthwhile read.

    „Wer kämpft, kann verlieren. Wer nicht kämpft, hat schon verloren.“ - Bertolt Brecht

    by translatorpro on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 03:09:09 AM PST

  •  "substitute spectacle for politics" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, DJ Rix

    was among my favorite phrases in this superb address

    the people are suffering from the frightening reality of the soaring cost of living and the lessening of employment opportunities

    and what they get is "entertainment" in the mold of the circuses provided for the plebians, without the bread

    there have been some astute diaries recently on the need to disenchant the american voter from the msm propping up of the rightist agenda

  •  Some points.... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DJ Rix

    The Declaration was a petition to a theocracy. What better way to argue for separation than to declare that "God" is on your side?  There is no real connection between this document and the Constitution which was PURPOSELY written as a totally secular document. IF there was a connection between the documents in their minds, they certainly would have made reference to that. There were challenges to this made by those who wanted to carry the language of the Declaration into the Constitution in terms of a reference to a deity and even to Christianity, but those proposals were turned down by the majority.

    I have a problem with the President tying the Declaration to the Constitutional ceremony of the inauguration by calling it "our founding creed". In fact I think that plays into the hands of the religious right by forging a link between the two documents.

    It is one thing to personally believe our rights come from a deity (the Protestant Christian deity obviously, since the whole tone of the inauguration was specific to that view), but it is another to declare it as an absolute. For those of us who do not believe in any gods or deities, it is disconcerting and disenfranchising to hear the head of our secular government declare that belief as a fact (freedom IS a gift from God).

    My freedom is NOT a gift from any god.  It is a right bestowed on me as a citizen operating under a government legitimized by a secular Constitution and Bill of Rights formulated and agreed upon by the people.  I find the swearing on a literal stack of bibles and the prayers (particularly "in the name of Jesus...) just plain wrong. As James Madison said, prayers and other religious rituals at government functions "imply and nourish the erroneus idea of a national religion." In my view, Obama used the inauguration to promote not just a liberal political view (which is fine), but a liberal Protestant Christian view. He implied a national religion.  This action did not undercut the religious right's claims to government at all, it nourished them.

    •  Yes, No, and Yes (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DJ Rix
      My freedom is NOT a gift from any god.
      Yes, it has nothing to do with God.
      It is a right bestowed on me as a citizen operating under a government legitimized by a secular Constitution and Bill of Rights formulated and agreed upon by the people.
      No, it is more fundamental than that.
      I find the swearing on a literal stack of bibles and the prayers (particularly "in the name of Jesus...) just plain wrong. As James Madison said, prayers and other religious rituals at government functions "imply and nourish the erroneus idea of a national religion."
      Yes, but not every President has sworn on the Bible.

      "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything even remotely true." -- H. Simpson

      by midnight lurker on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 10:11:01 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •   "No, it is more fundamental than that." (0+ / 0-)

        Could you explain this statement a little more for me?

        I am aware that not every President has sworn on the bible, but since the topic is Obama's inaugural, that is what I was commenting on.


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