“These things are old. These things are true.” With these words, Barack Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to “those values upon which our success depends”: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.
At first glance, these seem like strange words for a Democratic president to be uttering. By invoking the old and the true, Obama appeared to be channeling the late Russell Kirk, the godfather of conservative intellectuals and the “champion of the permanent things.” In a 1987 lecture, Kirk said a conservative is a person “who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.” In the judgment of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, the young president “intends to use conservative values for progressive ends.”
Yet Obama’s vision for America does not resemble Kirk’s list of “Ten Conservative Principles,” which includes such ideals as prescription, restraint, and property rights. While the president’s admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr might lead him to embrace the “principle of imperfectability,” Kirk’s juxtaposition of “voluntary community” with “involuntary collectivism,” would strike Obama as a false choice.
Nor does Obama’s catalogue of virtues match the post-war sociological best-sellers on the “American character.” From The Lonely Crowd to Habits of the Heart, sociologists have grappled with the tension between community and individualism. Though this dialectic is certainly present in Obama’s Inaugural Address, it does not dominate his list of values. To be sure, there is some overlap with the American core values identified by Robin Williams, Jr. in 1956 and cited by sociology textbooks ever since: achievement and success, activity and work, moral orientation, humanitarian mores, efficiency and practicality, progress, material comfort, equality, freedom, external conformity, science and rationality, nationalism-patriotism, democracy, individual personality, and racism. By celebrating success, honesty, hard work and patriotism, Obama affirmed several of these values. Likewise, by mentioning fair play, he echoed Bill Clinton’s praise of those “who work hard and play by the rules.”
One has to look elsewhere in the speech for the two values most often identified with the American creed: equality and freedom. Earlier in his address, Obama invoked the “God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Later he expounded on the “meaning of our liberty and our creed.”
Like many civil religious speeches, Barack Obama’s address melded the biblical and the republican traditions. While quoting St. Paul’s admonition to “put away childish things,” he appealed to the civic virtues of Greece and Rome. In recent years, some have called for a return to the “pagan ethos” of Sparta, highlighting the incompatibility of Jewish and Christian morality with a Machiavellian ethic of “self-preservation.” In a thoughtful essay, James Skillen critiques such works, including Robert Kaplan’s Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, arguing that it is possible to reconcile national service with Christian discipleship. By praising the virtues of courage and patriotism alongside the heritage of Biblical faith, Barack Obama signaled that he agrees. Though such rhetoric may not satisfy Christian pacifists or American Spartans, it is to be expected from a commander in chief who is also a person of faith. It is also well within the tradition of presidential rhetoric.
While Obama’s speech draws on a host of political traditions, the question remains: how did the president-elect come up with this particular list of values?
We know that Obama’s chief speechwriter Jon Favreau played a key role in drafting the Inaugural Address. Given Favreau’s education at the Jesuit-sponsored College of the Holy Cross, it is easy to imagine him drawing on the rhetoric of America’s first Catholic president. The fact that Favreau admires the speeches of Robert Kennedy makes this hypothesis somewhat plausible. Indeed, one could hear echoes of both the civic (“Ask not what your country can do for you“) and the visionary (“Space is open to us now“) sides of John F. Kennedy when Barack Obama linked patriotism and curiosity. The same goes for Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders.”
Obama’s rhetoric also resonates with some deep currents in American popular culture. As any fanboy knows, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” In recent months, comic book stores have been overrun by demands for Marvel’s “Spidey Meets the President.” Even before this special issue, Obama was a fan of the webbed wall crawler. Though it is unlikely that Stan Lee’s Jewish humanism influenced the Inaugural Address, at least one citizen interpreted Obama’s call for a “new era of responsibility” in the language of Spiderman. Commenting on a New York Times blog, one reader wrote that the president “discussed the idea that with great power comes a sense of great responsibility, not the sense that you can do what you want.”
Along the same lines, Entertainment Weekly reported that President Obama enjoys watching SpongeBob with his daughters. This is appropriate given the warm welcome Obama’s denomination gave to the cartoon character back in 2005. When Focus on the Family criticized the use of “popular animated personalities” to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality among our nation’s youth,” the United Church of Christ released the following statement: “Jesus’ message of extravagant welcome extends to all, including SpongeBob Squarepants—the cartoon character that has come under fire for allegedly holding hands with a starfish.” Such radical hospitality has its roots in the tradition of liberal Protestantism. Whatever their source, Obama’s tolerant instincts are a good fit for a nation that has tired of the culture wars.
A more relevant question is whether Barack Obama ever read The Book of Virtues to Sasha and Malia. Though there is no evidence that he ever did, there are striking parallels between William Bennett’s book and Obama’s speech. Six out of the ten virtues listed in Bennett’s table of contents were mentioned in the Inaugural Address (responsibility, hard work, courage, honesty, loyalty, and faith). This apparent consensus confirms the centrality of these qualities to the American character. It also shows the extent to which progressives have adopted the rhetoric of conservatives. In an administration that is working hard to bridge the divide between Red and Blue, everything old is new again.
[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]