Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in American Thinker.
Last week, before an audience of millions of Americans, the new president made a telling statement. Alluding to the American founders, President Barack Obama, in his Inaugural Address, stated: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” This seemed to be a reference to the Declaration of Independence, or at least to the principles in that sacred political document.
On the surface, Obama certainly said nothing objectionable. The moment I heard those words, however, I immediately noticed—as did others who quickly commented—that Obama neglected two crucial things from the most famous line not only in the Declaration of Independence but in the essence of the American founding: 1) He left out the unalienable right to “Life;” and 2) He left out the words “created” and “Creator”—the God who “endows” that “Right,” a right which is a “self-evident” “truth.”
This slight was significant for many reasons. Chief among them, it is patently clear—as it was to the American founders—that one must have life before one can entertain liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is why that quintessential right is so fundamental and unassailable, as theologians and political philosophers alike have long underscored in their admiration of the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote that very line, which was preserved throughout the edits and revisions to Jefferson’s text by John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the entirety of the Continental Congress.
Even that, though, does not get to the heart of what Obama pronounced. Whether the new president—and his speechwriter and staff—realized it or not, he inter-mixed the core of the Declaration with the core slogan of the French Revolution: “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” He seems to have integrated the guiding document of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, with the guiding document of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence.
There, too, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the emphasis on “life” is replaced with “equality.” The word “life” is non-existent, as is the notion of a “Creator” of that life.
That was no accident by those who spearheaded the French Revolution. Robespierre and his Jacobins were secular, militantly atheistic, socialistic, even communistic. (Some historians have called the Jacobins the “first communists,” and Vladimir Lenin called his Bolsheviks “glorious Jacobins.”) The American founders, who read the French documents, saw the dangers endemic in the words of the French revolutionaries. As John Adams feared in a letter to Jefferson, “I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists.”
The American founders understood what we need to understand: words and ideas matter. We should read and consider them carefully. What Obama said in his inaugural is, presumably, an expression of his view of America, of government, and, yes, literally of “Life.”
So, how could such a far-reaching mangling of the most famous quotation in American history take place before a massive crowd at the most hyped inaugural ever and few noticed or care? The answer is the failure of American education, from K-12 to higher ed. On that, I will wrap up with two examples, one negative and one positive:
In Cupertino, California, in November 2004, a fifth-grade teacher, Steven Williams, was barred from giving students historical American documents that mention God, including the Declaration of Independence. “It’s a fact of American history that our founders were religious men, and to hide this fact from young fifth-graders … is outrageous and shameful,” protested Williams’ attorney. “Williams wants to teach his students the true history of our country.”
The teacher’s mistake was to teach the truth—an inconvenient, unwelcome truth. Ironically, such prevention of truth has produced precisely the kind of Americans incapable of recognizing the political-historical revisions on display before them in Obama’s Inaugural Address.
Compounding the problem, in the case of the Inaugural Address, is that even fewer Americans—needless to say—learned anything about the devastating secular-atheism that was the thrust of the French Revolution.
On the positive side, there are rare institutions, like Grove City College, where students learn these things. Specifically, every Grove City College student is required to take the six-course Humanities curriculum that exposes these and other crucial concepts. In the final installment of that curriculum, the course, “Huma 302,” or Modern Civilization in International Perspective, which I teach with several other professors, I start with the American Revolution and the French Revolution, where we read—word for word—the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Our students know the difference.
To try to export this instruction beyond the walls of our college, the Center for Vision & Values hosts an American Founders Lecture Series quarterly in Pittsburgh. We recognized this dire need before January 20, 2009.
Yet, we are a mere drop in the sand in the arid desert that is American education. Thanks to decades of terrible teaching, and a blatant rejection of many fundamental beliefs of the founders, we are now reaping the desiccated fruit. It tastes awfully bitter, and a long period of wandering is upon us.