US President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech after being sworn in as the 46th US president on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP / Patrick Semansky / Pool

In his inaugural address, US President Joe Biden made unity the basic theme. He stated, “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face.”

Almost immediately, the new president signed a number of divisive executive orders. Could he not see a seemingly obvious contradiction between calling for unity and then ignoring the concerns of citizens with different beliefs? Who are the “common foes we face”?

The depth of the problem is illustrated by a statement of Archbishop Jose H Gomez, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which includes the warning, “So, I must point out that our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity.”

There appears to be no sign that President Biden will be dissuaded from advancing the goals of the left, regardless of strong moral objection from leadership within his own church.

Was the president being disingenuous in calling for unity? Not at all. In fact, he was being completely honest – as a man of the left. Unity is a fundamental principle of the left, and has nothing to do with the mollifying the opposition. Unity is not reaching out for understanding with deeply held beliefs of others; rather, unity is achieved by silencing those who do not adhere to the leftist narrative.

The matter is made clear in The Social Contract, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, godfather of the modern left. For Rousseau, society is governed by the general will of the citizens. This is the will of the body, not of any individual. Each person participates in the general will and is expected to conform his will to the general will.

The sovereign of the state interprets the general will. This does not imply that the sovereign is an arbitrary authoritarian, for he may truly embody the will of the people, and execute it diligently. Or, on the way to power, he may embody the will of the party, in which case it would be foolish to expect him to deviate from that will. Those who expect President Biden to stand against the will of the party in any meaningful way simply do not understand the solidarity of the left.

In line with the general will there is a civil faith to which each person must adhere; that is, he must agree with the dogma put forth by the sovereign:

“There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.

“While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them – it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.

“If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”

The civil faith is as compelling as the strongest religious faith. The articles are not based on the Word of God or universal moral truths. Proper feelings make one a good citizen. Rousseau realizes that no one can be compelled to believe, but not believing makes one an outcast.

No one believes that President Biden would condone the killing of those holding opposing views. But one need not go that far, nor need action be taken by the government. Those who do not profess the faith need only be canceled or fired from their jobs.

Already, we hear calls to re-program supporters of former president Donald Trump, a chilling reminder of the Soviet Union and Communist China. The punishment of a handful of dissidents can serve to keep others in line. When everyone mouths the faith, there is unity.

American conservatives tend to harbor a different version of unity, one based on the nation’s founding and its founding principles. Compare Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg with President Biden. Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In a conflict much more deadly than ours has been, Lincoln appeals to the founding fathers and their concept that all men are created equal. This is where unity lies for Lincoln. It does not demand conformity of thought, but rather acclamation of a great principle that was radical when proclaimed by the founding fathers.

Moreover, Lincoln is clear as to the source of liberty: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Slavery will be ended. Its abolishment is not rooted in human sentiment, but in the Word of God.

Conservatives should reject calls for unity on the part of the left while pointing out the meaning of unity for the left. They should celebrate the founding and call for unity based on its principles and resting on the US constitution.

The universality of American ideals, which apply to all men equally, should be stressed, and all calls for tribalism (identity politics) should be rejected out of hand as being inconsistent with both those ideals and the Word of God. True unity lies in that universality.

Compared with a civil faith, as conceived by Rousseau, unity based on constitutional principles can seem like meager fare. Rousseau provides the fervor of religion, including moral certitude. A constitution provides neither.

But we must remember that the US constitution originally existed within a religious society where, except for the glaring example of slavery, there was at least a semblance of moral unanimity. If the left often exhibits religious certitude, it is because it’s driven by a civil faith.

Too few conservatives appreciate the historical roots of today’s conflict, nor the salient role played by Rousseau. Given his towering influence in the modern world, as it has come down through Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, and socialism, in general, the above cited paragraph from The Social Contract is among the most important in modern political philosophy.

It provides the basis for leftist unity and the concomitant rejection of freedom of thought. It is a pillar of the left, and all of their words and actions should be interpreted in light of it.

In that light, President Biden’s actions do not contradict his call for unity.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.