President Obama’s farewell address in Chicago on January 10—although overshadowed in the news cycle by President-elect Trump’s press conference in New York less than a day later—deserves some attention.
There were some interesting tidbits in the speech for those of us who seek to bring our faith to bear in the world of public policy. My former boss, Rob Schwarzwalder, quickly took the president to task for declaring that “the essential spirit of this country . . . that guided our Founders” was “born of the Enlightenment . . . a faith in reason . . .” In reality, the Founders were guided by faith in divine Providence, as well as a biblical worldview that included a realistic understanding of the depravity of human beings.
Perhaps we should at least be grateful that President Obama did not censor out the Creator when he quoted the Declaration of Independence, citing “the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.” And after eight years of promoting a cramped vision of “freedom of worship,” Mr. Obama actually cited the broader “freedom of religion” as one of the principles of the post-World War II democratic order.
The Obama address had one over-arching theme: “the state of our democracy.” He used the word “democracy” a grand total of twenty-two times. The outline of the speech identified four “threat[s] to our democracy”—lack of economic opportunity, racial division, increasing polarization, and apathy.
I welcome Mr. Obama’s primary emphasis (appropriate under the circumstances) on over-arching principles rather than specific policy goals.
And I give him credit for laying down challenges that can apply to those on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. For example, there was this passage:
For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
Unfortunately, when President Obama did recite a list of policy accomplishments, it belied his professed love of democracy—at least with respect to one issue. In a long paragraph (actually, one long sentence) beginning, “If I had told you eight years ago . . .,” he included this:
“[I]f I had told you that we would win marriage equality . . . you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. That’s what you did.”
Although the line drew cheers, it was historically inaccurate. “Marriage equality”—the left’s euphemism for changing the definition of civil marriage to include same-sex couples—was not something either “we” (President Obama and his administration) or “you” (the voters who supported him) achieved. Until the second to last year of his presidency, efforts by LGBT activists to achieve a redefinition of marriage in all fifty states were a notable failure in the vast majority of them.
No, nationwide marriage redefinition was not achieved by President Obama, his administration, or his supporters. It was certainly not achieved by the processes of democracy that the president extolled in his farewell address.
Instead, it was imposed upon the country by the smallest, most elite, and least democratic group imaginable—five justices on the Supreme Court, a bare one-vote majority.
Let’s look at some of the things President Obama said about democracy—and how the outcome of the marriage debate contradicts them.
For example, he declared that “the beating heart of our American idea” includes the conviction “that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.” It seems, though, that Mr. Obama and the Court decided that “a more perfect union” required a different definition of our most basic social institution, and since “the instrument of our democracy” was not producing it, other means would have to be used.
President Obama also declared:
The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious . . . Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same.
Note that this is precisely what had been happening for two decades on the marriage issue. Both politicians and ordinary citizens “argued” and “quarreled.” A few states actually redefined marriage using the democratic process. Many more formally defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In some cases, people “compromised” by giving some or all of the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples through civil unions or domestic partnerships. States were fulfilling their role as the laboratory of democracy. This is what the founders “expected us to do”—but it wasn’t enough for President Obama, or for the Supreme Court. Instead, they decided to “require uniformity” by imposing marriage redefinition on all fifty states.
Continuing to extol the give-and-take of democratic debate, President Obama said:
[P]olitics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them.
He then went on to caution:
But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter -- then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.
In referring to a “baseline of facts,” and to “science and reason,” Mr. Obama probably had in mind the liberal consensus on an issue like “climate change.” But a “common baseline of facts” on the marriage issue would have included an acknowledgment that same-sex relationships are not identical to natural marriages, and that children do best when raised by their own, married biological mother and father; and “science and reason” would have dictated that society has a greater interest in unions that can result in natural procreation than in those that never can.
President Obama spoke about the international order when he warned against
the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that . . . the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.
However, “the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently”—intended by Obama to refer to foreigners and immigrants—could just as easily be a warning to the left, who fear people who look like “rednecks,” speak with southern accents, or pray in faith to the God of the Bible. Advocates of marriage redefinition were outraged when Iowa voters used “the rule of law” to hold state Supreme Court justices who redefined marriage “accountable”—by removing them from office. And few social movements are as intolerant of “dissent and free thought,” or have built as effective a “propaganda machine,” as the LGBT movement, which seeks to discredit every dissenter from their agenda as being motivated by “hate.”
Finally, President Obama exhorted Americans to higher levels of citizen participation in our democracy. At the beginning of his speech, he said that Chicago was where “I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” At the end, he warned:
Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote . . .
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours . . .
So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose.
It’s good advice. I worry, though, that historians will fail to note that one of the most effective examples of such citizen activism in recent decades was the movement to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman through state constitutional amendments. “Get a clipboard, get some signatures”? In virtually every state where a constitutional amendment can be placed on the ballot through citizen initiative (that is, a petition process without the involvement of those disappointing “elected officials”), marriage amendments were placed on the ballot and adopted.
Yet President Obama and his allies did everything they could to make it harder for citizens to vote on marriage, not easier. And they celebrated when the Supreme Court overturned the constitutions of thirty states, which had been amended through that admirable citizen activism.
President Obama declared that “our nation’s call to citizenship” was “what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny.” Yet when it came to marriage, Mr. Obama was happy to choose judicial tyranny over the product of our democratic republic.
And when it came to the activism of those who sought to defend marriage, his motto was not, “Yes, we can.”
It was, “No, you can’t.”