A Time for ‘Sublime Madness’

Published on Monday, January 21, 2013 by TruthDig.com by Chris Hedges

Excerpt

The planet we have assaulted will convulse with fury. The senseless greed of limitless capitalist expansion will implode the global economy. The decimation of civil liberties, carried out in the name of fighting terror, will shackle us to an interconnected security and surveillance state that stretches from Moscow to Istanbul to New York. To endure what lies ahead we will have to harness the human imagination…It is the imagination that makes possible transcendence…“Ultimately, the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it,” wrote James Baldwin. “Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”

Full text

The planet we have assaulted will convulse with fury. The senseless greed of limitless capitalist expansion will implode the global economy. The decimation of civil liberties, carried out in the name of fighting terror, will shackle us to an interconnected security and surveillance state that stretches from Moscow to Istanbul to New York. To endure what lies ahead we will have to harness the human imagination. It was the human imagination that permitted African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era to transcend their physical condition. It was the human imagination that sustained Sitting Bull and Black Elk as their land was seized and their cultures were broken. And it was the human imagination that allowed the survivors in the Nazi death camps to retain the power of the sacred.

It is the imagination that makes possible transcendence. Chants, work songs, spirituals, the blues, poetry, dance and art converged under slavery to nourish and sustain this imagination. These were the forces that, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “we had in place of freedom.” The oppressed would be the first—for they know their fate—to admit that on a rational level such a notion is absurd, but they also know that it is only through the imagination that they survive. Jewish inmates in Auschwitz reportedly put God on trial for the Holocaust and then condemned God to death. A rabbi stood after the verdict to lead the evening prayers.

African-Americans and Native Americans, for centuries, had little control over their destinies. Forces of bigotry and violence kept them subjugated by whites. Suffering, for the oppressed, was tangible. Death was a constant companion. And it was only their imagination, as William Faulkner noted at the end of “The Sound and the Fury,” that permitted them—unlike the novel’s white Compson family—to “endure.”

The theologian James H. Cone captures this in his masterpiece “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Cone says that for oppressed blacks the cross was a “paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.” Cone continues:

That God could “make a way out of no way” in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.

Reinhold Niebuhr, as Cone points out in his book, labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ ” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”

Niebuhr’s “sublime madness” permits the rest of us to view the possibilities of a world otherwise seen only by the visionary, the artist and the madman. And it permits us to fight for these possibilities. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible had this sublime madness. The words of the Hebrew prophets, as Abraham Heschel wrote, were “a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

Primo Levi in his memoir “Survival in Auschwitz” tells of teaching Italian to another inmate, Jean Samuel, in exchange for lessons in French. Levi recites to Samuel from memory Canto XXVI of Dante’s “The Inferno.” It is the story of Ulysses’ final voyage.

“He has received the message,” Levi writes, “he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular.” Levi goes on. “It is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand … before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again.”

The poet Leon Staff wrote from the Warsaw ghetto: “Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all.”

It is only those who can retreat into the imagination, and through their imagination can minister to the suffering of those around them, who uncover the physical and psychological strength to resist.

“… [T]he people noticed that Crazy Horse was queerer than ever,” Black Elk said in remembering the final days of the wars against the Indians. He went on to say of the great Sioux warrior: “He hardly ever stayed in the camp. People would find him out alone in the cold, and they would ask him to come home with them. He would not come, but sometimes he would tell the people what to do. People wondered if he ate anything at all. Once my father found him out alone like that, and he said to my father: ‘Uncle, you have noticed me the way I act. But do not worry; there are caves and holes for me to live in, and out here the spirits may help me. I am making plans for the good of my people.’ ”

Homer, Dante, Beethoven, Melville, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson and James Baldwin, along with artists such as the sculptor David Smith, the photographer Diane Arbus and the blues musician Charley Patton, all had it. It is the sublime madness that lets one sing, as bluesman Ishman Bracey did in Hinds County, Miss., “I’ve been down so long, Lawd, down don’t worry me.” And yet in the mists of the imagination also lies the certainty of divine justice:

I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
Someday it’ll burst this levee and wash the whole wide world away.

Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and heroines—Prospero, Anthony, Juliet, Viola, Rosalind, Hamlet, Cordelia and Lear—all have this sublime madness. As Theseus says in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

“Ultimately, the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it,” wrote James Baldwin. “Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”

© 2012 TruthDig.com

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/01/21-1

Make climate change a priority

By Jim Yong Kim, Washington Post, January 24, 2013 – Jim Yong Kim is president of the World Bank.

Excerpt

…The signs of global warming are becoming more obvious and more frequent. A glut of extreme weather conditions is appearing globally…As economic leaders gathered in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, much of the conversation was about finances. But climate change should also be at the top of our agendas, because global warming imperils all of the development gains we have made. If there is no action soon, the future will become bleak… My wife and I have two sons, ages 12 and 3. When they grow old, this could be the world they inherit. That thought alone makes me want to be part of a global movement that acts now. Even as global climate negotiations continue, there is a need for urgent action outside the conventions. People everywhere must focus on where we will get the most impact to reduce emissions and build resilience in cities, communities and countries. Strong leadership must come from the six big economies that account for two-thirds of the energy sector’s global carbon dioxide emissions…Just as the Bretton Woods institutions were created to prevent a third world war, the world needs a bold global approach to help avoid the climate catastrophe it faces today…what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can’t wait.

Full text

The weather in Washington has been like a roller coaster this January. Yes, there has been a deep freeze this week, but it was the sudden warmth earlier in the month that was truly alarming. Flocks of birds — robins, wrens, cardinals and even blue jays – swarmed bushes with berries, eating as much as they could. Runners and bikers wore shorts and T-shirts. People worked in their gardens as if it were spring.

The signs of global warming are becoming more obvious and more frequent. A glut of extreme weather conditions is appearing globally. And the average temperature in the United States last year was the highest ever recorded.

As economic leaders gathered in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, much of the conversation was about finances. But climate change should also be at the top of our agendas, because global warming imperils all of the development gains we have made.

If there is no action soon, the future will become bleak. The World Bank Group released a reportin November that concluded that the world could warm by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century if concerted action is not taken now.

A world that warm means seas would rise 1.5 to 3 feet, putting at risk hundreds of millions of city dwellers globally. It would mean that storms once dubbed “once in a century” would become common, perhaps occurring every year. And it would mean that much of the United States, from Los Angeles to Kansas to the nation’s capital, would feel like an unbearable oven in the summer.

My wife and I have two sons, ages 12 and 3. When they grow old, this could be the world they inherit. That thought alone makes me want to be part of a global movement that acts now.

Even as global climate negotiations continue, there is a need for urgent action outside the conventions. People everywhere must focus on where we will get the most impact to reduce emissions and build resilience in cities, communities and countries.

Strong leadership must come from the six big economies that account for two-thirds of the energy sector’s global carbon dioxide emissions. President Obama’s reference in his inaugural address this week to addressing climate and energy could help reignite this critical conversation domestically and abroad.

The world’s top priority must be to get finance flowing and get prices right on all aspects of energy costs to support low-carbon growth. Achieving a predictable price on carbon that accurately reflects real environmental costs is key to delivering emission reductions at scale. Correct energy pricing can also provide incentives for investments in energy efficiency and cleaner energy technologies.

A second immediate step is to end harmful fuel subsidies globally, which could lead to a 5 percent fall in emissions by 2020. Countries spend more than $500 billion annually in fossil-fuel subsidies and an additional $500 billion in other subsidies, often related to agriculture and water, that are, ultimately, environmentally harmful. That trillion dollars could be put to better use for the jobs of the future, social safety nets or vaccines.

A third focus is on cities. The largest 100 cities that contribute 67 percent of energy-related emissions are both the center of innovation for green growth and the most vulnerable to climate change. We have seen great leadership, for example, in New York and Rio de Janeiro on low-carbon growth and tackling practices that fuel climate change.

At the World Bank Group, through the $7 billion-plus Climate Investment Funds, we are managing forests, spreading solar energy and promoting green expansion for cities, all with a goal of stopping global warming. We also are in the midst of a major reexamination of our own practices and policies.

Just as the Bretton Woods institutions were created to prevent a third world war, the world needs a bold global approach to help avoid the climate catastrophe it faces today. The World Bank Group is ready to work with others to meet this challenge. With every investment we make and every action we take, we should have in mind the threat of an even warmer world and the opportunity of inclusive green growth.

After the hottest year on record in the United States, a year in which Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, record droughts scorched farmland in the Midwest and our organization reported that the planet could become more than 7 degrees warmer, what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can’t wait.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/make-climate-change-a-priority/2013/01/24/6c5c2b66-65b1-11e2-9e1b-07db1d2ccd5b_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

What Do We Mean By ‘Judeo-Christian’?

