"The Common Objects of their Love"

President Biden channels Augustine.

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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.

Opportunity.

Security.

Liberty.

Dignity.

Respect.

Honor.

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.

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  1. “Saint Augustine is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice. Big Impact.”

    1. I would like to hear about St. Thomas.

      1. Ironic quotation of St. Augustine by a paid agent of the Chinese Commie Party. It is a masking ideology, fake propaganda by a staunch Commie.

        1. There’s Commies everywhere, EVERYWHERE, I tell you! Watch the skies!

      2. “I would like to hear about St. Thomas.”
        It’s a lovely island.

  2. The entire substitution goes well beyond that and speaks to a sense of community

    “an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement”

  3. “…Let’s leave aside the switch of “reasonable beings,” which for some reason discomfited the speechwriters, to “a multitude.” …”

    Were you really puzzled by this change? Seems clear and (sadly) logical, to me. If you leave the quote in the original; opportunists with political reasons to complain will shout in mock outrage, “Wait, what? We have a good-faith disagreement with [Policy X or Issue Y], and you’re calling us unreasonable?!? Just goes to show how divisive you actually are!”

    I agree that it’s unfortunate that writers need to “soften” language, to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But, given today’s political climate; it’s probably a wise strategy. Ounce of prevention, and all that.

    1. Nah. People who are looking for a reason to dislike a politician don’t need to actually hear something that offends them, they’ll just go ahead and pretend they did.

  4. Augustine would have been a Biden/Harris voter, except for this part:

    “Can it ever, at any time or place, be unrighteous for a man to love God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind; and his neighbor as himself? Similarly, offenses against nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and should be punished. Such offenses, for example, were those of the Sodomites; and, even if all nations should commit them, they would all be judged guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which has not made men so that they should ever abuse one another in that way. For the fellowship that should be between God and us is violated whenever that nature of which he is the author is polluted by perverted lust.”

    https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/conf.pdf

    1. FATHER FLYNN:
      I understand. But why did you make the decision to choose the Catholic faith?

      MICKEY:
      Tch. Well, y-you know…first of all, because it’s a very beautiful religion. It’s a strong religion. It’s very well structured. Now I’m talking now, incidentally, about the-the, uh, against-school- prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing.

      1. I looked it up, that was a Woody Allen character.

        1. His best movie, in my humble opinion. Crimes and Misdemeanors was a close second.

    2. Wondering if “perverted lust” includes adultery, and what Augustine thought of divorce.

      Whose marital career would he have approved of, Biden’s or Trump’s?

      And if he was talking only about homosexuality why should anyone pay the slightest attention? We’ve maybe learned a thing or two in 1600 years.

      1. “Whose marital career would he have approved of, Biden’s or Trump’s?”

        Hunter’s.

          1. Nah, Augustine was some kind of white supremacist.

      2. “Biden’s or Trump’s?”

        um, neither.

        Joe’s second wife was married when they started, cough, seeing each other.

        Adultery all the way down.

        1. The evidence for that is the word of a convicted felon who doesn’t even have any firsthand knowledge.

          1. Remember, Bob has said that truth is another principle he’s willing to set aside to own the libs.

            1. All that really matters is that Bob is being placed on an increasingly short leash by his betters in the culture war; he seems to be as cranky about it as he is powerless to stop it.

      3. “We’ve maybe learned a thing or two in 1600 years.”
        You’d have to prove that to me concerning that topic.

  5. Choose reason. Every time.

    Choose reason. Especially over sacred ignorance and dogmatic intolerance. Most especially if you are older than 12 or so.

    Choose reason. And education, progress, science, modernity, inclusiveness, freedom, and tolerance. Avoid ignorance, backwardness, bigotry, superstition, ignorance, insularity, authoritarianism, and pining for illusory “good old days.”

    Choose reason. Be an adult.

    Or, at least, try.

    Thank you.

