The Obama Watch

Obama and the Nature of Truth

What would Lincoln think? Mistake him for Stephen Douglas, probably.

By 5.2.11

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Some people collect coins, others scan the beach with metal detectors. I enjoy trolling footnotes at the back of a book for little gems of insight or historical anecdote.

I was recently rewarded for this eccentricity while reading John D. Mueller's new book, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element recently published by ISI Books.

Mueller, an economist, former speech writer for Jack Kemp, and now affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, seeks to restore the full understanding of human economic behavior in light of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas and recover a most important element which Adam Smith, a pantheistic Stoic, seems to have jettisoned: Augustine's theory of personal distribution which explains the difference between a gift and an exchange. This leads Smith to treat self-love as the only essential motive of economic behavior with the consequence "that no one ever shares his wealth with anyone else."

Since I have not yet finished Mueller's provocative book, I will have to leave the reader with this tantalizing morsel until I can review it in greater detail. Nevertheless, one tantalizing footnote, a self-contained nugget of sorts, deserves mention.

In the very last footnote to the very last chapter of Redeeming Economics, John Mueller asserts that "Ironically, the first African American president sided with Stephen Douglas against Abraham Lincoln on the Founders' understanding of the truth." He then cites a passage from the President's 2006 autobiographical book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, page 444, in which he observes:

It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of an idea or ideology or theology or "ism," any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course, to drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.

President Obama continues: "They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity."

Contrast this passage with an 1859 letter of Lincoln's that Mueller juxtaposes to Obama's writings:

All honor to Jefferson-to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny [sic] and oppression.

Mueller then argues that "If Obama was right in 2006, Lincoln was wrong in the argument he used so effectively against Douglas and slavery in 1859."

It may be unfair to characterize the President as aligned with the thinking of Stephen Douglas, but he can certainly be criticized for failing to understand the underlying philosophy of the Founders. In a prior post for TAS, I recalled the writings of the great American political thinker, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who strongly defended the American Proposition as grounded in an objective, realist epistemology.

"The sense of the famous phrase ["We hold these truths…"] is simply this: 'There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth'," insisted Murray. Over and against positivists, Marxists and pragmatists, the Founders thought that "the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible."

"If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke," stated Murray.

The error President Obama makes, in the passage cited by Mueller, is to confuse tolerance and the rights of conscience, as embodied in the First Amendment ("articles of peace" and "a great act of political intelligence" according to Murray), with relativism. Clearly religious pluralism was the native condition of America, and the Founders, particularly James Madison, had to deal with it to maintain domestic tranquility and allow the fledgling nation to flourish. But to confuse the prudential and moral claims of tolerance and pluralism with an abandonment of objective moral truth is fatal to American ideals.

"But the American Proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, freedom," claimed John Courtney Murray.

As the Founders, Lincoln and Fr. Murray all understood, an American's unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are endowed by a Creator and can only be defended from within the impregnable fortress of truth.

It is the Creator who guarantees these liberties as Lincoln, hardly an ardent churchgoer, fully understood when he stated in his Gettysburg Address that this nation is "under God."

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.