 By Shalom Goldman, Religion Dispatches, January 21, 2011

Religious conservatives have, to varying degrees of controversy, been issuing online voting guides for “concerned Christians” for a while now, but this past election saw something new: a national “Judeo-Christian Voter Guide.” …although the use of “Judeo-Christian” seemed to signal a message of cooperation and ecumenicism, it was really a cover for an attack on the values of the Enlightenment, the very values that enabled Jews to enter Western societies…

Full text

Religious conservatives have, to varying degrees of controversy, been issuing online voting guides for “concerned Christians” for a while now, but this past election saw something new: a national “Judeo-Christian Voter Guide.” The guide’s homepage, which features a map of all fifty states and a ‘note to clergy’ urging them to “Please click on your state to find a voter’s guide that will best fit your congregation,” connects the seeker to like-minded organizations who’ve already drafted area-specific guides. The presence of links, exclusively to conservative evangelical organizations like the ACLJ and Liberty Counsel, make the guide’s politics self-evident (though there’s no identifying or contact information and the site was registered with a service that conceals the identity of those who registered it).

As one who identifies with the “Judeo” part of Judeo-Christian, I felt invited to click on my home state of Georgia to see whom I should vote for. The links directed me to Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the American Family Association—a major player on the Christian right whose issues with racism and abuse Sarah Posner recently wrote about on RD. These groups, and numerous others, have moved from describing the values they fight for as “Christian” to “Judeo-Christian”—which is intended, presumably, to sound more inclusive.

Along with other students and scholars of Judaism I had to come to realize that this irksome and quintessentially American term had considerable political value, if no intellectual or spiritual weight. Like many members of my academic generation I had been influenced by theologian Arthur A. Cohen’s brilliant essay “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (first published in Commentary in 1969), in which Cohen pointed to the theological impossibility of a Judeo-Christian tradition. Referring to the origins of Christianity in its Jewish setting, Cohen pointed out that:

The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim.

A few years after the essay’s publication, Israeli Orthodox Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovitz put it even more succinctly:

Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.

Behind these refutations was the bloody history of European Christian persecution of Jews. In a 1963 lecture to German theologians, Richard Rubinstein noted that “for almost 2000 years an honest Judeo-Christian encounter was all but impossible in Europe… Only in modern times has a beginning been made toward real communication… A tolerated Judaism can never achieve real encounter with Christianity.”

In the 1970s I thought, somewhat naively, that such refutations by Cohen, Berkovitz, Rubenstein and others would discourage the use of “Judeo-Christian”; that by now the term would have fallen out of use. On the contrary, by the 1980s presidents were using the phrase and by the 1990s presidential campaigns were depending on its appeal. As essayist Sarah Deming noted recently: “the insidious thing about words is that the act of decrying them promotes their usage.” Being that the term is now ubiquitous, perhaps a look back at the history of “Judeo-Christian” is in order.

Popularized by liberals

The first recorded uses of the term “Judeo-Christian” were in England in the 1820s, though it was used quite differently than it is in today’s political rhetoric. The term was first coined by protestant missionaries who used it to refer to those Jews who had “seen the Christian light” and chosen baptism, though it took more than a century for “Judeo-Christian” to enter the general lexicon.

The term was actually popularized by liberals at the newly-founded National Conference of Christians and Jews who, concerned about the rise of American nativism and xenophobia during the Depression, sought to foster a more open and inclusive sense of American religious identity. Prominent protestant clergy who were members of the NCCJ’s National Council eschewed efforts to convert Jews—a somewhat radical stance that, along with a determination to change entrenched attitudes towards non-Protestants, alienated many conservative Christian groups.

Liberal Jews, meanwhile, led by the leaders of the Reform movement, welcomed the effort, while most Orthodox Jews rejected the term and all it implied. To more traditional Jews “Judeo-Christian” seemed to suggest a new hybrid, one that threatened to erase important distinctions between religions as the classical Jewish tradition had warned against.

For Maimonides, the 12th century rabbinic scholar and one of the most important figures in the history of Judaism, there was no possibility of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Christianity, in his understanding may have had a positive function in world history insofar as it brought monotheism to the pagan world, but for Jews Christian ritual was a form of idolatry. “The Christian peoples, in all of their varied sects, are worshipping idols and their holidays are forbidden to us,” he wrote, while Islam, though a “mistaken” religion in his view, is monotheistic, and thus cannot be construed as idolatrous.

Almost 900 years later Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the early 20th century thinker respected by most Orthodox Jews and revered by Religious Zionists, had similar sentiments. Like Maimonides, Kook saw Christianity as akin to idolatry, writing that “with Christianity and its concepts one should share nothing, not even what seems good or beneficial… It is only by distancing oneself from Christian concepts, and by implementing the absolute refusal to gain any benefit from that world of ideas, that our own intellects and sense of self will become purer and stronger.”

With the swing to the Right of the 1950s, American conservatives began to deploy “Judeo-Christian” in the fight against “Godless Communism.” Senator Barry Goldwater contrasted “Judeo-Christian understandings” with “the communist projection of man as a producing, consuming animal to be used and discarded.” Since then, “Judeo-Christian,” like most religious terminology, has been deployed most effectively by political conservatives.

In the 1970s Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority called for a return to Judeo-Christian values, implying that these values were an American standard that liberals had weakened. Falwell also included in the Moral Majority statement of purpose a call for unconditional support for the State of Israel, a state whose establishment or “rebirth” he and many fellow evangelicals saw as a sign of God’s hand moving in history.

Evangelicals and Jews become partners

Today, it’s commonplace for the Christian Right to invoke the idea of “Judeo-Christian values,” and for America to once again become “one nation under God.” Overlooking the pesky fact that that phrase was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, they insist that both the Christian and Jewish traditions were essential elements in the thought of the Founding Fathers.

Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute has even claimed that the Puritans were honoring the Jews of their day by giving their children biblical names—a patent absurdity to historians of Colonial America who point out that it confuses Puritan emphasis on Old Testament ideas with admiration for Jews. But for both Christian and Jewish conservatives historical accuracy is easily swept aside in favor of current ideological needs.

By the late 90s Falwell’s notion of a “return” to Judeo-Christian values was adopted by the rest of the religious right whose leadership was determined to inculcate this idea in the next generation. “Generation Joshua,” founded in 2003 to get home-schooled children involved in politics, coordinates closely with the Republican Party. Its mission statement, according to Hannah Rosin’s 2007 book, God’s Harvard, is: “to ignite a vision in young people to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundations.” To the faithful, the biblical reference in the organization’s name is crystal clear. Their own generation, who brought the religious right to power, was the generation of Moses, the Lawgiver. When Moses was gone, his follower Joshua carried on the job.

Despite the use of Judeo-Christian in its mission statement, the popular Generation Joshua website is more explicit and honest about its religious orientation: “We seek to inspire everyone of our members with faith in God and a hope of what America can become as we equip Christian citizens and leaders to impact our nation for Christ and His glory,” a mission unlikely to appeal to many American Jews, whatever their political persuasion.

Today, terms like “Judeo-Christian tradition” and the claim of American exceptionalism have become a staple of the rhetoric of presidential candidates. In the 2008 campaign, John McCain said, “The number one issue people should make selection of the president of the United Sates is ‘Will this person carry on the Judeo-Christian tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?’”

In his recent critique of American religious illiteracy, religion scholar Stephen Prothero sees the political use of “Judeo-Christian values” as generating ignorance of any specific religious tradition:

This new political theology helped religious conservatives gain political power, but this power came at a price since, under the gentleman’s agreement struck by the Moral Majority with culturally conservative Catholics and Jews, anything specifically Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish had to be checked at the door.

“Gentleman’s agreement” seems too mild a phrase for some of the strange arrangements emerging from this consensus. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, for example, tells of a mid-90s encounter with Jerry Falwell after the ADL had criticized Falwell for referring to the U.S. as a “Christian nation.” At first reluctant to consider the criticism, Falwell told Foxman that he could see how “Christian nation” could be misunderstood. “From now on,” said Falwell, “I intend to refer to America as a Judeo-Christian nation, which describes our heritage accurately.” In his account of this conversation, Foxman was mollified by Falwell’s response. Evangelicals and Jews could now serve as partners.

When Jerry Falwell died in 2007 Foxman eulogized him as “a great friend of Israel,” indicating that he, along with the leaders of other major Jewish organizations, seemed to have taken the implications of this ‘Judeo-Christian agreement’ to heart. Today, seventeen years after that encounter, its import and implications are clearer.

In the post 9/11 world of the Bush Presidency, American Islamaphobia flourished and “Judeo-Christian” has become a term of exclusion, rather than inclusion. The implication in the current context is that the U.S. can accept Jews into the social contract (or at least those Jews who embrace “traditional values”), while Muslims, who “killed us on 9/11” in Bill O’Reilly’s phrase, are permanently excluded.

Thus, in 2010, Foxman’s “Anti-Defamation League” was able to demand that an Islamic community center be moved from its planned site in downtown Manhattan. The “reasoning” presented by the ADL statement on the issue depended on Foxman’s linking Holocaust memory to the memorialization of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Do Conservative Evangelicals—and the ADL—need to be any more explicit about excluding Islam, and Liberalism, from the American consensus? It seems so. Between 2005 and 2008, Dennis Prager, the West coast media personality who identifies himself as an Orthodox Jew, published a 19-part series on “Judeo-Christian Culture.” In his introduction Prager wrote that:

[O]nly America has called itself Judeo-Christian… but what does Judeo-Christian mean? We need to know. Along with the belief in liberty—as opposed to the European belief in equality, the Muslim belief in theocracy, and the Eastern belief in social conformity—Judeo-Christian values are what distinguish America from all other countries.