    1. You’re saying Biden didn’t do this? Is he a deplorable?

      1. “You’re saying Biden didn’t do this? Is he a deplorable?”

        Membership in your club is up to you. Is he in? Or no?

  6. Wonder why we are a nation divided? Couldn’t do anything about the press crying “nazi” for the last four years, flatly lying about foreign influence in elections, and all the other jazz designed to get a President that was legitimately elected (the jury is still out if Biden fits this qualification).

    1. the jury is still out if Biden fits this qualification)

      You want to know why the nation’s divided? Because gullible idiots like you think “the jury is still out.”

      Forget it. Biden won. Legitimately. You don’t like it? Too fucking bad.

      The biggest problem we have in this country is idiots like you.

      1. It would be easier to convince people the election was legit if you didn’t engage in a huge censorship campaign against any effort to try to validate the results….

        1. There were recounts, audits, retabulations, etc., to say nothing of the harsh scrutiny of litigation, which gave all of these whackadoos every opportunity they could ever ask for to present their evidence of wide-ranging fraud and cheating.

          Still waiting for the evidence.

          I’m not sure what amount of evidence will convince you that the election was certainly as legitimate as any other we’ve conducted in recent times. In these debates, the goalposts keep getting shifted, until finally they reach a point where no inquiry can go – trying to re-match ballots to envelopes, for instance, after they’ve already been separated. You don’t get to believe that there must have been fraud because the very last bit of evidence required to convince you otherwise just so happens to be impossible to obtain. At some point, you have to be reasonable and accept the same truth that every other reasonable person accepts.

          1. No one believes a word out of the mouth of the media anymore. They blew their credibility over the last four years. At some point you have to be reasonable and realize the people who are trying to tell you a “truth” are pathological liars.

            1. So where do you get your information?

              1. “So where do you get your information?”

                “Information” implies facts. Mr. The Dane has no use for those.

            2. “At some point you have to be reasonable and realize the people who are trying to tell you a ‘truth’ are pathological liars.”

              Sounds like you finally caught on to the nature of Donald Trump.

        2. There’s no censorship campaign.

          What there is is an unrelenting effort to show the results were fraudulent, without any evidence.

          There have been recounts, audits, whatever, but Republicans will never stop asking for more.

          1. Stopping people from discussing a subject is called censorship. Get over yourself.

            1. If the stupid people want to believe that they can change reality by wishing really hard and repeating what they want the truth to be over and over, it’s not going to change anything but they do self-indicate that their opinions may be safely disregarded without possibility of losing anything of value.

            2. Any censorship in this context would be wrong. Delusional, bigoted, disaffected, obsolete, inconsequential conservatives have rights, too.

        3. “It would be easier to convince people the election was legit if you didn’t engage in a huge censorship campaign against any effort to try to validate the results….”

          It would be even easier if some people didn’t have trouble looking at the lack of evidence of illegitimacy of the election as, well, evidence of legitimacy.

  7. Mark, I am a reader of political philosophy, theology, and moral philosophy, and so would have more than a passing interest in an intelligent discussion of Augustine and modern politics.

    Unfortunately, this post doesn’t really “tease” anything other than a kind of smarmy interest in casting Biden as a “bad Catholic” with a poor understanding of the putatively fundamental beliefs of his own faith, while somehow blaming him (and modern secularism, maybe?) for a divisiveness in our politics that has very little to do with any of these things. I hope that I am wrong, but let it suffice to say that I’m not going to download your podcast to find out what you really have to say on the subject.

    1. Well put.

      I’d also add that we’ve always disagreed on definitions of stuff like liberty and opportunity throughout the history of our Union. Indeed, that’s part of our e pluribus unum republican culture.

  8. “Everything, it seems, has become partisan….”

    Stopped reading right here.

    We’ve ALWAYS been partisan.

    We’re SUPPOSED to be partisan.

    It’s the monolithic societies that eventually die because they do not allow – or at least tolerate – dissent or unorthodoxy.

