I suppose I should start with the bad news. No leader at this present time can deliver unity to a people, when the basis for that unity is not known, and agreed upon in common. This is the basis for the skepticism among many concerning the possibilities for actually working together to form a more perfect union.
I had the same thought, as I listened to the benediction for the new president. Just what is “our collective faith”? The advocates of classical liberalism would argue that our lack of a collective faith is a strength, and perhaps in some respects, it is. But who exactly were we praying to? I suppose we can be thankful that we have put rancor behind us with respect to religion, but as others would argue, we did that by taking our religions less seriously.
There is a fundamental consensus among most of us, if not all of us, that political violence is unacceptable, and that the democratic processes upon which we have relied should be trusted, and allowed to go forward unimpeded. Even so, how is President Biden going to uphold the dignity and respect of all people, by advocating and supporting the unjust taking of pre-born lives in the womb? I do not expect that his erstwhile opponents in the other party can simply ignore this point of contention, nor would I want them to.
To take another example, nearly everyone can agree that physical hostility and even name-calling of those with unique sexual identities and orientations should be avoided. But the question of whether such identities should be enshrined in law— and whether any government has the right to do so— is not a minor question, which can be brushed away with a wave of the hand, and a few bars of “This Land Is Your Land.”
All that is to say, even if we should commit ourselves to avoid unnecessary rancor and conflict, real and mutually exclusive disagreements about the very purpose of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exist, and we would do well not to pretend that they will dissolve in a wave of sentimentality.
However, I do think that the temperament of the new president is the right one to perhaps create the space to discuss these weighty matters without rancor, and at the very least, that space may create room to reach agreement on more pedestrian matters, like immigration and tax reform. One may argue that the fundamental promise of the Biden campaign and presidency was to be comfortingly boring. We need a chance to take a breath, and to go on with our lives, without undue worry that our chief executive had made even the basic functions of government untenable with his words, or his unwillingness to cooperate.
Even a relatively mainstream Democratic foreign policy is probably erroneous in some respect, but Biden’s predecessor seemed to be preoccupied with appearances, at best. Most presidents have certain personal fixations, which arguably distract from fundamental issues which demand more attention than they were given at the time. Therefore, it will be Joe Biden’s task to contribute to a broad continuity of foreign policy that can be carried forward by the next administration.
Speaking of continuity, I found it immensely comforting that three previous administrations were represented at the inauguration festivities, and at the wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. We will have a chance later to address the tragedy that the president’s immediate predecessor was not present, but it was a great comfort to see those that were. It was also a great comfort to hear President Carter mentioned, knowing that he is in reasonably good health for his age. Only pandemic-related safety concerns kept him away. I am thankful each day for an increase in President Carter’s post-presidential life, a time which has been fruitful with noble service that benefits all of us.
In that way, each man present has contributed to a better union, by his actions since the time he left office. I once wrote that Barack Obama in many ways is a better symbol than he was a president, and he has leveraged that, to encourage educated participation in the political process.
President Bush, meanwhile, has taken up the habit of painting, becoming fairly skilled in a short time, and using that skill to raise money for veterans. Presidents Clinton and Bush 41 raised money for typhoon relief, and in so doing, became better friends. I think that seeing our presidents acting with common purpose and in friendship causes us to reflect carefully upon whether we have idolized any one, to our detriment.
George W. Bush also gave wonderful and patriotic remarks at the funeral for Congressman John Lewis, which earned a standing ovation from the gathered crowd. I daresay that the president could not count many of his own supporters there, which amplified the decency and the permanence of those remarks. I am sure that any citizen who happened to become president of the United States would feel the weight of his or her office, and that weight would provoke humility, which in turn creates sympathy for those who previously held the office. We can be thankful that each man present last week felt the weight of that office, and now in humility, bless us and each other with a certain wisdom born from experience.
Let us hope and pray that President Biden, who now feels the weight of his office, will find magnanimity in the humility of his enormous task. Let us hope that his unique and sometimes sorrowful experiences will be used by God for the benefit of the nation, and the world.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.