Reading Dennis Prager sent me back to Arthur Cohen’s 1969 essay. Scanning a text I’d read many times, I was reminded of Cohen’s point that although the use of “Judeo-Christian” seemed to signal a message of cooperation and ecumenicism, it was really a cover for an attack on the values of the Enlightenment, the very values that enabled Jews to enter Western societies. Cohen wrote that “we can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding.”

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. His new book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).
http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/3984/what_do_we_mean_by_%E2%80%98judeo-christian%E2%80%99_

THE AMERICAN CREED – an address

An Address delivered at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Forrest Church, Quebec, Canada, June 21, 2002

I speak to you this evening in the great nation of Canada as an American citizen to my fellow Americans. Yet, in so doing, I invoke the broad spirit of our Unitarian Universalist Principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each is emblematic of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s noble mission and heritage. In fact, the language of the two are in many respects interchangeable. Among other things, the statement of principles guiding contemporary Unitarian Universalism speaks of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process;” and “the goal of world community with peace liberty, and justice for all.” Proclaiming all people to be “endowed with reason and conscience,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948) affirms that, “The inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

This evening I shall consider the source for these uplifting affirmations. It is Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the American Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In 1949, when the Unitarian evangelist A. Powell Davies described Unitarianism as America’s Real Religion, he persuasively coupled the religious views of Thomas Jefferson to American first principles. Inspiring thousands of his fellow citizens to embrace our faith, Davies made explicit the connection between Unitarian core values and the faith upon which America was established: “Jefferson (Davies wrote) had seen that something deep within the [human] heart requires [freedom and neighborliness], that it breaks out from history like the brightening of the sky against a night of darkness; that it speaks in conscience and the moral law. That was Jefferson’s faith and he found it because something deeper than his own life had spoken to him. It was America’s real religion.”

Many Unitarian Universalists today would instead excommunicate Thomas Jefferson from our communion for betraying–as a slaveholder–the spirit of our faith. Apart from Jefferson’s abridgment of his own ideals in practice (which I shall get to in a moment), there are three possible reasons that contemporary Unitarian Universalists might cringe at embracing these powerful and redemptive words. Feminist sensibilities with regard to the pronoun “man”; anti-theistic theological scruples; and, American self-loathing. Since to reject Jefferson’s founding principles entails jettisoning the centerpiece of our own tradition, let me address each point briefly.

Feminism’s foremothers, our Unitarian forebears Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pointedly chose the Declaration of Independence as their proof text that men and women are created equal and therefore deserve equal rights. Their Declaration of Sentiments ratified in the great feminist convention of Seneca Falls in 1848 has a familiar ring.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

As Anthony and Stanton make clear, women were presupposed by the founders in the generic use of “man” and “mankind.” The Declaration of Independence thus served as a proof text for their own crusade. It does not read “Some are created equal,” or “All males are created equal,” or even, as was actually proposed by some Americans, that “All whites are created equal.” Jefferson’s clear affirmation that all people are created equal is American bedrock, grounded not so much theistically, by the way, as it is in the laws of nature, which (for Anthony and Stanton as well as Jefferson) mandate full equality. According to the foundations of this encompassing theology, natural rights belong to all. The theological grounding is important, because nature’s law, so understood, forbids abridgment by any lesser authority. As for American self-loathing, Stanton and Anthony resisted the temptation. Enforced inequality may represent American practice but it betrays American ideals. They judged America in the name of America. That was the very point they were trying to make. In fact, to appreciate the full power of Jefferson’s words, one almost has to read them through the eyes of those whose inalienable rights are abridged or denied by governmental writ. American feminism represents a valiant, yet unfinished campaign to tune the nation’s history to the key of its ideals.

The relationship between American and Unitarian moral principle has been sounded often and effectively throughout history. To offer but one additional example, the Unitarian prophet and abolitionist Theodore Parker considered the Declaration of Independence “the great political idea of America,” placing it as the cornerstone of his campaign against slavery. To Parker, the Declaration’s relationship to the American Constitution was akin to that of Jesus to the Bible. Both gave spirit to the letter, fostering aspirations that, if risen to, would establish “the reign of righteousness, the [realm] of justice, which all noble hearts long for, and labor to produce, the ideal whereunto [humankind] slowly draws near.” Part of the document’s power lay in how profoundly it held the nation under judgment. William Henry Channing, Ellery’s nephew, a champion of Native American rights and far more stalwart an abolitionist than his uncle, recognized Jefferson’s “declaration of principles” to be “the clearest announcement of human rights” in all of history. His often stirring critique of America was all the more powerful, both rhetorically and in fact, for being based on American tenets. To Channing, Jefferson’s was the text by which we measure our moral progress as a people.

With this as a backdrop, I invite you to reconsider both the rhetorical and redemptive power of what I, following in the spirit of our forebears and adopting the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., call the American Creed.

Not long ago, Roger Wilkins, nephew of the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and a professor of American history at George Mason University, visited the Jefferson Memorial. Standing beneath the dome of a monument dedicated to the memory of one of America’s most honored slave owners, Wilkins brooded on Jefferson’s complicity in his family’s bondage. Then those immortal words recorded on a single slab of marble sang out and touched his soul. Wilkens could not help but marvel at “the throbbing phrases at the core of the American hymn to freedom that Jefferson composed and flung out against the sky.”

Roger Wilkins is an American. Like all Americans, he participates in an unfinished story. This story is both noble and tragic, but its genius is emblazoned from the beginning. “The Declaration of Independence,” Wilkins concluded, “for all the ambiguity around it, constitutes the Big Bang in the physics of freedom and equality in America.”

When the founders gathered one wiltingly hot July in Philadelphia to hammer out their dreams into a single, ringing declaration, they were fashioning precepts as sacred as they were secular. As a group, they were not notably religious men. But they were united, almost miraculously, in forging a union that transcended, even as it encompassed, the historical particularity of the present crisis. Fired with ardor and apprehension–the prospect of a long war, its outcome uncertain –America’s first citizens performed an almost perfect act of alchemy. In their crucible were transfigured the elements that would reflect America’s promise and set the measure for its fulfillment.

Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and, liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.

The word “Creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical, especially to Unitarian Universalist ears. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles, enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course.

Non-Americans may appreciate the nation’s unique foundation more clearly than Americans themselves do. It was an English author, G. K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth “with theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed (as interpreted in the Bill of Rights) also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In America’s Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet, unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”

Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is so explicit in its language that proponents of slavery finally had to reject it. In 1861, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens conceded that the Declaration proclaims liberty and equality for all and that Jefferson himself believed slavery to be in violation of the laws of nature. Jefferson’s ideas “were fundamentally wrong,” Stephens proclaimed. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid; its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens once had quoted Proverbs 25:11 to Abraham Lincoln–”A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Here is Lincoln’s reply.

The expression of that principle ["all men are created equal’] in our Declaration of Independence was the word “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.

Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as “spiritually regenerative.” The touchstone of what he called “our ancient faith,” its “sacred principles” establish the spiritual and political foundation for America. Inclusive and chastening, the American Creed rings forth the good news that all people are entitled to equal justice and invested with equal dignity. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington D. C., Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a new generation of American citizens when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, a union in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single convenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom both of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining.

As for the theology implicit in this broad and generous creed, when Jefferson said, “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” people remember what he swore, but tend to forget on whose altar he swore it. Those who don’t forget sometimes jump to the conclusion that he had his hand on the Bible when he made this oath. He did not. Jefferson swore eternal hostility to every form of tyranny on the altar of nature and nature’s God. Others among the founders may have been guided to like views by the scriptures, but Jefferson’s religious convictions came straight off the presses of the Enlightenment.

To Jefferson nature’s laws were self-evident–a late substitution in the Declaration of Independence for “sacred and undeniable.” And the rights they confirmed were inalienable (the original “inherent and inalienable” considered a redundancy). Its primary draftsman, Jefferson described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind”–”the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” Its preamble stands as a summation of our aspirations as a people. What is more, it accomplishes this with conscious intent. It proclaims itself to be the American Creed.

None of Jefferson’s propositions is original–creedal originality is an oxymoron–but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were hardly self-evident. They were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had government limited or bound itself in such a manner, nor established itself on so republican and egalitarian a footing. The divine (or, if you would prefer, natural) authority for human laws is invoked in a strikingly novel way. With ambition not unlike the hitherto unprecedented ambition of our first English settlers, in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson gave expression to something altogether new in the annals of history.

For Jefferson, the handmaiden of equality is justice. In his first Inaugural Address, he listed justice foremost among government’s obligations, calling for “Equal and exact justice to all. . ., of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. . . That should be the creed of our political faith,” he went on to say, “the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The 19th century positivist philosopher August Comte argued that the word “rights” should be struck from the political lexicon. It is a “theological and metaphysical” conception, he said, and should have no place in modern scientific discourse. Even American presidents have not always been immune to Comte’s logic. Accepting the Republican nomination for vice-president in 1920, Calvin Coolidge said, “Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge anyone to show where in nature any rights existed.” That is what laws are for, Coolidge argued. Law creates and protects the rights it establishes.

