“The peace of all things is the tranquillity of order.”
– Augustine of Hippo, The City of God
I always watch presidential inaugurations because I like the ceremony, this is true. As a veteran, an inauguration is the highest manifestation of an official American government or state ceremony, of which I have attended scores, and thoroughly enjoy. Watching the presentation of the colors at the Capitol, with all of the battle honors affixed to each one of the standards, and the President’s Own, the U.S. Marine Corps Band, playing the National Emblem March, always thrills me. And I am always filled with hope, regardless of the incoming president, because the ceremony and tradition of an inauguration, dating back more than two centuries, is the most enduring symbol that our Nation endures beyond the individual or the agenda.
The politicians, though, I don’t really pay attention to. I was only half listening, honestly, to President Biden’s inaugural address. He’s not a great speaker; he swallows his words. So, I was working at my computer with the television on when I heard Biden say, “St. Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that ‘a people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.’” I stopped typing and started listening.
Like most New Mexicans who profess a religious faith, and like President Biden, I am a Catholic. And you can’t go to Mass week after week without St. Augustine coming up. He’s like the Will Rogers of Catholicism—all the notable quotables we have come from the good bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church:
“Patience is the companion of wisdom.”
“The purpose of all wars is peace.”
“Love the sinner and hate the sin.”
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
And the classic, “God, grant me chastity and continence, but just not now.”
The quote somewhat awkwardly used by Biden comes from The City of God, a work written by Augustine in 413 as the Roman Empire was crumbling after the Vandals from the north captured and sacked Rome. Christians were under fire for not being patriotic enough and were even accused of causing Rome to fall because the Christian God failed to protect Rome. The City of God is Augustine’s response, and a beautiful work of logic, theology and philosophy.
Biden went on to say, “Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth.”
In The City of God, the state is presented as a society created by humankind that uses the virtues of politics and the human intellect to create and maintain order for the overall betterment of the people who live within it. It exists separately from the church, which is divinely established and leads people to God. Both church and state exist for the greater good of humanity, which is destined either for the City of God (salvation) or the City of the World (damnation). And the state will only be as good as the people who run it; therefore Rome was screwed.
(Apologies to the entire University of Notre Dame Department of Theology and every homilist in front of whom I have sat for the above capsule review.)
Biden is offering a vision of America the state as one defined by the common principles Americans value, not of partisan orthodoxy. As a superpower, America (perhaps unwittingly) reached its apex during World War II when a crippling economic depression and twin totalitarian regimes threatened the country and the free world. Back then, the nation galvanized around our shared values and became the strongest on earth. Nearly 80 years later, while still resting on that superpower reputation, our values have become diluted and divided, and the nation suffers for it.
This descent reached its nadir two weeks ago. While every presidential inauguration signals a beginning, the 2020 inaugural should also introduce an upward trend from the seditious riot of January 6.
St. Augustine also speaks to the misinformation campaign that set off that violent mob: “But it must not be supposed that folly is as powerful as truth, just because it can, if it likes, shout louder and longer than truth.” As Biden noted in his speech, truth must reclaim its power in America. We all must challenge blatant misinformation, whether perpetuated by foreign agents or profiteers.
America the state has endured and will do so under the successive control of just leaders. We have just seen our 46th transfer of power with all the correct tradition and ceremony—a ceremony that will remain largely unchanged in 2024, no matter whom the individual being sworn in may be. The Pass and Review, the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the parade to the White House: It all happened without a hitch this year, and I look forward to watching it all again four years hence.