The Corner

The President of Julia

Reading President Obama’s second inaugural address, one could fixate on the tired old arguments it contains, or on the newfound commitments that the president himself only made seemingly the day before yesterday, but which are apparently now mandatory for all right-thinking Americans (“if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well . . .”). But the most notable thing about the speech is not what it contains but what it lacks. The overwhelming impression one gets is that in Obama’s America, there is no civil society — no arena of private action, of voluntary responsibility, of free associations of citizens for solving the community’s problems. There are only the government (by default, the federal government, at that) and the individual. This is the “Life of Julia” campaign philosophy rendered in inaugural rhetoric: Without government’s aid in every aspect of our lives, we are lost, we are helpless, we are nothing. Every “we,” every “our,” every reference to “the nation” in this speech was a reference to a government solution to a “problem.” In this vision of America, no families, churches, charities, voluntary groups, or other institutions of civil society make any appearance at all. And when there are only the government and the individual, we know which one will be in charge.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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