Though expressive of the secular modernist gospel, this is an un-American concept, with un-American consequences. When the foundation for law is an arbitrary one, moral checks and balances are relativized. The rights Jefferson lists in the Declaration of Independence are certainly open to interpretation, but, according to our founders at least, their metaphysical basis–grounded in nature itself–is not. By this view, the rights with which nature itself endows us are inalienable. Laws may abridge them, but such laws are without higher sanction.

Dating back to the Greeks and emerging as the centerpiece of Enlightenment science and philosophy, natural law is read from the script of the creation, which trumps all lesser revelations. Looking back on the Declaration of Independence with the entitlement that comes with old age, Jefferson indulged in not a little hyperbole, yet the essence of his memory rings true: “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.”

Enlightenment philosophers were confident that under the scrutiny of reason, both natural and moral truth would be made self-evident. “Can we suppose less care to be taken in the Order of the Moral than in the natural System?” Ben Franklin asked with rhetorical flourish. No longer do we share the same confidence. Nonetheless, to the extent that the American experiment has proved successful, it has been so because the founders (whether Christian or Deist) believed in a natural order based upon the imperatives of moral law.

Jefferson and his fellow Deists were more responsive to the teachings of science than they were to the teachings of Christian theology. The scientific method of trial and error in fact challenged the dogmatism familiar to religion. Yet, if biased in the direction of science, Jefferson was not ignorant of contemporary theology. Combining the two, he derived his understanding of natural law from Newtonian cosmology and a wide assortment of teachings from the French philosophes and the English and Scottish Enlightenment Schools. Jefferson could well have subscribed, if not to the particulars of Immanuael Kant’s Idealist philosophy, then certainly to the sentiment Kant expressed when he exclaimed, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Advancing our understanding of nature and nature’s God, Kant also posited “that lordly ideal of a universal kingdom of reasonable individuals . . . to which we can only belong if we relate solicitously to one another according to the maxims of freedom as if they were laws of nature.” To Jefferson, they were laws of nature.

Assuming that the universal truth of reason would soon triumph over centuries of superstition, Jefferson believed that, by the day of his death, every child born in America would be born Unitarian. Once his fellow citizens considered matters a little more carefully, everyone would surely come to the same religious conclusions he himself had. Fortunately, Jefferson was mistaken. A world composed only of Unitarians would be a pallid world indeed. Nonetheless, Jefferson was testifying not to his faith in reason alone, but also to the reasonableness of his faith. To Jefferson it made no earthly difference whether another individual believes in “twenty gods or no God [for] it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” In a world where religion often picks people’s pockets and breaks their legs, Jefferson dedicated himself to limiting this danger. Hence his zealous pursuit of legal protections for freedom of belief.

Looking back on the debates and circumstances leading up to the codification of the American Creed, what detracts more than anything from its moral claim on succeeding generations is how dramatically the founders’ stated ideals were betrayed by their tolerance of slavery. It was not that they were insensitive to the intrinsic worth of human liberty. Even as the Puritans a century and a half earlier had championed their own religious freedom not anybody else’s, the same could be said of the founders with respect to freedom itself. They spoke passionately of liberating the colonies from abject slavery, yet only a few denounced the bondage liberty’s champions themselves imposed. When Washington declared that he would rather the nation be drenched in blood than inhabited by slaves, he was speaking of himself and his fellow plantation owners. Even Franklin spoke of a crown-appointed governor “blackening” and “negrifying” the Pennsylvania Assembly by denying calls for American rights. From England, the literary lion Samuel Johnson posed the obvious question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The abiding irony of America is how often the claims of equity have been abridged in practice. Original constitutional guarantees covered neither race nor gender, and for this reason, throughout the nation’s history, claims of justice haunt the boasts of liberty and equality. No one knew this better than Jefferson himself. Reflecting on slavery (where his personal witness is, at best, hypocritical), Jefferson wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Indicted by his own soaring rhetoric, Jefferson might better be described as schizophrenic than hypocritical on the question of slavery. A slaveholder who on his death (unlike Washington) failed to offer manumission to the great majority of his slaves (including the half-sister of his first wife and mother of his children, Sally Hemmings), Jefferson nonetheless gave every indication that he included blacks in the benefice bestowed on all by nature’s God. In June of 1776, he proposed then-radical language for the Virginia Declaration of Rights that would free from bondage any slave henceforth coming into the country. Reflecting on his failure to win passage for this clause, he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Expressing astonishment that individuals who would do anything to liberate themselves from the bondage of taxation without representation apparently thought nothing of inflicting actual slavery upon another human being, Jefferson–without a hint of self-recognition–mused openly about how “incomprehensible” human nature is. In the Declaration of Independence itself, his fieriest words condemned the king for waging “cruel war against human nature itself” by countenancing the slave trade. Blatantly hypocritical, this passage was cut, to Jefferson’s abiding regret.

When Jefferson dropped the word property from Locke’s familiar list of rights (“life, liberty, and property”), one possible reason redounds to his moral credit. The text that Jefferson appears to have embellished in his preamble to the Declaration was George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for Virginians, adopted the month before: “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity.” To Mason (who himself opposed slavery), these rights were life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness and the ability to secure safety. The condition guaranteeing full rights only to those who had entered “a state of society” was an amendment to Mason’s original draft written to underscore that the declaration expressly excluded slaves (who were not considered members of society) from its compass. Property themselves, slaves were seen as human goods not as humans entitled to full participation in the common good. This demeaning nuance is missing from the Declaration of Independence. By eliminating reference to property from his preamble, Jefferson removed a condition he knew to have been recently imposed to qualify the claims for equal status among all people, slave or free. By so doing he secured the integrity of the American Creed.

Thomas Jefferson’s reputation (and not only among Unitarian Universalists) has slipped in recent years. Growing scrutiny of his hypocrisy as a high-minded slaveholder and the late-rising star of John Adams have combined to tarnish his memory. Both of these revisionist schools enhance the understanding of our history, and are therefore to be welcomed. But as we rectify the balance, we must be wary of not overloading the other side of the scale. Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. It was to this as well as to Jefferson’s brilliance that President John Kennedy was alluding when he quipped in a roomful of Nobel laureates that no more eminent assembly had dined in the White House since Thomas Jefferson had supper there alone. In another toast of sorts, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “All honor to Jefferson, . . . to the man who . . . had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, . . . and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Before I close, let me say a few words about the contemporary relevance of Jefferson’s ideals. In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that it was God who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America is caricatured through much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in its exercise of power around the globe. Yet the surest guarantee for world peace remains the American ideal of E pluribus unum as enshrined in the American Creed. By this light, the struggle being waged–one that will continue into the indefinite future–is not, in essence, between God and godlessness, but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role faith should play in society to advance the greater good.

When religious believers confront neighbors who hold conflicting beliefs or don’t believe in God at all, short of adopting their neighbor’s views they have only four options. They can attempt to convert, destroy, ignore, or respect those who hold contrasting beliefs. Fundamentalism embraces the first and, in its most radical expression, the second of these four options. It champions conversion but can sponsor destruction as well. Secularism occasionally opts for destruction (witness the crematoria and the gulags) but most widely embraces the third, ignoring religious differences as of negligible importance. The American Creed, charted by our forebears and coded in the nation’s laws, represents the fourth path. In the spirit of liberal democracy, religious pluralism is celebrated. At its best, America witnesses to a deeply held belief in freedom of faith, the rights of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every human being.

Terrorists may hate America as the incarnation of amoral secularism, but this caricature, if justified, is an America watered down by modernist arrogance and post-modernist relativism. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez faire capitalism and have nothing to do either with materialism or relativist groundlessness. They rest instead on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established.

In aspiration, to be a moral people is not to be a perfect people. (Otherwise there would be no such thing as morality, perfection stifling every effort to ensure its attainment.) But the founders saw to it that we would hold ourselves to a higher standard. “An almost chosen people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, we demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our unquestioned economic dominance, but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in our own image. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we were good.

Such goodness today is under attack, and not only by terrorists. Some argue that, to protect America, civil liberties must be sacrificed. They forget that America enshrines a radically different truth than that espoused by the absolutists who sponsor terror. American union finds its noblest expression in the devotion we render to liberty. The right to dissent must therefore be zealously guarded. Here the American Creed itself is our most persuasive instrument. The best (not to mention most persuasive) way to protect civil liberties is to do so in America’s name. To demonstrate that John Ashcroft’s defense of America is patently unAmerican, we need look no further than the ideals of Thomas Jefferson. As Eleanor Roosevelt, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once said: “It is high time that we Americans took a good look at ourselves, . . . remembering how we established a land of freedom and democracy, remembering what we believed in when we did it.”

History instructs us to be wary. From John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II and McCarthyism during the 1950s, the record suggests that threats to security too often offer license to overturn fundamental human rights. Future historians will list the so-called Patriot’s Act in this same category. The government has an obligation to protect public safety, but we must guard against politically convenient yet otherwise unnecessary abridgment of Constitutional guarantees.

