President Joe Biden’s Blue America
COMMENTARY: Despite the president’s theme of unity and the gloss of religious language, his inaugural address was intensely partisan, void of reference to the truly transcendent. Biden envisioned a country made in his party’s image, and his plan for ‘unity’ is strikingly, strictly political.
By now, most Americans have watched, read or heard about President Biden’s inaugural address. They will remember its bleak depiction of the “cascading crises of our era.” These include, according to the president, an economy on life support as well as a “once-in-a-century virus.” The germ “stalks the country.” It has already killed more Americans than did our enemies during World War II. The virus threatens a “dark winter,” because the “toughest and deadliest period” is yet to come. Biden also reported “a cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making,” to finally defeat “systemic racism.” And another “cry” was “for survival [that] comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
We even “face an attack on democracy and on truth.”
The president said that “any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is: We face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had.” He called it a “crucible for the ages.”
The inaugural address is memorable, too, for its theme: “unity.” The word appeared 11 times in the speech. The concept was ubiquitous. Biden’s message in a nutshell was this: “We must set aside politics” and face these crises “together,” “as one nation,” not as members of warring tribes or of this or that political party.
“To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy. Unity. Unity.”
The content of the inaugural address was nonetheless intensely partisan. Biden envisioned a country made in his party’s image. It’s the America that the political left has made. President Biden’s America is a blue state.
I am not talking here about particular legislative proposals. Biden offered none. I do not have in mind either Biden’s pointed denunciations of his (never named) predecessor as a liar and fomenter of violence. He even listed “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” among the “cascading crises.” There were several other unmistakable references to his predecessor, all at least unflattering.
About these parts of the inaugural address, think what you will.
I have in mind instead how President Biden imagines the people of the U.S. to be a multitude of isolated individuals who inhabit a secularized society, all of them now desperately in need of a unifying force, or cause, or focal point. Biden took for granted a desiccated devolution of the American way of life, a social vision that achieved a certain hegemony during his 50 years of public service. This new worldview is the work of liberals much more than conservatives, of Democrats much more than Republicans. It was given heraldic expression by the Supreme Court in 1992, when the justices declared that the “heart” of our constitutional liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This cold picture of atomistic, inward-looking individuals, straining not so much to find the truth about the cosmos as to attribute some shards of meaning to it, appears to be the president’s operating system, his narrative of America. It is the foundation (the assumptions, the axioms) on which he will, evidently, build his administration.
Biden studiously peppered his inaugural address with words and phrases 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. But there was no religious substance in it. The holy words were mood music, trappings, like burning incense at a political rally. The president 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: really, to love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, they do need God’s grace.
But 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.” 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.
In his inaugural address the new president appealed to the examples of three great Americans. But he shaved the religion off of them, bleaching each as white as a sepulcher. Biden said he took “an oath first sworn by George Washington.” He made no mention of the inaugural address delivered that day. Washington 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.”
Biden invoked Abraham Lincoln several times, including the Great Emancipator’s own first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. America’s prospects were as bleak then as they are now. Or bleaker. 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.” In the Emancipation Proclamation itself Lincoln said: “[U]pon this act, … I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Biden also hearkened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. Perhaps no one in U.S. history, save Lincoln, faced up to 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 latent religion-based generosity of the U.S. people. This Protestant minister was an apostle of Christian nonviolence. His speech that steamy D.C. day in 1963 soared precisely because it brought together America’s political ideals with the Christian Gospel. That synthesis supplied its power. It is why King is in our pantheon of heroes. But one would never know it from Biden’s inaugural address.
All told, Biden bowdlerized these exemplars, rendering them all pale, secularized versions of their real selves. His is surely not the America of Washington, Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. They all addressed a nation divided politically, but one which possessed a common faith in Almighty God, Ruler of Nations and Judge of the human heart. Biden’s is not even the America of Ronald Reagan, a land that retained enough of its common religious sense to make that Great Communicator’s frequent references to God resonate across political divides.
Biden even bled the religion out of a fourth-century Catholic bishop from North Africa. The president said that “many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint in my church, 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.”
Here, the president summoned false witness, as if somehow St. Augustine approved or would endorse these or any other loves. In the passage Biden took over, Augustine was not saying anything about what is good or right or sublime. Augustine was making the factual point that you can tell what a people is about by what they value most highly. Just so, for the wicked (who love, say, money) or the wise (who love knowledge) or the holy (who love God). St. Augustine’s main point in the passage Biden cited was that only a society whose shared or common love is rightly ordered — to God first then neighbor with reference to God — can in any way call itself “just.”
Nothing in our president’s talk gestured in that direction. The American loves listed by the president are respectable enough. But none gets aloft. None involves God. None cultivates or transmits grace.
Biden 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 Biden’s speech never got aloft, never made God more than a rhetorical gesture. He nearly begged that we smash the horizontal barriers separating us. But the president eschewed the characteristically American appeal to a vertical axis for leverage.
Biden would have us transcend our individuality by looking again, and again, and then one more time, at each other. His predecessors asked us to look to God and then to our neighbors as brothers and sisters because we are all children of the same true God.
Our past political leaders did not make sectarian pitches to Americans. They appealed to what the Founders, and so many generations of Americans since, recognized to be the truths of natural religion, propositions about God and humankind’s place in the universe created by God, which can be known and known to be true, even on the basis of reason unaided by revelation.
Yes, Americans and their religion have changed considerably over the last half-century or so. The president could 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 autonomous island. Most important, there is no chance whatsoever for the renewal of American spirit, which 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. The president can be, and should be, faulted for making us over in what is, after all, a partial and partisan image.
Biden’s plan for “unity” is strikingly, strictly political. There is not a word in his inaugural about how nongovernmental institutions such as churches, private (especially religious) hospitals, community charities, fraternal and other neighborly organizations, or any group of people organized under nongovernmental auspices, figures into solving the “cascade of crises.” There are no mediating structures in this inaugural speech, no Burkean “little platoons,” nothing about the family.
Biden did not seem 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.
The Biden path to “unity” is also strictly national. There is not a single reference in the inaugural to the states or to cities or to towns or villages or to any political body besides the national government. There is no apparent political community other than the nation. In the inaugural address’ world, there is one people, one government, one president. There is a multitude of individuals and a federal Leviathan with Joseph Biden at its head.
What “more than words” did the president offer? Himself. He said, “My whole soul is in it. Today … my whole soul is in this: bringing America together; uniting our people; and uniting our nation.” And “to all those who did not support” his candidacy, he said, “Let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart.” For, President Biden added, “I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans.”
It would difficult indeed to overstate the extent to which Biden made himself the rallying point for that “unity” which, he alleged, is necessary to our “survival.”
One cannot reasonably expect that anything close to national “unity” can be achieved, perhaps especially in our very troubled times, from the top down. Any attempt to do so can achieve, not unity, but a fragile and fitful conformity.
Gerard V. Bradley is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and was for many years president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this commentary ran Jan. 28 at The Washington Times.
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