Barack Obama on absolute truth

From Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope:

“It’s not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity.”

Now this is just historically wrong. The Founders did believe in absolute truth and further believed that having a free society required it. (See, for example, the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.) The notion that belief in absolute truth is the foundation instead of tyranny is wrong historically, philosophically, politically. It is, however, postmodernist cant. It is how postmodernist professors sell relativism to ignorant and want-to-please college Freshmen. But it is demonstrably wrong (though showing something is wrong is hard to do to someone who has swallowed the relativist bait).

Relativism comes from the anti-Enlightenment philosopher Hegel, whose dialectical materialism is the foundation of Communism! Relativism’s highest expression is surely to be found in Nietzsche, whose constructionism (there are no absolute truths or morality, so the superman can create his own truths and morals) is the foundation of Fascism! [As well as of postmodernism itself, as I show in my book Modern Fascism: The Threat to the Judeo-Christian Worldview (Concordia Scholarship Today)]

HT: Caleb Jones. Tomorrow I will post what he says about this point.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Jonathan

    Two “absolute truths” that were propounded at the time of the Founding Fathers were that women could not vote or otherwise participate in our government and that Africans could be owned as slaves. Eventually, thank God, this country rejected these “truths.”
    Obama here is not speaking of truth in the abstract, but the use of “truth” by government for its own ends. His examples illustrate his point (jihad, the inquisition, etc.) Why did our Founders reject the doctrine of the divine right of kings? Christians for centuries believed it as absolute truth. While government is ordained by God, not all acts of government have His approval. What reasonable person does not agree that we ought to be extremely wary of any politician or political faction that claims to have a corner on “absolute truth”?
    I say this with respect, but I’m surprised that someone with a Ph.D. in literature is not more sensitive to the context in which a word or phrase is used. We all let our politics get the better of us at times.

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  • http://www.lsaels.org Edward Bryant

    No Jonathan. Read what Obama wrote. “Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency…”
    Obama misses the point that while acknowledging truth in general and some truths in particular, the wisdom of the framers was to deny the power of the sword (the power of the central government) to any established religion. It was not in the denial of truth altogether or just the use of “the minds and senses God had given them.”

    Obama’s appeal to the “minds and senses” enables him to accept the clear meaning of the constitution and yet violate it in the name of “common sense.”

    A corollary to the principle that there are truths is that some assertions are wrong. The supposed morality of slavery never was “another truth” it was always wrong.

    Obama illustrates the fact that people who subscribe to relativism can never really live that way. In fact, who is so adamant for the “truth” that there are no truths than the post-modernist or the pragmatist?

  • Susan aka organshoes

    The framers didn’t come down on the side of any particular faith or political opinion, but they did indeed hold that governance by the consent of the governed was the answer to tyranny.
    That we’ve allowed democratically elected government to assume its own tyrranical force, through exploded bureaucracies and increased regulatory powers, progressive taxation, not to mention through judicial fiat, would no doubt cause them as much, if not more, anguish than all their handwringing and dealmaking over the ‘question’ of slavery.
    I don’t think they’d welcome questions of absolute over relative truth, but hold that relative truth is no truth at all, and that compromise is not a force for good, if it fails to acknowledge that certain truths are immutable, beneficial, as well as self-evident. A failure to know this opens the door to subtle (i.e. insidious)tyranny, but tyranny nonetheless.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    If pragmatism rules, then couldn’t one justify the past slavery of the founders, precisely on pragmatics. It was very pragmatic, wrong, but pragmatic for the economy of the fledgling nation to have slaves. And if there is no truth, how do you condemn slavery? By what standard?

  • Nemo

    On first glance, I was inclined to come to the same conclusion as Jonathan. And maybe Jonathan is correct in his assessment of what Obama is getting at, but if so, the statement is very poorly written—but considering Obama’s care with words and attempts at precision, I don’t think it is ultimately complementary to put such a favorable construction on it. It at least would need a definition of “absolute truth”. Below is what I see in this paragraph.

    Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth…

    This statement, on its face, is self-referentially inconsistent. The founder’s conception of ordered liberty was based on their presumptions on the nature of man and his relationship to the state—what they would consider absolute truth (or “self-evident”, to use their own phrase).

    the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.

    He correctly identifies a worthy goal, and one I think the founders had in mind (Inquisition, progrom, gulag, jihad). However, they avoided that end not by avoiding all ideologies, but by embracing one and rejecting others (democratic republicanism based on the rights and responsibilities of mankind). Considering alternatives, rejecting them, and settling on a particular method may be a yielding to fact and necessity, but it is not the rejection of absolute truth.

    The Founders may have trusted in God…

    That would seem to be a theology…now I’m confused, I thought theologies were rejected. Maybe he meant theocracy the first time, which would make more sense, but indicate a poor ability to choose the best words.