Here, not only American but Unitarian history is instructive. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony cited the American Creed to advance women’s rights. Theodore Parker adduced it to refute slavery. A. Powell Davies lifted it up in his battle against McCartyism. To find our own prophetic voice, I can think of no better instrument. As it has always been, the American Creed remains a sentinel for the peoples’ liberty, but, for it to do its work, we must recapture it from its late captivity, demonstrating a patriotism far loftier than that which would smother American ideals in the American flag. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. makes this case succinctly:

When we talk of the American democratic faith, we must understand it in its true dimensions. It is not an impervious, final, and complacent orthodoxy, intolerant of deviation and dissent, fulfilled in flag salutes, oaths of allegiance, and hands over the heart. It is an ever-evolving philosophy, fulfilling its ideals through debate, self-criticism, protest, disrespect, and irreverence; a tradition in which all have rights of heterodoxy and opportunities for self-assertion. The Creed has been the means by which Americans have haltingly but persistently narrowed the gap between performance and principle. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.

Searching through my grandparents’ attic when I was a boy, I found a handsome wooden plaque picturing a soldier in a broad brimmed American World War I helmet and embossed in burnished copper with the words, “My country, right or wrong.” If lifted from its most memorable source, this quote was taken out of context, leaving a misleading impression. What Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri actually said in 1899 was, “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” That is the essence of true patriotism. That, when guided by the sacred precepts set forth by Thomas Jefferson, fulfills the promise of the American Creed.

https://www.allsoulsnyc.org/publications/sermons/fcsermons/the-american-creed.html

Does God Want You To Be Rich?

By DAVID VAN BIEMA and JEFF CHU, Time Magazine, Sunday, Sep. 10, 2006

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of megapastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen.

Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime–and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less–Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,” he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s top salesmen made–and got the job. Banishing all doubt–”You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts”–Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says. “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.”

“I’m dreaming big–because all of heaven is dreaming big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us,” he says. “But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?”

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.” In support of this alarming prediction, he forcefully contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” It is one of the New Testament’s hardest teachings, yet generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian, on some level, means being ready to sacrifice–money, autonomy or even their lives.

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams, the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?” For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

“Prosperity” first blazed to public attention as the driveshaft in the moneymaking machine that was 1980s televangelism and faded from mainstream view with the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals. But now, after some key modifications (which have inspired some to redub it Prosperity Lite), it has not only recovered but is booming. Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three–Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta–are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits (although Jakes’ ministry has many more facets). While they don’t exclusively teach that God’s riches want to be in believers’ wallets, it is a key part of their doctrine. And propelled by Osteen’s 4 million–selling book, Your Best Life Now, the belief has swept beyond its Pentecostal base into more buttoned-down evangelical churches, and even into congregations in the more liberal Mainline. It is taught in hundreds of non-Pentecostal Bible studies. One Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor even made it the basis for a sermon series for Lent, when Christians usually meditate on why Jesus was having His Worst Life Then. Says the Rev. Chappell Temple, a Methodist minister with the dubious distinction of pastoring Houston’s other Lakewood Church (Lakewood United Methodist), an hour north of Osteen’s: “Prosperity Lite is everywhere in Christian culture. Go into any Christian bookstore, and see what they’re offering.”

The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number of prominent pastors, theologians and commentators. Fellow megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio of 7 to 1, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable. “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, he snorts. “There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”

The brickbats–both theological and practical (who really gets rich from this?)–come especially thick from Evangelicals like Warren. Evangelicalism is more prominent and influential than ever before. Yet the movement, which has never had a robust theology of money, finds an aggressive philosophy advancing within its ranks that many of its leaders regard as simplistic, possibly heretical and certainly embarrassing.

Prosperity’s defenders claim to be able to match their critics chapter and verse. They caution against broad-brushing a wide spectrum that ranges from pastors who crassly solicit sky’s-the-limit financial offerings from their congregations to those whose services tend more toward God-fueled self-help. Advocates note Prosperity’s racial diversity–a welcome exception to the American norm–and point out that some Prosperity churches engage in significant charity. And they see in it a happy corrective for Christians who are more used to being chastened for their sins than celebrated as God’s children. “Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.” If nothing else, Meyer and other new-breed preachers broach a neglected topic that should really be a staple of Sunday messages: Does God want you to be rich?

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion–the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin)–Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have. “Jesus’ words about money don’t make us very comfortable, and people don’t want to hear about it,” notes Collin Hansen, an editor at the evangelical monthly Christianity Today. Pastors are happy to discuss from the pulpit hot-button topics like sex and even politics. But the relative absence of sermons about money–which the Bible mentions several thousand times–is one of the more stunning omissions in American religion, especially among its white middle-class precincts. Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow says much of the U.S. church “talks about giving but does not talk about the broader financial concerns people have, or the pressures at work. There has long been a taboo on talking candidly about money.”

In addition to personal finances, a lot of evangelical churches have also avoided any pulpit talk about social inequality. When conservative Christianity split from the Mainline in the early 20th century, the latter pursued their commitment to the “social gospel” by working on poverty and other causes such as civil rights and the Vietnam-era peace movement. Evangelicals went the other way: they largely concentrated on issues of individual piety. “We took on personal salvation–we need our sins redeemed, and we need our Saviour,” says Warren. But “some people tended to go too individualistic, and justice and righteousness issues were overlooked.”

A recent Sunday at Lakewood gives some idea of the emphasis on worldly gain that disturbs Warren. Several hundred stage lights flash on, and Osteen, his gigawatt smile matching them, strides onto the stage of what used to be the Compaq Center sports arena but is now his church. “Let’s just celebrate the goodness of the Lord!” Osteen yells. His wife Victoria says, “Our Daddy God is the strongest! He’s the mightiest!”

And so it goes, before 14,000 attendees, a nonstop declaration of God’s love and his intent to show it in the here and now, sometimes verging on the language of an annual report. During prayer, Osteen thanks God for “your unprecedented favor. We believe that 2006 will be our best year so far. We declare it by faith.” Today’s sermon is about how gratitude can “save a marriage, save your job [and] get you a promotion.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about money,” he says a few hours later. He and Victoria meet with TIME in their pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases. “Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.

Osteen is a second-generation Prosperity teacher. His father John Osteen started out Baptist but in 1959 withdrew from that fellowship to found a church in one of Houston’s poorer neighborhoods and explore a new philosophy developing among Pentecostals. If the rest of Protestantism ignored finances, Prosperity placed them center stage, marrying Pentecostalism’s ebullient notion of God’s gifts with an older tradition that stressed the power of positive thinking. Practically, it emphasized hard work and good home economics. But the real heat was in its spiritual premise: that if a believer could establish, through word and deed (usually donation), that he or she was “in Jesus Christ,” then Jesus’ father would respond with paternal gifts of health and wealth in this life. A favorite verse is from Malachi: “‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse … and try Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘If I will not for you open the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.’” (See boxes.)

It is a peculiarly American theology but turbocharged. If Puritanism valued wealth and Benjamin Franklin wrote about doing well by doing good, hard-core Prosperity doctrine, still extremely popular in the hands of pastors like Atlanta megachurch minister Creflo Dollar, reads those Bible verses as a spiritual contract. God will pay back a multiple (often a hundredfold) on offerings by the congregation. “Poor people like Prosperity,” says Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. “They hear it as aspirant. They hear, ‘You can make it too–buy a car, get a job, get wealthy.’ It can function as a form of liberation.” It can also be exploitative. Outsiders, observes Milmon Harrison of the University of California at Davis, author of the book Righteous Riches, often see it as “another form of the church abusing people so ministers could make money.”

In the past decade, however, the new generation of preachers, like Osteen, Meyer and Houston’s Methodist megapastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, who gave the benediction at both of George W. Bush’s Inaugurals, have repackaged the doctrine. Gone are the divine profit-to-earnings ratios, the requests for offerings far above a normal 10% tithe (although many of the new breed continue to insist that congregants tithe on their pretax rather than their net income). What remains is a materialism framed in a kind of Tony Robbins positivism. No one exemplifies this better than Osteen, who ran his father’s television-production department until John died in 1999. “Joel has learned from his dad, but he has toned it back and tapped into basic, everyday folks’ ways of talking,” says Ben Phillips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That language is reflected in Your Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation to this-world empowerment through God. “To live your best life now,” it opens, to see “your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams come to pass …” you must “start looking at life through eyes of faith.” Jesus is front and center but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement. There are chapters on overcoming trauma and a late chapter on emulating God’s generosity. (And indeed, Osteen’s church gave more than $1 million in relief money after Hurricane Katrina.) But there are many more illustrations of how the Prosperity doctrine has produced personal gain, most memorably, perhaps, for the Osteen family: how Victoria’s “speaking words of faith and victory” eventually brought the couple their dream house; how Joel discerned God’s favor in being bumped from economy to business class.

Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben Witherington, an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, thundered that “we need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health–it is a disease of our American culture; it is not a solution or answer to life’s problems.” Respected blogger Michael Spencer–known as the Internet Monk–asked, “How many young people are going to be pointed to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He’s not. He’s not one of us.” Osteen is an irresistible target for experts from right to left on the Christian spectrum who–beyond worrying that he is living too high or inflating the hopes of people with real money problems–think he is dragging people down with a heavy interlocked chain of theological and ethical errors that could amount to heresy.

Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it “half right”: that God’s goodness is biblical, as is the idea that he means us to enjoy the material world. But while Prosperity claims to be celebrating that goodness, the critics see it as treating God as a celestial ATM. “God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself,” says Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. Others are more upset about what it de-emphasizes. “[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative,” says another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We’re fallen.” That is, Prosperity soft-pedals the consequences of Adam’s fall–sin, pain and death–and their New Testament antidote: Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and the importance of repentance. And social liberals express a related frustration that preachers like Osteen show little interest in battling the ills of society at large. Perhaps appropriately so, since, as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains, “philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them.”

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s Prothero.

Non-prosperity parties from both conservative and more progressive evangelical camps recently have been trying to reverse the trend. Eastern University professor Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a fringe classic after its publication in 1977, is selling far more copies now, and some young people are even acting on its rather radical prescriptions: a sprinkling of Protestant groups known loosely as the New Monastics is experimenting with the kind of communal living among the poor that had previously been the province of Catholic orders. Jim Wallis, longtime leader of one such community in Washington and the editor of Sojourners magazine, has achieved immense exposure lately with his pleas that Evangelicals engage in more political activism on behalf of the poor.

And then there is Warren himself, who by virtue of his energy, hypereloquence and example (he’s working in Rwanda with government, business and church sectors) has become a spokesman for church activism. “The church is the largest network in the world,” he says. “If you have 2.3 billion people who claim to be followers of Christ, that’s bigger than China.”

And despite Warren’s disdain for Prosperity’s theological claims, some Prosperity churches have become players in the very faith-based antipoverty world he inhabits, even while maintaining their distinctive theology. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who pastors Windsor Village, the largest (15,000) United Methodist church in the country, can sound as Prosperity as the next pastor: “Jesus did not die and get up off the Cross so we could live lives full of despair and disappointment,” he says. He quotes the “abundant life” verse with all earnestness, even giving it a real estate gloss: “It is unscriptural not to own land,” he announces. But he’s doing more than talk about it. He recently oversaw the building of Corinthian Pointe, a 452-unit affordable-housing project that he claims is the largest residential subdivision ever built by a nonprofit. Most of its inhabitants, he says, are not members of his church.

Caldwell knows that prosperity is a loaded term in evangelical circles. But he insists that “it depends on how you define prosperity. I am not a proponent of saying the Lord’s name three times, clicking your heels and then you get what you ask for. But you cannot give what you do not have. We are fighting what we call the social demons. If I am going to help someone, I am going to have to have something with which to help.”

Caldwell knows that the theology behind this preacherly rhetoric will never be acceptable to Warren or Sider or Witherington. But the man they all follow said, “By their fruits you will know them,” and for some, Corinthian Pointe is a very convincing sort of fruit. Hard-line Prosperity theology may always seem alien to those with enough money to imagine making more without engaging God in a kind of spiritual quid pro quo. And Osteen’s version, while it abandons part of that magical thinking, may strike some as self-centered rather than God centered. But American Protestantism is a dynamic faith. Caldwell’s version reminds us that there is no reason a giving God could not invest even an awkward and needy creed with a mature and generous heart. If God does want us to be rich in this life, no doubt it’s this richness in spirit that he is most eager for us to acquire.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1533448,00.html

The American Creed

by Forrest Church, The Nation, February 5, 2005

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional will almost certainly be struck down in any ruling by the Supreme Court. Though the contested words “under God” were added for all the wrong reasons at the height of the McCarthy epidemic in 1954, the amended pledge nonetheless conforms to the Founders’ blueprint as expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Should we somehow manage to discern Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” through the din of patriotic soundbites, we might seize this opportunity to reflect more deeply on American first principles.

In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were martyrs, servants of Allah dying for a holy cause–a view not restricted to terrorists alone. America is caricatured in much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in the exercise of its power around the globe.

To the extent that this caricature is justified, we have lost our way. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez-faire capitalism and have nothing to do with materialism. They rest on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established. At its best, America witnesses to a deep belief in liberty and equality, with the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being posited at birth. These are religious principles, not arbitrarily fashioned but–in the mind of the Founders–grounded in nature itself.

Some argue that, as truth claims, all beliefs are of equal value (except, perhaps, the belief that all beliefs are not of equal value). By this reading, there are no overarching stories or visions of the good life through which our lives acquire meaning. Yet our nation enshrines a radically different truth–an American vision, if you will–from that espoused by fundamentalist-sponsored terrorism. From a religious perspective, this struggle, one that will continue into the indefinite future, is not between God and godlessness but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role religion should play in society to advance the greater good.

It was an English author, G.K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth with “theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In An American Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”

The nation’s greatest moral leaders have viewed American history in the same light. Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as spiritually regenerative. The touchstone of what he called our “ancient faith,” its “sacred principles” establish the spiritual and political foundation for America. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a new generation of American citizens when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

The word “creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles and enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course. Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our Founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single covenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom both of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining.

Most Americans perceive no fundamental conflict between the practice of their own individual religious belief and the latitude given to their neighbors to practice theirs. At our best, we celebrate both what sets us apart (specific doctrinal convictions) and what holds us together (a common faith). Fundamentalists of the right and left struggle more than the average citizen with such ambiguity. Respectively seeking to expand the compass of their piety or to remove every vestige of it from the public square, they shape the national debate both on church and state, and on religion and politics. Negative images of each other, advocates for a Christian or a secularist vision of America alike misread the Founders’ script.

As an “ism,” secularism suggests a rejection of or hostility toward religion. Taken in this sense, it dates from the French, not the American, Revolution. If ours is explicitly not a Christian nation, it is nonetheless built on a foundation of belief, not on a foundation of skepticism. That church and state are separate in America, to the signal advantage of both, is an expression, not a rejection, of this belief. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education,” George Washington once wrote, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington, who mentions Christ not once in the twenty volumes of his collected papers, alludes here not to the saving virtues of any specific dogma but to the highest attributes with which we are endowed at birth by the Creator.

In the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, “the separate and equal station” to which free people are entitled is guaranteed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” According to the Founders, the rights with which we are endowed by nature are inalienable. Laws may abridge them, but such laws are without higher sanction. Dating back to the Greeks and emerging as the centerpiece of Enlightenment science and philosophy, natural law is read from the script of the Creation, which trumps all lesser revelations. To Jefferson, nature’s laws were self-evident–a late substitution in the Declaration of Independence for “sacred and undeniable.” And the rights they confirmed were inalienable (the original “inherent and inalienable” considered a redundancy). Its primary draftsman, Jefferson described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind”–”the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” Its preamble stands as a summation of our aspirations as a people. What is more, it accomplishes this with conscious intent. It proclaims itself to be the American Creed.

None of Jefferson’s propositions are original, but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had a government limited or bound itself in such a manner, or established itself on so republican and egalitarian a footing. The divine (or, if you would prefer, natural) authority for human laws is invoked in a strikingly novel way. “Equal and exact justice to all…of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political…should be the creed of our political faith,” Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address. “And should we wander from [these principles] in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The nineteenth-century positivist philosopher Auguste Comte argued that the word “rights” should be struck from the political lexicon. It is a theological and metaphysical conception, he said, and should have no place in modern scientific discourse. Even American Presidents have not always been immune to Comte’s logic. Accepting the Republican nomination for Vice President in 1920, Calvin Coolidge said, “Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge anyone to show where in nature any rights existed.” That is what laws are for, Coolidge argued. Law creates and protects the rights it establishes.

Though expressive of the secular modernist gospel, this is an un-American concept, with un-American consequences. When the foundation for law is an arbitrary one, moral checks and balances are relativized. The rights Jefferson lists in the Declaration of Independence are certainly open to interpretation, but, according to our Founders at least, their metaphysical basis–grounded in nature itself–is not.

This American proposition has been controversial since the nation was founded. Concerned that such sweeping theological claims for liberty and equality would undermine the institution of slavery, John Rutledge of South Carolina dismissed Jefferson’s interpretation of natural law as having nothing to do with the workings of the state. “Interest alone is the governing principle of nations,” he argued. Three-quarters of a century later, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens characterized Jefferson’s foundational principles as “fundamentally wrong.” He boasted, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Stephens once had quoted Proverbs 25:11 to Abraham Lincoln–”A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Here is Lincoln’s reply.

 The expression of that principle ["all men are created equal"] in our Declaration of Independence was the word “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.

The meaning of American history sounds as clearly from the nobility of the Founders’ ideals as it does in the incomplete fulfillment of their promise. For this reason, Lincoln called us “an almost chosen people.” We demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our unquestioned economic dominance but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in our own image. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we fulfilled the mandate of our nation’s creed.