    Sheesh, read a history book.

    1. Agree….or at least give Madison’s writing a closer read.

  9. There are no common objects anymore.

    There was always disagreement and “liberty” was always somewhat subjective. But the founding principle was to recognize this fact and allow self-government through a loose federation of independent states. Certainly it was not intended to be a union that nobody could ever leave for all time. The very thought is completely absurd.

    1. Nah, you’re just a crank who wants us to roll back the clock on our government like 150 years or so.

      You’re like someone in the 1890s wishing for a return to the days of King George.

      Yes, people like you are why there is not complete consensus, but your type has always been with us, and have never known what they were talking about.

      1. I don’t want to roll back the clock, I just like federalism and decentralized government, i.e. self-government.

        Obviously you stand in the successor shoes of King George, not me.

        I said “there are no common objects” but this was more of a discussion starter. Maybe there are, I’m open to it, genuinely. Why don’t you name the top three in your view?

        1. My point is that your desires are extreme and retrograde. A similar level of impractical backwardness in 1890 would have wished we weren’t a nation.

          You have cited 1850 as a time when our per capita spending was about right. Which is a telling date.

          Point is, you’re the one out of the mainstream, even within the VC. You don’t get to say there is no consensus because you’re not really engaging with where consensus would be.

          1. What on earth are you babbling about? You seem to be going crazy.

            Anyway what are the common objects in your view? Same as Biden’s list?

            1. You deny citing the federal budget in 1850 (per capita) as a good goal? Because you absolutely did.

              Cultural tentpoles are not things easily articulated.
              I probably have a good amount of Biden’s list. I’d add community, and distinctiveness.

              And security is something we always want, but haven’t really had since the Pearl Harbor except for like 5 years in the late 90s.

    2. There were a couple of yahoos about 160 years ago who thought like you, but they were proven wrong.

      1. Actually, the idea that the founding generation created a compact that forbade every future generation of Americans until the end of time from political separating from one another is simply too dumb to take seriously.

        1. Actually, you’re lost cause schmuckery is why you making an evaluation of consensus is laughable.

    3. ” the founding principle was to recognize this fact and allow self-government through a loose federation of independent states.”

      We tried it that way and it didn’t work. So the AoC was replaced by the Constitution in 1789.

      1. The Constitution is what I’m talking about. Less loose than the AoC of course, but that’s still what it was.

        1. Except what you think it is and what it actually is are two different things.

          And what I think as well.

          That’s why we have institutions set up to do the interpretation. You and I may hate what they say sometimes, but I at least have the humility to not anoint myself arbiter of the True Constitution.

          1. Well, there were certain ideas back then about federalism, and now there are some very different ideas. I don’t know why that makes you so angry.

            1. You mean the ideas that we changed with the 14A?

              Because yeah, those ideas sucked.

            2. Fact is, we tried it the way you prefer. Had to change because of the not-working part of historical experience.

    4. Certainly it was not intended to be a union that nobody could ever leave for all time. The very thought is completely absurd.

      Weird that they described said union as “perpetual,” then.

      1. That word doesn’t appear in the Constitution, but it did appear in the Articles of Confederation.

        However, “perpetual” here did not mean “eternal” or permanent. It simply meant an indefinite duration. The word was commonly used in contracts and oft-broken treaties at the time, as well.

        But you raise a good topic. How do the Articles of Confederation inform interpretation of the Constitution? For example, the union was a “firm league of friendship.” And each “state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States.”

        1. The Constitution expressly places the federal system over the top of the states. That’s one of the differences between the US under the AoC and the US under the Constitution. Under the original formulation, the states would use their power to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the federal government. When that approach failed, we amended the Constitution to place the federal government in charge of protecting the freedom of the individual against abuse by the states.

  10. “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”

    The fact that everything is becoming partisan does not mean that everyone does, or should, accept that everthing is to be partisan. some people choose to be Americans over being partisan, and this is a Good Thing.

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