    …but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.

    And we would argue that there is no conflict between trusting in God and using reason (using reason properly, that is). Obama here may be revealing a dichotomy in his own mind between faith and reason, but more on that later.

    They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions…

    Sounds good, but what does it mean? Abstractions are generally the result of asking abstract or hypothetical questions, and from what I understand, the founders asked plenty of them.

    …which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity.

    Um, Barack, you just justified why they did not immediately abolish slavery. Did you really want to do that? Or are you condemning the founders for this “fact and necessity” method, and instead advocating some sort of alternative “ideology or theology or ‘ism,’”?

    Through this entire excerpt, Obama relies on false dichotomies. Theory and practice, belief and fact, faith and reason. I am not convinced that these are mutually exclusive. Rather, the best theory explains reality, the best belief results in better understanding of fact, and the best faith justifies, defends, and explains reason.

  • Anon The First

    This points out the erroneous thinking in claiming that one can be orthodox theologically and yet think that the Two Kingdoms means that the kingdom of the left does not also belong to Christ, and that the teaching authority of the kingdom of the right does not extend to informing, rebuking and correcting the kingdom of the left, while yet remaining organizationally distinct.

    That error comes from pietism. It does not come from the Bible, nor does it come from the Book of Concord. To suggest and accept that the kingdom of the left is rightfully independent of Christ is actually idolatry, though I don’t think that those who live such a cognitive dissonance realize the fact.

  • Jonathan

    Mr. Bryant, let’s read the statement again. As soon as Obama uses the phrase “absolute truth,” he qualifies it so that it means in context, ultimately, a political theory that is used to “drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.” He thus rightly condemns the use or, rather, misuse of “absolute truth” to justify cruelties. It doesn’t seem to me that Obama intended these sentences to pass for a dissertation on “absolute truth” or constitutional theory.
    But good grief. Can we pretend that Sarah Palin wrote these statements so that we can all praise their obvious good sense?

  • Anon The First

    Jonathan,
    The original structure of this country was not based upon a notion of atomized individualism. Rather, the family was seen as the smallest unit of society. It was also believed that only the taxpayers should vote, lest the non-taxpayers vote themselves ‘largess from the public treasury’ as their study of earlier republics, such as the Roman, had warned them. As a result, heads of households who paid taxes – and only property taxes were at first collected – the 16th amendment is from 1913, not 1789, voted. Arguably, that was actually a better system. In addition, the senate served at the pleasure of the State legislatures, and were representatives of the several States, as part the small State large State compromise. It was a more republican system than the mobocracy that many have been taught to believe is ideal, today.

    The idea of the divine right of kings was still a novelty at the time of the war for independence. It drew greatly from the idea of ethnic nationalism, which itself was a novelty. Prior to that time, kings ruled by personal vows of fealty from noblemen, who ruled by personal vows of fealty from those lower down, all a development from the Roman manorial system synthesized with the folk-gerihten of the barbarian tribes.

    The 2/3 compromise on slavery was a bad one that the Free States hated from the beginning. It was the error of Israel making treaties with Egypt rather than relying upon God for protection. They knew that it was Providence that they’d been able to resist subjection by the English parliamentary forces, and they believed they needed the union with the slave States to have a stronger military position vis a vis the British, whom they felt would try again – and they did try again in 1812.

    They all believed that Christianity was necessary for the Republic to survive, which is why they re-ratified the Northwest Ordinance establishing the land-grant colleges for the purpose of teaching religion and the useful arts. In those days, religion meant Christianity. Since the several States each had their own established Christian denomination, they were concerned that the federal government might try to force a ‘Church of these united States’ upon them, as England had tried to force the Church of England upon the New England States – one of the leading causes of the war. That is why there is the ban on Congress making laws regarding the various already-existing establishments of religion in the several States.

    As with the Bible, the grammatical-historical method of reading is essential.

  • JPW

    I think Nemo gets it about right. I disagree with one point, though. Conservatives would argue that the Founders did not embrace one ideology to the exclusion of others. Instead the American founding was meant to conserve the natural order as ordained by God. This is not a revolution to a new ideology but an elimination of the innovations and abuses under George III.

    It’s interesting that Obama mentions this because Liberalism is explicitly ideological as it has narrowly defined goals such as economic equality which are distortions of the natural order. In any event Obama’s thinking here is rather odd and turgid.

  • Jonathan

    Thank you, JPW. To say that economic equality is a distortion of the natural order is to sum up all that is wrong with the unholy (I almost said “odd and turgid”) alliance between Christians and political conservatives.
    Would to God that more Christians could understand that inequality is the distortion.

