Obama renews a covenant and inspires fresh hope

Published 23 January 2009
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 23rd January 2009

Watching Barack Obama deliver his inaugural address on Tuesday we knew we were seeing history being made. All the ingredients were there: the first African-American President in US history, the sense of crisis to which he referred four times, the almost two million people present, stretching from the Capitol all the way to the Washington Monument, the hundreds of millions watching throughout the world.

But how many fully understood precisely what he was doing? He was doing something almost unintelligible in terms of British political culture yet central to that of the US. He was, and knew he was, renewing the covenant. From time to time British politicians use the word “covenant”. But in the US it is more than a word: it is its defining purpose as “one nation under God”. In a sense deeper than we can readily imagine, America sees itself as a covenanted nation.

There is a fundamental difference between contracts and covenants. In a contract, two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. When we pay someone to do something for us, implicitly or explicitly we make a contract.

A covenant is something different. In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of mutual responsibility to do together what neither can achieve alone. It is not about interests but about loyalty, fidelity, holding together when events seem to be driving you apart. A covenant is less like a deal than like a marriage: it is a moral bond.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, after more than a century of religious wars, European thinkers reflected deeply about what holds a nation together despite its differences. Out of this emerged a key idea shared by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau: the social contract that creates a state.

The Founding Fathers of America thought in terms of a different idea. They derived it from the Bible: the moment at Mount Sinai when the Israelites bound themselves by sacred covenant to become one nation under God, a phrase that became part of the American pledge of allegiance. They thought not of the social contract that creates a state, but of the social covenant that creates a society.A social contract is about power; a social covenant is about collective responsibility. A social contract is about governments and laws. A social covenant is about the shared ideals of its citizens, to which Barack Obama referred when he spoke about “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”.

Virtually every US President since Washington in 1789 has renewed the covenant in his inaugural address, often in biblical terms. Obama’s was a textbook example. There was the reference to the Exodus, a journey through the wilderness that involved crossing a sea: “They packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans.” There was the covenant itself: “Our Founding Fathers . . . drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man.”

There was the key covenantal virtue, faithfulness: “We the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.” There was the idea, central to covenant, of a commitment handed on by parents to children: “That noble idea, passed on from generation to generation.” There was the principle that nations flourish not by the power of the state but by the duty and dedication of their citizens: “It is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

Obama’s ending was little less than biblical: “Let it be said by our children’s children . . . that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Covenantal politics is less about governments than about “we, the people” and our responsibilities to one another. It measures the strength of a nation not by the size of its army or its economy, but by the willingness of its citizens to rise to the call of our “duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world”. What Barack Obama has understood is that covenant creates the politics of hope. Never has the future of freedom needed it more.