Yesterday’s remarks from Joe Biden were what we thought they would be: a lot of talk about unity, and a lot of condemnations of other Americans along the way. The unity talk went over just as expected, with Republicans rolling their eyes. Of course there was unity on that dais in Washington, with a thousand of America’s elites — nearly all of them already vaccinated, but wearing masks to send a message — guarded by tens of thousands of troops against the dire threat of revolt that we are told came this close to toppling our democracy. The mixed message of what you were being told and what you saw on screen was obvious. The Bidens feel temporary, the government feels fragile, and the media’s attempts at spin and fluff feel irritating but obvious — as John Cleese would say, like setting Julie Andrews on fire.
The speech itself was uninteresting and workmanlike, but it contained an interesting misunderstanding that was unintentionally revealing. Midway through the speech, Biden said: “Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?” He went on to list several bits of normal political pablum: opportunity, security, decency, etc.
The construction sounded odd and incomplete to my ear. A quick search of the exact phrasing revealed the likely source: frequent Biden collaborator Jon Meacham. Politico initially reported he hadn’t worked on the speech, but they later ran a correction. Here’s Meacham a few years ago speaking at Middlebury: “In his address he referred to St. Augustine, who defined a nation as ‘a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of our love.’ Meacham repeated that phrase, the common objects of our love, and asked the question for our nation, ‘What do we love in common?’”
The actual quote comes from Augustine’s “City of God,” Book XIX, Chapter 24. You’ll find it here, and you’ll see it means something quite different than both Meacham and Biden seem to think it means:
But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love. Yet whatever it loves, if only it is an assemblage of reasonable beings and not of beasts, and is bound together by an agreement as to the objects of love, it is reasonably called a people; and it will be a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior in proportion as it is bound together by lower.
According to this definition of ours, the Roman people is a people, and its good is without doubt a commonwealth or republic. But what its tastes were in its early and subsequent days, and how it declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows, and in the preceding books I have related at large. And yet I would not on this account say either that it was not a people, or that its administration was not a republic, so long as there remains an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of love.
But what I say of this people and of this republic I must be understood to think and say of the Athenians or any Greek state, of the Egyptians, of the early Assyrian Babylon, and of every other nation, great or small, which had a public government. For, in general, the city of the ungodly, which did not obey the command of God that it should offer no sacrifice save to Him alone, and which, therefore, could not give to the soul its proper command over the body, nor to the reason its just authority over the vices, is void of true justice.”
Now this is very appropriate for the moment. As you can see, what Augustine is saying here is that the objects of our love indicate the nature of our people, and that love must be directed toward God, or all will collapse. What Biden and Boomer Democrats interpret it as is that unity of any kind, unity around anything at all, will be redeemed by our good intentions. Thus, a deep warning about misdirected unity in love of the wrong thing becomes the spiritual equivalent of “c’mon, man.”
To quote with emphasis a saint of your church while almost entirely misconstruing the deep meaning of the quote is a perfect encapsulation of the flawed nature of Biden and the Boomer generation’s views on national unity. The milquetoast version of Christianity that views it through the lens of politeness and civic religion is at the core of the Biden brand. It’s not Hillary Clinton getting the story of the Prodigal Son completely backward, but it’s close.
In this as in so many ways, Biden represents the post-Vatican II strain of American Catholicism. On election night, he quoted the 1976 Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.” If you haven’t heard it, it’s a load of theological mush, bad as music and as liturgy. But Joe Biden loves it, so Lana del Ray Instagrams it! Therapeutic moralistic deism wins again, and government is just the things we do together.
So Biden can talk of unity, and insist he’ll fire you if you aren’t decent to people, while at the same time sign an order demanding every federally funded educational institution allow boys in girls’ locker rooms. His press secretary can insist he’s a devout Catholic the same week he erases the Mexico City policy and plans to roll back the Hyde Amendment, ensuring taxpayer funding of abortions. And the corrupt sycophantic press corp will go along dutifully with this unity fiction, and express astonishment as the culture war it attempts to disguise continues to tear the country apart.
As American saint Atticus Finch understood, polite fictions are fine so far as they go, but they are not worth the expense of human life.