Thomas Jefferson’s reputation has slipped in recent years. Growing scrutiny of his hypocrisy as a high-minded slaveholder and the late-rising star of John Adams have combined to tarnish his memory. Both of these revisionist schools enhance the understanding of our history and are therefore to be welcomed. But as we rectify the balance, we must not forget that Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. Acknowledging this debt, Abraham Lincoln said, “All honor to Jefferson…to the man who…had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth…and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Rather than becoming overheated about the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, we would do well, as Lincoln did, to recapture its spirit. In fact, to commemorate the lives of those who died a year ago, we could do no better than to reopen the Gettysburg Address and follow Lincoln’s counsel: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Forrest Church is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and author of The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer, St. Martin’s Press, which is the source of this article. His other books include God and Other Famous Liberals, The Seven Deadly Virtues and Everyday Miracles. posted February 5, 2005

This article can be found on the web at: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020916&s=church

President Barack Obama, Editorial

New York Times, January 21, 2013

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation… explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage…President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women….Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort…With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

Full text

President Obama’s first Inaugural Address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.

He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation of freedom depend on collective action. In the coming days, there will be no let up of political combat over the debt ceiling, gun control, national security and tax policies that can either reduce income inequality or allow such inequality to stifle economic growth and opportunity for all but the very wealthiest in this society.

But, on Monday, the president stepped back from those immediate battles to explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage.

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we,” he said, “that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

In every sphere of life — improving education, building roads, caring for the poor and elderly, training workers, recovering from natural disasters, providing for our defense — progress requires that Americans do these things together, Mr. Obama said.

That applies, he said, to “the commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

President Obama rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other. The choice is not “between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said.   “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”

He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

Instead, he took the fight to the people, laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women. Disappointingly, the need for stricter gun controls was noted solely in a reference to the safety of children in places like Newtown, Conn.

On foreign policy, President Obama expressed with fervor a view of the role of the United States in a world that is threatened by terrorism on many continents. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” he said. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Mr. Obama is smart enough to know that what he wants to achieve in his second term must be done in the next two years — perhaps even in the first 18 months. Throughout his first term, he clung to a hope of bipartisanship even when it became obvious that his Republican adversaries had no interest in compromise of any sort.

Time is not on his side. It is pointless to wait for signs of conciliation from the extreme right, whose central ideology is to render government ineffective. He has gotten off to a good start by putting forward a comprehensive plan to tighten gun laws, despite outrageous propaganda against sensible controls from the gun lobby.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that there is much left to be done to shore up the economic recovery and invest in education and opportunities for the next generation. And, above all, he stressed the importance of the middle class to America’s economic survival. “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said.

It’s natural for a second-term president to be thinking about his place in history. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama has the ambition and intellect to place himself in the first rank of presidents. With this speech, he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/president-obamas-second-inauguration.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130122&_r=0

Obama’s mainstream pitch

By Kenneth S. Baer, Washington Post, January 23, 2010

Kenneth S. Baer is a managing director of the Harbour Group and the author of “Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton.” He is a former associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

If you missed Barack Obama’s inaugural address on Monday, you might have thought that it was George McGovern who took the oath of office.

“Unabashedly progressive,” said ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl; “President Obama goes on the offense for liberalism,” Politico proclaimed. A day later, Republicans jumped on board. “His unabashedly far-left-of-center inaugural speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past,” thundered Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said the speech “rejected and repudiated the ideas that have dominated American political discourse since the Carter presidency. It rejected not only Reagan, but Clinton.” Former Nixon and Reagan aide David Gergen concluded: “Gone were the third way of Bill Clinton and the centrism of Jimmy Carter. He emerged as an unapologetic, unabashed liberal — just what the left has long wanted him to be and exactly what the right has feared.”

Yet Obama’s address was firmly in the mainstream — of both the country and the Democratic Party, which has absorbed the lessons of its post-1968 defeats and synthesized into its core the New Democratic values of the Clinton era. The speech sounded so robustly liberal not because the president or his party has changed but because the Republican Party has, moving far outside the norms of American political thought.

Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical. President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law extensions of Social Security; President Ronald Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to save Social Security in 1983; President George W. Bush created the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

But in a world in which Republicans have endorsed a budget that would eviscerate Medicaid and turn it into a block grant and that would change Medicare into a voucher program whose value would quickly be overtaken by inflation, protecting the integrity of these programs suddenly sounds bold. Note that Obama did not say these programs were immune from reform. And while an inaugural address is hardly the place to rattle off numbers, Obama could have added that last year he put forward $350 billion in health entitlement savings on top of the $716 billion in Medicare savings he signed into law in his first term, cuts that Republicans tried to use as a cudgel against Democrats last year.

Did Obama call for a new entitlement to deal with our economic woes? No.

In fact, keeping with the New Democratic approach, Obama rejected the old-time religion of equality of outcome and framed his vision as one of equality of opportunity: “We must . . . empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” Obama put forward neither a new government agency nor a guarantee of success. “Hard work and personal responsibility,” Obama reminded us, “are constants in our character.” Rather than relaunch the War on Poverty, Obama’s economic focus was the middle class and those striving to get there.

These differences may sound subtle, but they were an important shift in the Democratic Party’s public philosophy. In the 1990s, this change was controversial (recall the fight over welfare reform), but now it is easy to miss because opportunity and responsibility are so deeply embedded in the party’s DNA.

Defending a safety net and calling for opportunity for all is nothing new, though Obama’s call for full equality for gay and lesbian Americans is. Yet this, along with the calls for equal pay for women, welcoming immigrants and action on climate change, is radical only if viewed through the oversize tortoise-shell glasses of the 1980s.

The country has changed. In a turnabout from the past, these social issues cut against the GOP — not the Democratic Party. In the 1980s, a New Democrat would counsel against even mentioning these issues. Today, one of the most effective advocates for gay marriage is the preeminent New Democratic institution Third Way.

Perspective is everything in assessing Obama’s second inaugural address. One cannot ignore how the Republican Party’s move to the right has shifted the parameters of political debate. On economic policy, the president is in line with the bipartisan, postwar consensus on the safety net and with the New Democratic view on government’s role in the economy. On social issues, he is firmly in the mainstream and hardly a McGovernik.

But don’t believe me. Listen to Newt Gingrich: “I didn’t think it was very liberal,” he told Politico. “There were one or two sentences obviously conservatives would object to, but 95 percent of the speech I thought was classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together. I thought it was a good speech.”

So did I.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/obamas-mainsteam-pitch/2013/01/23/0bcce614-657a-11e2-9e1b-07db1d2ccd5b_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wp_login_redirect=0

In four short years, how the world changed

By Ken Smith, Washington Post, January 14, 2013

…We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day. In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

3. Occupy Wall Street

4. Gay Marriage

5. Natural Disasters

6. Affordable Care Act

7. Arab Spring

8. Automotive Bailout

9. Apple’s iPad

10. Gun Violence

Full text

In four years, presidents age a decade, sometimes two. They turn gray, their faces sag, their voices grow huskier. Whatever mandate they’ve been elected to fulfill, whatever sense of control they felt on that first January morning when the crowd’s hopes carried them down Pennsylvania Avenue, quickly runs up against a cold fact:

The world stops for no president.

We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day.

In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:

1. Economic Crisis:

The collapse hurt everyone, then things got weird. In the first months after Obama took office, it seemed that the entire nation had been dealt a body blow: Stocks plummeted, foreclosures mounted, factories shuttered, jobs evaporated. But in the following years, even as corporate profits rebounded nicely and stocks proved resilient, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The yawning inequality between the rich and the rest expressed itself in a realigned economy, with most Americans facing suddenly and unhappily lowered expectations. Basements filled with 20-somethings who had neither careers nor clear trajectories, the nation’s birthrate dropped to a record low, Europe’s woes provided a warning about the deeper pain that austerity could bring, and meanwhile, the rich were doing better than they had pre-collapse. Thus do fairness and populism poke their way back into the nation’s politics.

2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

It never even had a name; it was just the war in Iraq. For the war’s entire nine-year history, debate raged over what would constitute a win. The president who started it said this was part of a war that might never end, a war not against a country, but against an idea, an -ism. Obama ran for office promising to end that war and win the one in Afghanistan, another war with no name. When we finally declared the end to the fighting in Iraq, we had neither ended terrorism nor created a vibrant democracy. But had we planted the roots of the Arab Spring? And when the president doubled down on Afghanistan, just as we had in Vietnam, did he do so knowing there would be no victory, just a never-ending rearguard action against something worse? We couldn’t claim to have made life much better for Afghanis, we lost thousands of our own men and women, we spent ourselves into unfathomable debt, and the best we could say is that we maintained a grim status quo.

3. Occupy Wall Street:

American history offers this constant: When times get tough, the frustrated turn back to the principles that got us started. Suddenly, people who had never had much interest in politics were carrying copies of the Constitution, allying themselves with the Founders, revving up their inner Tom Paines. As unemployment soared and foreclosures flourished, the tea party flared, fed by cynicism about Washington and anger aimed at corporate powers. Then came Occupy Wall Street, similarly cynical. Despite their ideological differences, both movements were wonderfully American and almost irrationally optimistic, attracting people who truly believed they could change the system just by making themselves known and clear. Not long after they flared, both began to drift into history. Coming together in frustration is one thing; governing is harder.

