Never forget the difference between good-sounding reasons and good sound reasoning. That was one of the first admonitions I remember hearing from my debate coach in high school.
Barack Obama’s address at the high-priced ceremony marking his first day as an occupant of the White House is a masterful symphony of good sounding reasons, filled with allusions to America’s founding principles, high ideals and high-minded purposes. Yet in the whole of it, there is not one shred of reasoning based on those principles, not one line that takes true account of their content and deliberately connects it with the view of government he articulates, or the wisps of policy he rhetorically flourishes. He uses words that evoke the founding ideals to give his assertions an aura of legitimacy, but he does not accept them as the starting point for deliberate reasoning that would justify those assertions. He respects their usefulness, not their authority.
Though Obama cleverly exploits the positive emotions still evoked by references to our founding ideals, he speaks without regard for the understanding that justifies those emotions, the logic that transforms them from good feelings to reasonable convictions; from vague hopes to truths which inform our lives and deserve our allegiance; and that we can sustain in the face of great sacrifice, pain and danger, even unto death. Because he refuses to acknowledge the vision of faith and reason actually articulated in our founding documents, his effort to portray the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations falls woefully short, in terms of truth and effectiveness:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
Obama’s words may or may not be well-intentioned, but because they are not truthful, they miss the mark.
Mark Twain was more honest about the American character when he portrayed Tom Sawyer laboring under the burden of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Twain says that Sawyer “began to think of the fun he had planned for this day, and his sorrows multiplied.” Not much later, with the shrewdness that would one day make Madison Avenue a byword, Tom helps another boy to see the pleasures of hard work, gets him to finish the whitewashing job, and so makes his escape from Obama’s vision of American greatness. Americans are all too human, and human ingenuity often owes more to the desire to expand leisure than to any preference for hard work. America was certainly built by doers and risk takers, but some worked as hard for the main chance and took as many risks in search of the short cut to riches and fame as others did for sturdy love of yeoman toil.
The problem, however, isn’t just that in his rhetoric Obama prefers the labor of whitewashing to the riskier short cut of telling the truth. It’s that he challenges us to reaffirm the greatness of our nation, when what we desperately need to reaffirm is the heart for God’s justice that has redeemed this greatness from evil. This is the heart that leads another Twain character, Huck Finn, to reject the false law that sanctioned slavery in favor of the true justice of respect for decent humanity that God has planted in his heart.
James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, was right when he said that justice is the aim of government, the aim of civil society: not freedom, not prosperity, but the determination to do what is right, as God enables us to see the right. In his disregard for the vision of justice that shaped the founding of the United States, Obama reveals the shoddy inadequacy of his vision for America, his fanatical commitment to the tawdry and ultimately self-centered materialism that binds and deforms his leftist ideology at its core. Except for this, he would have understood that before power, before prosperity, even before the Constitution framed our national institutions for liberty, America’s true greatness was given, by God’s Providence, in the moment when the leaders and people of the 13 original states, living in what Europeans then considered a savage, backward wilderness, committed themselves to form an independent nation that derived its identity from their common acknowledgement of the existence and authority of God. So previous generations did not struggle, risk and sacrifice only “for us.” They did so for justice, defined by God’s will. They did so for liberty, respecting God’s law. They did so for all posterity, of which each generation is only a transient expression. They did so for all humanity, constituted by the nature God determines in us and the bonds of right and obligation he established for our common good.
Of course, Obama’s address is peppered with words that speak of selflessness, sacrifice, loyalty, honor and the like. But under the sweet melody line of these words we cannot but hear the discordant positions he actually takes: the policies he advocates, the laws he seeks to establish and implement. Political speech is but an element of action. Obama’s words, therefore, beg the question: Is his good-sounding speech part of a good, just action? Or is it just good acting, in service to the very spirit of selfish ambition he purports to decry?
If principles and ideals are more than the tools of ambition, there will be a logical relationship between speech and policy, words and actions.
Obama purports to respect our founding documents, yet he means to pursue policies that deny the equal rights of all, starting with the equal right to life of our nascent posterity: the children in the womb, the embryos in the Petri dish, the fully born human beings of God’s intention that Obama is willing to see murdered in order to fulfill the intention of their abortion-minded mothers.
Obama purports to encourage responsibility and selfless service, yet stands in the vanguard of the movement that claims the right to sacrifice innocent human lives on the altar of this generation’s lust for pleasure and power. He promises huge increases in government spending so that politicians can claim to address today’s crises, while they pillage the wealth and hopes of the next and future generations.
Obama purports to respect the sacrifices of those who risk and give their lives for liberty, yet promotes a view of “progress” that relies on concentrating power in the hands of government with no regard for the moral and constitutional discipline needed to preserve the rights of individuals, the authority of parents, the integrity of family; and needed as well to prevent tyranny, including the tyranny of the majority.
He purports to respect the critical role of the people themselves in the development of America’s economic strength, yet advocates policies that will destroy the economic self-sufficiency of families, businesses and private associations, making of them all dependent wage slaves or appendages of government power.
Above all, he pays lip service to our founding principles, yet encourages the lying delusion that those principles will be remembered and reliably acted upon without respect for God’s authority. America may be a nation in which people with a great variety of beliefs can live in liberty, but America cannot live as a nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition of human natural equality, once the truth of God’s Creation has been discarded, the existence of his authority effectively denied. Obama invokes “God’s grace upon us.” But can a nation benefit from God’s grace when the people of the nation refuse to live with minds renewed and hearts transformed by it; when those who, by the receiving of grace, transcend the law yet refuse to stand up boldly and freely to preserve the right intention of law in words and deeds that reflect the commands and example of their Lord? Whatever words he speaks in the service of his power and ambition, Obama has articulated views and pledged himself to policies that resist and reject the renewing influence of grace. Where God commands respect for life, he champions murder of the innocent, and calls it freedom of choice. Where God commands respect for the family, as it reflects and perpetuates his image in our nature, Obama champions its destruction, and calls it tolerance. In his rhetoric Obama uses the name of God, but in his views and politics he stubbornly denies, disregards and rejects God’s authority. So I pray for him, that someday he will have the ears to hear the commandment that is also a warning: Thou Shalt not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in vain.
… this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.
– Isaiah 29:13
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
– Matthew 15:8-9