Remarks at the Obama Inauguration By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on TPJmagazine
February 4, 2009

The most important words at the inauguration of President Barack Obama were of course those spoken by him in his Inaugural Address.  On January 19, 2009 I wrote a Commentary for BuzzFlash entitled “My Wish List for the Inaugural Address.”

It was published on inauguration day.  At the beginning of that Commentary I said:

“A couple of weeks ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a questionnaire to its contributors (of which, I must admit, I am one). It asked for one’s top pick for the must-deal-with problems. The list consisted of the usual suspects, beginning with what can be called ‘The Five “E’s” ‘(with liberties taken): Economic stimulus, Education, Environment, Ealth Care, and Eraq (well some people do pronounce it that way), as well as Tax Reform (?!) and, somewhere on the list, ‘national defense/security.’ My answer, had I answered, would have been ‘None of the above.’ One will likely hear some version or another of the list above in Pres. Obama’s address. But I am really hoping, oh boy am I hoping, that some significant percentage of the time in what will be a relatively short speech (20 minutes or so, so we have been told) will be devoted to the Big ‘C:’ the Constitution, and to the restoration of Constitutional Democracy (C.D.) in the United States.”

Yes indeed. In his inaugural address, I wanted Pres. Obama to give some significant time to the substance of the Statement of Purpose of TPJmagazine: “THE PRESERVATION AND PROMOTION OF CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY.” Well, my wish was rewarded.  Below I will highlight those portions of Pres. Obama’s Inaugural that constituted my reward. But before doing that I would like to turn to the words of another speaker about whom I had also written commentary before the event, commentary that appeared both on the pages of BuzzFlash and right here on TPJmagazine, Rick Warren. Like many other commentators on the Left, I took Warren apart.  I also criticized the choice that the Team Obama had made.  For it fell into the trap set by the Right that in contemporary American politics homophobia is politically OK, just as long as the putative subject is “gay marriage.”

Then along came Rev. Warren, to give the invocation.  Much to my surprise, in his words I found much to admire and nothing to complain about.  Indeed many observers on the Left did complain about the frequent references to “God” and to “Jesus.”  But the man is a Christian minister. He believes in both God and Christ, as divine, sentient, powerful beings, existing in the supernatural.  I am a Secular Humanist Jew and I don’t believe in what he believes in.  But I respect him and his beliefs and I also believe in the First Amendment.  Thus he is free to express them, in our country.  What I do not agree with is when Christians, or the representatives of any other religion (including Judaism), attempt to force their particular beliefs upon me, in an attempt to control and limit my beliefs, through the force of law.  But that is another matter.

So surprising to me were the words in his invocation which completely contradicted the homophobic positions he has taken on many other occasions, from the pulpit and elsewhere.  I am just wondering if, because of the furor that followed his selection, the Rev. did some rethinking, perhaps even communicating in the manner in which he does with his concept of “God.”  In so doing did he learn, perhaps, that his God truly loves all of his or her creations, including homosexuals?  To paraphrase Lincoln, in fact God must love the gays and lesbians because he made so many of them.  And so, let’s listen to the Rev. Warren:

“Now today we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time. We celebrate a hinge-point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.  We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. . . . Give to our new president, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity. . . . [r]emember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.

“When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.

“And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.  Help us to share, to serve and to seek the common good of all.  May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy [sic], and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet.”

I say that these are memorable words, with which all supporters of President Obama (and even some, but unfortunately not all, of his opponents) can agree.  I say with all due respect to the Rev. Warren: “Is it possible that, having gone through the fire of the criticism aimed at you for your evil words said to our gay and lesbian compatriots, you have again been born again and moved to a higher level of understanding of your fellow man?”  We shall see what the future holds for the Rev. Warren.

Turning now to the words President Obama.  To review, in my “wish list” Commentary on (BuzzFlash) I said: “I am really hoping, oh boy am I hoping, that some significant percentage of the time in what will be a relatively short speech (20 minutes or so, so we have been told) will be devoted to the Big ‘C:’ the Constitution, and the restoration of Constitutional Democracy in the United States.”  Well, the word “Constitution” did not appear in the President’s Address.  But it was very much of a presence.

Paraphrasing the great work by Aaron Copeland, “A Lincoln Portrait,” that opened the Inaugural Concert on January 18, President Obama said, this is what he said: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

In this light, listen to the most ignored section of the Constitution, the Preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  No prescription for big or small government here, but for one that works, for the benefit of all the people, in the context of the democratic government, operating under the Rule of Law, that the body of the Constitution prescribes.

President Obama said, this is what he said: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. . . . [O]ur security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy.”  We can find in these words echoes of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

Echoing the First Amendment once more, President Obama said: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.”  To my knowledge, no President has ever referred, as he did with these last words, to my sector of the population.  It now, it has been estimated, stands at 30,000,000 strong.  Echoing the Fifteenth Amendment, the original Civil Rights Act that took 100 years to be put into force, President Obama said: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

And finally President Obama said, referring to the darkest days of the American Revolution, spent by General Washington and his Winter Soldiers at Valley Forge,

“So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words [of Thomas Paine] be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).’ “

The President probably does not know, for few Americans do, that the great Prussian officer Baron Friedrich von Stueben, who trained the Continental Army into fighting shape throughout that bitter winter, at the age of 47 to be a life-long bachelor, brought with him only his French secretary, a handsome young man of 19.

And that, my friends, brings us back to the words of those in this country who would deny people their civil rights, simply because they have a different sexual identity than do the majority.  And so, by implication, President Obama finished his address by alluding to perhaps the most important clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: “[No] State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”   Rick Warren, in light of both your own words and those of the President, please re-think where you stand on the issue of gay marriage and beyond it, the whole nature of homosexuality and the place of homosexuals in our society. I must say that I hope that the President and his political advisors do too.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in both the academic and the lay literature on health policy, health and wellness, and athletics. On politics Dr. Jonas is a Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for the webmagazine Buzz Flash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; a regular contributor to Thomas Paine’s Corner; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad


My Wish List for the Inaugural Address by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

‘I Hope He Fails’ by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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