  • Trey

    Anon The First great post (#9). You hit the historical context on the head. I fear that too many use cliche thinking to establish their beliefs instead of factual thinking. The founding Fathers major objective was to establish a new nation based not on absolute rule by tyrants, but based on absolute truths. These are self-evident (no pun intended) by the Declaration of Independence. Many of the founding fathers wanted to tackle these issues of women rights and slavery, but the new union could not afford to destabilize its newly formed nation. However, this does not mean that the Founders did not believe that women and blacks had inalienable rights and that these absolute truths did not extend to them. Also, it is not man or specifically the Founders who determined that the are universal truth it is God.

    Jonathan, you miss the point completely if Sarah Palin would say what fictitious statement Obama did, the Conservatives would renounce her too. What you misunderstand is most conservatives see people who they are sinners i.e. inherently evil. Thus, to tie in your last point that is why there is an “unholy alliance”. We are all unholy, yet for the most part Conservatives are contrite for their sinfulness and thus cling to the One who is Holy, Christ. Inequality is not a distortion but a reality. We are all in different stations in this life, but we as Americans we have mobility to move up or down based on hard work . Equality will never happen because of our sinfulness. The Soviet experiement tried and failed and murdered more people than Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The socialist’s utopia delusion of a economic or social equality has and will always fail. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Founding Fathers saw in our nation. They didn’t seek to have a large and expansive government to promote social equality, but a government that did not obstruct the pursuit of a persons’ happiness. Basically, the wanted everyone to be born with a opportunity of happiness what you do with that opportunity is your preference.

  • Another Kerner

    In order to discern the framer’s intent, perhaps Senator Obama should have reviewed The Federalist Papers a bit more carefully.

    Dr. Veith is right.

    Senator Obama is way off the mark.

  • WebMonk

    Jonathan, I’d be interested in your support for slavery and lack of female voting being “absolute truths”. There were many things that they held to be true or proper, but there were fewer things that they held as “absolute truth”. Slavery and voting rights were not among them.

  • Don S

    Jonathan @ 1: The problem with your post is it is founded on this statement: “Two ‘absolute truths’ that were propounded at the time of the Founding Fathers were that women could not vote or otherwise participate in our government and that Africans could be owned as slaves.” You are confusing absolute truth with policy. The founding fathers did not propound the concepts of denying women the right to vote or slavery as absolute truths. What they did was to regard them as acceptable practices, consistent with absolute truth. This was clear error, in my opinion, and in the opinion of society at large, fortunately, and has been corrected, at least here in the U.S. and other first world democratic countries.

    The absolute truth the founding fathers, by and large, relied upon was Biblical truth, the same absolute truth we who are theologically conservative rely upon today. By his statement, Obama appears to reject the Bible as representing absolute truth, because he rejects the concept of absolute truth. This is his deep error.

    Incidentally, the evolution of U.S. society from slavery and patriarchy to freedom for all and women’s suffrage is an acceptable, and good, application of the notion of evolving societal standards. Over time, we as a society came to better understand the fullness of the inalienable rights granted by God to each individual. Once we did so, we made suitable amendments, using the amendment process, to the Constitution to reflect this better understanding. Unfortunately, now we take the easier course of having a few judges in black robes simply declare that the Constitution has changed to reflect these “evolving standards”, without subjecting them to the Constitutional amendment process. That is too bad, and it reflects our increasing rejection of absolute societal standards. Ultimately, it reduces freedom for all, because we cannot rely on having the same rights tomorrow that we enjoy today, since we are always subject to revision of those rights by judicial fiat, based on judges’ interpretation of our evolving societal standards.

  • Jonathan

    This blog is ample evidence that a real downside to American Lutheranism (WELS, ELS, or LCMS) is the absence of blacks or Hispanics, or, put another way, the almost complete presence of (largely midwestern) white middle- to upper-middle class Republicans. I say this only to indict my own insularity, not yours.
    Nothing has more informed or broadened my political outlook than a thorough reading of the “liberal” civil rights movement. (See the Taylor Branch trilogy.) There is Christianity as a social movement.

  • Nemo

    Jonathan,

    I think this is something more like you want it to say.

    It’s not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of state determined absolute truth, the rejectioninfallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” leading toany tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of absolute powerabstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory reflectedyielded to fact and necessity.

  • Jonathan

    Nemo (no one), thank you, but I see no reason to change Obama’s words. This post has caused me to go out to purchase his book, however, so that I can read the full context. Nonetheless, I think that your addition of “state determined” before “truth” is helpful, though I would not join you in deleting “absolute” before “truth.” It seems to me that Obama is making a sensible though profound point about the danger of government abusing “truth.” Taking these words, as Dr. Veith did, and eventually tying them to the “foundation of Communism!” is lame.

