taking the words of Jesus seriously

So the recent winter storm had my girls stuck in my wife’s hometown. That was until the roads cleared up enough for them to safely make the trip back to OKC. Their absence afforded me way too much free time.

So between Duck Dynasty repeats and work, I resurrected Calvin Coolidge’s “” (now one of my favorite political pieces) and compared the text content with that of President Obama’s keynote address, “The Audacity of Hope, ” delivered at the 2004 DNC.  The latter is regarded by policymic.com as the President’s greatest speech “up to this point”.

Before I bore you with my analysis, let me first say, language is a powerful medium of self-disclosure and the locus of revelation. As Christians, we are a community of a language that is the redemptive reel of the gospel, tasked to bring—to steal a phrase from Richard Weaver—“meaning beyond present meaning” (see the chapter “The Power of the Word” in his book ). Words are important. Words keep the past alive and by them we can follow our history back to prime reality and to the first things (“In the beginning was the Word;” John 1:1). I think Coolidge would agree: “While the written word was the foundation, it is apparent that the spoken word was the vehicle for convincing the people.”

This brief analysis is but a small step from what is to what was, but the difference marks a steep fall far from the standard of political profundity and a rise in candidate self-advertisement. I’m not sure which is more dangerous to the moral direction of this country.

From President Coolidge’s introduction:

“We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. But how our interest and wonder increase when we behold the miracle of the birth of a new nation. It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July. Whatever may have been the impression created by the news which went out from this city on that summer day in 1776, there can be no doubt as to the estimate which is now placed upon it. At the end of 150 years the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in grateful acknowledgement of a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity, that it is still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world.”

President Obama’s introduction:

“On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, land of Lincoln, let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention. Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant.”

Both men speak graciously of their host city and state. But notice that Coolidge opens with a triumphant “We!” and not once lapses into the first person until well into the body of his address. In fact, in the some 4, 000 words of his speech, the first-person singular “I” appears but three times and only then to either mark presentation direction/transition or to qualify assertion (“I shall…, ” I shall…, ” “I believe…”).

Related: God Doesn’t Need Our Political Endorsement

For the President’s address, it’s obvious the author is himself the object of his reflection. Remember, this was before he got the party nod for the 2008 election. Here he had just come off a victory in the March 2004 Illinois Senate Democratic primary – he wasn’t even yet a Senator. And for an occasion convened to celebrate then Senator John Kerry’s candidacy, the President’s introduction hardly captures—and seemingly hijacks—the spirit of the occasion.

Moving on. From Coolidge:

“In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.”

From Obama:

“That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will he counted, or at least, most of the time.”

To know what we’re becoming as a nation, we must know what we’ve become – and so we must recall the notches upon the doorframe of national growth. Both men appeal and make alive our founding vision, which is well and good. Notice, however, the solemn responsibility the preservation of this vision entails for Coolidge and his audience: “We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.”

For Coolidge, the fight for moral order never ceases and demands honest self-examination. The wild dance of their struggle’s victories will not last if the people weigh anchor out of the depths of its divine source of inspiration.

While the President makes similar appeals, this struggle, for him, marches towards a definitive end. His reaffirmation of this struggle and its commitment leads him to project an ideal wherein liberty and equality take the form of sustained union jobs and lower pharmaceutical costs. The achievement of such “moral” feats, according to the President, depends not on government, but rather “a change in [government] priorities.”

Though the President does not say from what priorities government must shift, if such a shift is redirection and not recovery, the “true genius of America, ” to which he so warmly refers, may be lost to its substitute in the new age. If this is now the case, this administration may have played the role of God by creating a self-made moral order, and by Coolidge’s words now stands guilty of a grave offense:

“We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”

In short, our founding documents proceed from and not towards a moral ideal. Their source is a creative order divinely instilled, which bestows upon humankind profound freedom and so also great risk and responsibility. The preservation of this order takes priority, and if so preserved, we can tuck in our children at night and know they are truly free. To live truly free is an aim at infinite possibility, and at life’s end the free can look back and see where their arrow landed, either at well-defined success or utter failure.

As a parent, this freedom inspires my highest hope and evokes my greatest fear, that my daughter will one morning awaken from her own dreams and deem them possible. If it’s her dreams she seeks, my faith and my hope will follow. If she finds them, I will have found mine. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone can claim to be a dreamer and then regard the dreams of others as simple and life’s miracles small.

Such language, I feel, is indicative of a gross underestimation of the common American, in whom our founding documents place such profound hope and faith. To think hope now takes the form of unproven promises from elites seeking offices of greater power (and in a system that yields to the people its greatest measure of power, no less), such hope to me is foolish and above all selfish. It’s a hope that looks cynically upon the Other, that shirks individual responsibility and sells one’s soul to special interest. Anymore the language of American politics sounds more like club membership (pro-x, anti-y) or something much less than moral philosophy. It’s a hope misplaced, not at all audacious as it is just dangerously fickle.

Words, my friends, are important. They are the meaning bearers of our ideas. And though we are created equal, our ideas by necessity are not.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your time. Share it. Discuss it. Repeat. Blessings and peace are yours in Christ Jesus.

Photo Credit: spirit of america /

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