Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Reflection on the Inauguration

Did you catch it today? Did you pay attention and understand? Did you hear what President Obama committed himself to?

It’s important, I think, to consider this. We don’t often think of what the President swears. We’re so aware of the details, the agendas, the many problems small and great that drive our civic and civil government. We’re aware of what has been promised, and what we want to see, whether it’s part of the promise or not. I don’t know that we pay close attention to the commitment itself.

Today, notwithstanding a bit of a slip from the Chief Justice, President Obama committed to this:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Note that it is specific: he commits to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

I think we don’t think about that enough. It explains a lot, really. He doesn’t commit to defend the people of the United States. That would get us into an awful lot of “us vs. them:” natural-born citizen vs. naturalized; native-born (it’s not the same thing) vs. immigrant; citizen of the states vs. those of commonwealths and protectorates overseas; citizens vs. resident aliens. To begin arguing about who would fit into the people of the United States would divide us, surely and painfully.

Nor does he commit to defend the territory of the United States. That would become quite parochial quite quickly. We might find ourselves recognizing the states and the federal district, but not the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Protectorates in the Pacific. We might find ourselves becoming insular, in time of crisis ignoring friends and rejecting allies.

He does not commit to defend the interests of the United States. After all, those interests can change year by year and election by election. The phrase might apply to interests shared widely among the people, or focused by narrow interests and political expediency.

No, he commits to protect the Constitution: the foundation of principles that we believe describes our hopes for what it might mean to live together as a free society, across our many divisions, across the time zones of our territory, and across the vagaries of history. It is the Constitution, and not likenesses of race, creed, ethnicity, language, histories, geography, age, or sexuality, that defines this nation, and, when we do right, we who live and serve in it. That is why all our laws and regulations, our political practices and principles, must conform to the Constitution, and not the Constitution to them.

We celebrate this day that another American has sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. We celebrate it because we know that it is only by committing to protect the Constitution that we can be certain he has committed to protect and defend what is best, freest, and most fair for all - for all – of us.

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