The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In his inaugural address this past January, President Biden quoted, of all people, the Fifth-Century Christian saint, Augustine of Hippo. In City of God, Augustine famously defined a "people"–what we would today think of as a political society–as "an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love." President Biden paraphrased that definition to make a point about Americans today:
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?
I think I know.
And, yes, the truth.
I have been puzzling over this appropriation of Augustine. Let's leave aside the switch of "reasonable beings," which for some reason discomfited the speechwriters, to "a multitude." In what sense are Americans today united by common objects of affection? The president listed several values he believes we share–several things that all of us love, as Americans. But one doesn't have to probe too deeply to see that, even if we share some abstract commitment to these values, Americans do not agree on what they entail in any particular context. Everything, it seems, has become partisan; even a pandemic has failed to bring us together. President Biden was no doubt trying to bridge our divisions, which is understandable and an old tradition in inaugural addresses. But it's hard to see how his words reflect our present reality.
My colleague Marc DeGirolami and I discuss all this, as well as other aspects of City of God, in our most recent episode of Legal Spirits, our podcast series on issues in law and religion. You can listen to the episode here.