Conservatives in general did not like President Obama’s inaugural address. This is not surprising. Not everyone has emphasized the same things, however. Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard found in it a troubling and foolish pacifism. At National Review Online Matthew Franck observed that the president speaks as if there is no civil society, only government and individuals. Patrick Buchanan contended that the whole speech is a brazen attempt to replace the founding ideal of freedom with a left-wing egalitarianism as our guiding star.
There is something to be said for all of these views. I would like to emphasize one sentence in particular (as did Kristol), but I guess that my point has the most in common with Buchanan’s. Here is the president’s more or less open call for same-sex marriage: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to each other must be equal as well.” (Here is the whole text of the speech, by the way.)
At the moment I am not interested in Obama’s specific argument, his call to redefine marriage, although that is certainly a matter of concern. Rather, what bothers me here is the way in which Obama uses the Declaration of Independence and attempts to transfigure it into something entirely new, and something on the basis of which there can be endless, unpredictable transformation of American society.
The president is correct that the Declaration affirms a kind of equality. But that equality is understood in the context of the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” Or, it is presented in the kind of beings we are created to be by our “creator.” In other words, the doctrine of equality asserted by the Declaration is based upon some notion of natural law or natural right. Nature as a standard stands in the background of the equality to which the Declaration refers, and it is in fact not very far in the background. For the Declaration, equality is to be understood in terms of what is true about human beings by nature.
It seems to me that Obama’s effort is to move equality front and center and dispense with any concern with what is right or just by nature. Why is this a problem? Because mere equality, without any more substantive content such as could be supplied by traditional understandings of nature or natural law, is vague and infinitely manipulable. President Obama said that if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we choose to give must be equal as well. That probably sounds good to the liberal believer, but it does not take too much reflection to see that such claims would obliterate any natural standards of human conduct. You could just as easily that if we are all created equal, then surely all of our actions and choices must be equal as well.
Of course, any society needs some rules, so not even the most liberal among us would embrace the nihilistic consequences of that statement. This returns us instead to the problem I mentioned earlier. Untethered from any substantive account of human nature, a commitment to “equality” opens the door to who-knows-what series of endless transformations of society. No one can say what new inequality this kind of liberalism will become preoccupied with next and turn the power of the state to abolishing, whatever the costs to traditional institutional arrangements. Obama’s — and the left’s — groundless egalitarianism is a recipe for the endless transformation of society and the endless expansion of government power. This is not a prospect that conservatives — or anybody — should welcome.