To Govern…Or to Rule?


Last week , Steve Skojec shared a moving video that juxtaposed President Obama’s pro-life rhetoric in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting with Obama’s support for the legalized killing of unborn children. The President’s words were moving because they spoke to the inviolable dignity of human life; coming from the most staunchly pro-abortion president ever, those words are also disturbing.

Last Wednesday was Religious Freedom Day, by proclamation of President Obama.  The proclamation reads almost like it was written by the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom. It speaks of religious freedom as our first freedom, a God-given right which, through the wisdom of the Founders, is enshrined and defended in the Constitution. “Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution,” the President insists, “each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose.”

King ObamOf course, these words come from a President who has used the authority of his office to define religious freedom more narrowly than any President in history and whose administration recently argued that Americans who operate a “secular business” cannot also claim a right to the free exercise of religion.

Surely the President must know how this sounds to the dozens of institutions that are currently suing his administration and to the millions of Americans who find his stance on religious freedom down-right dangerous.

Does the President not hear himself? Does he not grasp the contradictions? Is he really so obtuse? I don’t have an answer—although cynicism comes to mind—but I think I can point to the beginning of an answer.

Here’s President Obama in his first inaugural address, four years ago:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

Morally mature and sophisticated people will agree that a healthy dose of benevolent grown-up-ness is just what we need to get down to the business of “progress.”

But the President knows full well that our deepest political divisions are neither petty nor childish: abortion, the nature of marriage, the waging of war, and a national debt so large it beggars belief. Here he is in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame:

Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Irreconcilable: that’s not a word one hears from president’s very often, at least not when speaking about differences between and among the American people.

On Monday, in his second Inaugural Address, the president returned to the theme of his first inaugural:

Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.

For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

It doesn’t matter that our views of right and wrong are irreconcilable, or that American society is rife with moral contradictions. What matters is that we have a president who has deigned to rise above our childish and petty grievances. President Obama, believes himself to be a judicious and reasonable man, the Adult in the Room. Who but the petty and childish could oppose such a judicious and reasonable man?

To make matters worse, President Obama has a hard time distinguishing his own person from the office he holds.

Having a pedant in the White House may be annoying, but what is dangerous—and I don’t use that word lightly—is having a president who believes his job  is to use the force of government to settle “irreconcilable” disputes. I say dangerous, not because President Obama means the country ill, on the contrary. (We must not confuse arrogance with ill-will.) No, the President’s understanding of government is dangerous because it self-consciously places government ahead of the governed. A government that merely expresses the will of the people is not enough—Progress cannot afford the luxury of forbearance.

Government, as the President sees it, must lead the people to will what they ought, by force of law if necessary. And he, as head of the government, gives to government its direction. Such a vision of the presidency cares little for contradictions of principle because all principle ultimately yields to Progress.

And guess who defines “Progress.”

No matter how well-intentioned the President, a government that takes it upon itself to show us the way—“Forward!”—is not the kind of government Lincoln had in mind when he spoke of “government of the people.” It seems clear to me that under such a government it is no longer the case that the president governs but the people rule.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Since 2005, Mr. White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society: a three week seminar on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, which takes place every summer in Kraków, Poland. He studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelisation School in London, England.

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