4. Gay Marriage:

It was the biggest shift in social attitudes since the civil rights movement, but this change happened without lunch counter sit-ins or shameful images of men in uniforms wielding fire hoses against people asserting their humanity. By the time the president announced what most people had long assumed, that he supported the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, there was no shock. This social revolution occurred not in the public square, but at home, in kitchens and living rooms where family and friends learned that their loved ones loved people of their own sex. It was a revolution of private persuasion, helped along by popular culture, and by the new shape of the American family — single parents, childless couples, people in ever more complex stepfamilies. By the time laws and votes and presidential pronouncements started piling up, the change was pretty much done.

5. Natural Disasters:

The heavens raged. Storms with the names of sirens, Sandy and Irene, altered the coastlines. Quakes ravaged Japan and jostled Washington. Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis — for years, experts on both sides of the global warming debate warned us that weather does not equal climate: Stuff happens, and it’s only the long, long run that makes the case. But although a few big weather events don’t prove that the planet is warming, climate change in the form of warmer sea temperatures is contributing to the strength of the recent megastorms. For now, the insurance industry and government, like 3-year-olds after they’ve knocked down their blocks, gamely pick up the pieces. But like any reasonable toddler, the taxpayer will eventually tire of repeated cleanups. And then?

6. Affordable Care Act:

The history of economic security, from feudalism (bless you for feeding me, lord!) to fraternal organizations (the Masons and Elks take care of their own) to the modern nation-state (poorhouses to pensions), is a story of slow expansion of the minimum we think people need to get by. There have been times when thousands marched on Washington to demand more security. That kind of uprising — and the crushing, nearly universal pain of the Great Depression — brought us Social Security. Three decades later, Lyndon Johnson expanded the definition of security to include health care for the elderly and poor, with Medicare and Medicaid. Half a century after that, Barack Obama — for once able to set his own agenda — asked Americans to see health care as a basic right for all. Like Social Security and Medicare before it, Obamacare — the wholesale acceptance of the term is the best evidence that the program will stick — aroused horrified visions of American socialism. But its provisions proved immediately popular (covering preexisting conditions, keeping young adults on their parents’ policies). As ever with expansions of security, the new minimum is quickly accepted, even if the price continues to sting.

7. Arab Spring:

In a part of the world where long-gone colonial powers drew artificial borders and a few men wielded awesome and autocratic authority, revolution came not with guns or fires, but through videos posted on YouTube and messages sent via Facebook. Dictators fell across North Africa and in the heart of the Arab world: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya. Ordinary people, newly able to see what they were missing out on in other lands, used the newfangled — social media — to facilitate the old-fashioned — people power in public squares. Tyrants were also toppled through traditional means: American power and ingenuity finally got Osama bin Laden, and natural causes claimed Kim Jong Il, but the Arab Spring demonstrated that cellphones trump truncheons and tanks. What next? Technology is a superb disrupter, but taking apart is always a lot easier than building anew.

8. Automotive Bailout:

Almost two years passed between a big bailout that rubbed millions of Americans the wrong way and two moments that provided a patriotic pick-me-up. Wall Street and the banks had received all manner of federal support in their time of need, so when GM and Chrysler — makers of the product most associated with the American Dream — started into the death spiral in 2009, the president saw himself with little choice but to lavish them with billions. Many disagreed, of course, seeing the bailout as a symbol of a society grown soft, a country where failure no longer had consequences. But then, after the automakers’ near-death experience, Chrysler recruited Eminem and Clint Eastwood for 2011 and 2012 Super Bowl ads that would prove far more powerful than any Obama reelection spot. From “a town that’s been to hell and back,” Chrysler made a gut-wrenching, emboldening case for American cars, American jobs and American spirit. “We’re certainly no one’s Emerald City,” the voice of Detroit said. Eminem pointed at us and said: “This is the Motor City — and this is what we do.” A year later, Eastwood captured our anxiety: “We’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.” But “all that matters now is what’s ahead. … The world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America, and our second half is about to begin.”

9. Apple’s iPad:

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, it seemed to be the culmination of his 1983 dream to “put an in­cred­ibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.” But the tablet computer and advances in smartphone technology offered far more than simplicity and convenience. Ordinary people could now manipulate systems previously controlled by experts. The latest burst of innovation smashed borders and hierarchies, allowing Wikileaks, Anonymous and other hackers to gain power previously reserved to nations and corporations, presidents and CEOs. The new gadgets brought people together digitally but also atomized our lives, making it ever harder for a president to rally the country to his agenda. “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine,” said Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, reacting to his teammate Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide. “But … it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.”

10. Gun Violence:

Mass shootings are powerfully effective at making parents hug their children tighter. What they don’t do is change the rules on guns. A Batman-batty gunman killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater in Colorado; a schizophrenic college dropout killed six and injured 13, including his congresswoman, at an Arizona shopping center; a psychiatrist who fancied himself a terrorist is charged with killing 13 and injuring 32 on an Army base in Texas — and the political calculus across the ideological spectrum was that the best course of action is to change the subject. There was a time when mass crimes and assassinations and attempts — King, RFK, Reagan — prompted debate about who gets to buy which weapons. But of late, gun control advocates were unable to find traction; gun control opponents could relax. Last month brought Newtown and the murder of 20 first-graders and their teachers. Would politicians merely express sorrow, attend a funeral and wait for the next big story to distract the nation, or would a moral imperative kick in as a president shaped his final term?

Marc Fisher is a Washington Post senior editor. Comment at washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to marcfisher@washpost.com.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/01/14/in-four-short-years-how-the-world-changed/?wpisrc=nl_headlines

A Call for Progressive Values: Evolved, Unapologetic and Urgent

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON, New York Times, January 21, 2013

WASHINGTON — He did not utter the words, but President Obama suffused his second Inaugural Address with the spirit of a favorite phrase: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”

This was a president unbound from much of what defined him upon taking office four years ago, a man clearly cognizant of time already running down on his opportunity to make his imprint on the country and on history.

Gone were the vision of a new kind of high-minded politics, the constraint of a future re-election campaign and the weight of unrealistic expectations. In their place was an unapologetic argument that modern liberalism was perfectly consistent with the spirit of the founders and a notice that, with no immediate crisis facing the nation, Mr. Obama intended to use the full powers of his office for progressive values.

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.

After spending much of his first term “evolving” on the question of same-sex marriage and doing too little in the eyes of many African-Americans to address poverty and civil rights, he invoked “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” and cited responsibility for the poor, sick and displaced.

He acknowledged the budget deficit but emphasized protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He mentioned jobs but highlighted global warming. He lauded the bravery and strength of the United States armed forces, but started his foreign policy remarks by asserting that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Mr. Obama came to office four years ago all but consumed by what he inherited: two wars and an economy in free fall. He then confronted an exhausting series of crises and political problems at home and abroad: budget showdowns, a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Middle East turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Through it all, he chose to wage additional battles of choice, most notably his successful push to overhaul the health insurance system. But not until this point, with the economy gradually mending, one war over and another winding down, with Osama bin Laden dead and the Democratic Party drawing strength from the nation’s changing demographics, has he had the opportunity to master his own presidency.

The policy details of what that effort entails will emerge over the next month through his State of the Union address and his budget, and many or most of them will encounter strong opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Monday’s address to the nation and its political class was intended to set out the value system that informs the policy.

Mr. Obama has always had a dialectical quality: pragmatism versus ideology, bold versus cautious, hawk versus dove, post-racial versus man of color. Those tensions no doubt remain.

But since Election Day, he has seemed to be choosing between them more than in the past. His decision after the Newtown massacre to embark on a full-scale effort to crack down on gun violence showed him to be less shackled to political wisdom about what is possible or electorally wise. His willingness to stare down Republicans over raising the debt limit — and winning — showed that he is less likely nowadays to start a negotiation by moving to the center and trying to find common ground.

To some Republicans, it is what they warned of all along: a president who ran as a centrist proving to be an unreconstructed liberal. It was no doubt hard for some of them to accept a scolding for treating “name calling as reasoned debate” — a phrase in his Monday address — from a man who won re-election by excoriating Mitt Romney as a job-killing plutocrat.

“I think all Americans would hope that President Obama, now that he’s not facing re-election, would actually sit down and honestly work with Republicans who are very sincere in our desire to fix these problems,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.

But, Mr. Johnson added, that was not the sentiment he detected from Mr. Obama on Monday. “You’ve got to sit down in good faith,” he said. “But I just don’t see that with this president.”

Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, said, “I’m surprised we’ve so abruptly noticed after this election we’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future.”

Mr. Obama’s address nodded to ideological inclusiveness but did not repeat his view from four years ago that it was time to end the “recriminations and worn-out dogmas” that characterized Washington battles. It recognized the power of individual liberty but argued that only through collective action could the nation remain prosperous and secure.

But most of all, it sought to elevate to a more prominent place in the political debate the question of how best the nation should address the “little girl born into the bleakest poverty,” the parents of a child with a disability, the gay men and women seeking to marry, voters facing hurdles because of their race and immigrants seeking a toehold in a land of opportunity.

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” Mr. Obama said.

In many ways it was an address, given on a day that commemorates King, that reflected not just the civil rights leader’s “fierce urgency of now” but the lines that immediately followed it in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall 50 years ago.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/obamas-speech-is-urgent-call-for-progressive-values.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130122