Delivered to an empty “Field of Flags” surrounded by 25,000 National Guardsmen, Joseph Biden’s inaugural address called for unity in a nation divided. The second Catholic to become president of the United States said that in order to “restore the soul and secure the future of America” we need “that most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
It’s a common theme of inaugural addresses. Yet as I write these words, most Virginia entrances to the District of Columbia are blocked by concrete barriers and snow plows, with state police and guardsmen vigilantly standing watch over a spectacle of fireworks that Van Jones says can’t be beat. Such were the contrasts of the day. Biden’s rhetorical doubling-down on unity reminded me less of Lincoln and more of the prophet Jeremiah, who warned us about those who say “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.
Yet Biden’s address was sincere. He promised his whole soul to the task of “bringing America together” against the common foes of “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.” But common foes such as racism, division, and (sotto voce) Trump, cannot produce real unity. Biden fashioned himself as a unifier, pledging that he would be “a President for all Americans” who will “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Yet what Biden fights for matters as much as for whom he fights.
When Biden quoted the Doctor of Grace, my phone lit up with sardonic quips from friends who knew my reading of Augustine’s City of God would differ from that of the 46th president. “Many centuries ago,” Biden intoned, “Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?”
It's an ancient and excellent question. For Cicero, a commonwealth was nothing other than the good of the whole community, an association united by “a common sense of right and a community of interest.” The classical tradition recognized that every commonwealth depends on a kind of moral unity—an agreement about what is good, and shared activities ordered to a common end. Augustine takes up this classical definition in The City of God and runs with it. Cicero’s strict definition of commonwealth gives Augustine an opportunity to argue that insofar as a commonwealth depends on complete justice, it must render to God what is due him. And since we can only do that through the sacrifice of Christ, the Ciceronian ideal is only possible where God rules an obedient city through grace, and where there is a system of laws that accord with the love of God and neighbor.
Yet Augustine also finds another conceptual deficit in Cicero's definition: It doesn’t give us any access to a standard by which we could morally judge better and worse kinds of commonwealths. “If, on the other hand, another definition than this is found for a ‘people’, for example, if one should say, ‘A people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love” (The City of God 19.24).
This is the passage that Biden quotes in part. Biden recites Augustine’s alternative definition of a people, but not the bit about using the definition to observe and make moral judgments about the people’s objects of love. Instead, Biden rushes headlong into boilerplate inaugural address platitudes: “What are those common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and yes truth.”
Do we have common agreement about what any of these words mean? Does the ordinary American worker who feels all his opportunity has been outsourced to China agree that we have any shared agreement about opportunity? Would the unborn in the womb, or nuns seeking to live in accord with virtue, or students bombarded with confusing sexual and racial ideologies have any sense that all Americans have common agreement about human dignity, respect, and honor? Those are the sorts of questions that Augustine’s alternative definition should evince. But because he has cut away the purpose of the new definition, Biden gives us a very limp Augustine who delivers only vague liberal pieties of “peace, peace.”
Romans had blamed Christianity for their Capitol’s fall to Visigoths in A.D. 410. Augustine’s response was to show Rome that what ailed her was not the onslaught of barbarians, but their own torrential downward rush into immorality. Romans needed not only to return to the cardinal virtues that once made them great, but to overcome their skepticism and immorality through repentance, and through a recognition of the “first things”—the gifts of nature, friendship, and the house and hearth, which is the seedbed of the city.
Yet Biden’s “common objects of love” fail to point to any actual objects at all. His substitution of real objects with what might better be called “qualities and aspirations” deflates a realist account of our common good and leaves us with no objective moral standard by which to judge whether a commonwealth is “upside down,” curved-in upon itself, or moving nearer to the eternal City that is perfectly ordered to God.
Biden could have struck authentically Augustinian notes. Like Cicero, he could have identified our downward rush into immorality as the cause of our decline. Like Augustine, he could have called us to repentance and to the love of God and neighbor. He could have called us to pay attention to the “first things” of human nature, to the good of the body and the soul, to the good of marriage and children, to the dignity of human life at every stage, in every class, in every color. This would have directed our gaze to actual objects of love. Instead he gave us vague qualities without substance or definition.
But his most grievous misrepresentation of Augustine is his studied avoidance of God. “If the soul and reason do not serve God as God himself has commanded that he should be served,” Augustine preached, “then they do not in any way exercise the right kind of rule over the body and the vicious propensities” (The City of God, 19.25).
President Biden is right that we need unity. He is right that we need truth. He is right that we need common agreement about what is truly good. Yet without an honest evaluation of how low our common objects of love have sunk, and without any sense of how we could be drawn back up the metaphysical scale by God’s grace, Biden's call to unity is empty rhetoric. Failing to read Augustine well, President Biden fails to identify the only common object of love that Saint Augustine thought mattered for a true commonwealth: God.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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