President Obama was clearly aware of Lincoln’s presence in composing and delivering his second inaugural address. But the anxiety of influence was absent.
The biblical references were everywhere, and if not in the recognizable references, they were in the cadences of scripture and the impromptu rhythms of the pulpit that carried the ideas past controversy. Listen to the penultimate paragraph, and ask yourself if it would sound better if you removed any of the adjectives, or any seemingly incidental word: “Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Like Lincoln, Obama sutured the Declaration and the Constitution by citing both (“We, the people” and “all men are created equal”) as if they belonged together. And in keeping with that surgery, he practically quoted Lincoln’s second inaugural, insisting that liberty and equality aren’t just compatible, but rather that each is a necessary condition of the other: “through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.”
But the accomplishment of this speech is a departure from Lincoln’s solemn use of scripture. Quite apart from the continuity of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall the president has now enshrined in the rhetorical memory of our unfinished founding—as Americans, each of us from elsewhere, that’s all we can share, this memory—Obama’s accomplishment resides in the way he was able to move us beyond the measure of liberty and equality God offers, whether in the words of the Bible or in the sermons of our contemporaries.
He said it twice:
“For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
And then, toward the ending:
“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
Liberty and equality are what we make of them, not what God has given us. They become truths we can live by only insofar as we know they’re our creations, in this life and on this earth. That’s a new twist on the idea of a gift from God. When Obama says we can hear a King proclaim that liberty is worthless in the absence of equality, you know he has a doubled son of man in mind. You know the inscrutable God of Abraham has given way not to the forgiveness of Jesus but to we, the people.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”