  • JPW

    Regarding my post at #10 and the response at #11:

    I do believe that economic inequality is the natural order in the fallen world. Certainly one could disagree with my use of the term “natural,” but that doesn’t change my point. I think history supports the contention that attempts to eliminate economic inequality are doomed to fail. Clearly Marxist ideology has not been successful at eliminating poverty. But I repeat what Trey said.

    Regarding Jonathan at #16:
    Christianity as a social movement is not rejected because of a Lutheran ethnic insularity, but is rejected on theological grounds.

  • The Jones

    Jonathan, in an attempt to save you 15 dollars, please wait until the full post tomorrow before you buy the book. Trust me, I’ve read it.

  • Jonathan

    Thanks, The Jones (do you mean to write “the Joneses”?), but unless you’re posting the entire book, I intend to buy it; most likely I’ll get the audio version so that I can swoon over the man’s dulcet tones.

  • sandi

    “It is how postmodernist professors sell relativism to ignorant and want-to-please college Freshman”
    The timing of the article could not have been more ordained. Just last night I was reading the required homework for my (third) daughter’s freshman philosophy course. Just as you suggest the first assignment challenges the very notions of truth that parents have tried to lay down for their children. Fortunately my daughter was home schooled and was drenched in Christian worldview studies throughout her high school years. But this is exactly the kind of problem that Schaeffer warned was happening over 30 years ago and the church still does not warn parents of this problem. Most Christian kids who attend public school are not in any way prepared for this assault, and their parent’s generation still has their heads in the sand. I wonder how many will vote for Obama?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Trey (@12), “We are all unholy, yet for the most part Conservatives are contrite for their sinfulness and thus cling to the One who is Holy, Christ.” Wow. It is highly disturbing that you seem to be conflating political ideologies with faith.

  • Jonathan

    Webmonk @14, what the Founders believed to be “true” as opposed to “absolutely true” or even “super true” is irrelevant if, at the end of the day, slavery got written into the constitution, and women got no right to vote. For the slave and the woman, it was all true enough.
    I suggest that you read good histories about both the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements to learn how these changes came about. I’ve also found it good to read books that describe how American Christians have divided on certain policies over the years all the while using Scripture to justify their contrary views. It’s humbling.

  • Nemo

    Jonathan,

    I’m not sure we’re all operating under the same concept when we say “absolute truth”.

    As for the slavery issue, when it came to equal rights, the founders held as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” (i.e. undeniable for anyone who understood the meaning of “equal”, “men”, and “created”). However, that conceptual truth did not quite make it into policy in every area (i.e. slavery was not abolished). Rather, as Obama would put it, at least in the founder’s minds “theory yielded to fact and necessity.” In other words, they did not deem it political possible/expedient that the “truth” of inequality be implemented at that time. Rather, it took until the Civil War for slavery to be abolished. Lincoln believed he was continuing the founder’s dream of equality, applying more of their foundational “truth” than they were able to in their own generation.

    Now, to see if I can’t spice up this conversation even more, is Obama praising or criticizing the founders for their conception of truth, and for letting “theory yield to fact and necessity”. As I already said, that is what they did in the area of slavery.

  • fw

    hey this is a great discussion!

    I think maybe things are a little off here….

    I think the founders tried to establish a new order where men were ruled by Law and not by men. constitutional republicanism and representative government, as opposed to … democracy, which is rule by men.

    They regarded the Law and discovery of it as a type of science. that the Supreme Architect of the Universe (as a good deistic mason would call God), set in place a moral structure for the universe, and that man, through the God-given powers of logic and reason, were meant to discover these laws.

    so believe in absolutes was certainly there in their thinking but in a sort of secondary way as the thing that was behind the enlightenment belief in the power of reason and logic.

    It doesnt seem that most of the prominent founders accepted the bible as absolute truth. they rather believed that absolute truth existed, existed because there was some god who was knowable through deductive logic and reason, and that that god was a god of order and was unchangable.

    I am not convinced that Obama is any more or less a relativist than most leaders in our government. It DOES seem that he has put ALOT of thought into all of these things doesn´t it? That is a good thing, not a bad thing…..

  • Jonathan

    Nemo, good comments, though perhaps you can explain the difference between “truth” and “absolute truth.” I cannot.
    As for Obama, I think you’re reading more into his words than he intends to say. Did you notice that he doesn’t mention slavery in his litany of examples of coercion that have been justified by claims of “absolute truth” (so-called)?
    I think that he is praising the Founders, perhaps too generously, for allowing fact and necessity to trump theory, defined as abstraction, related back to the government’s use of “absolute truth” to justify cruelty. He’s generalizing, not demonstrating a rule that always works. He’s saying that in America, usually, we have been and should be suspicious of a political faction or a minority that claims “absolute truth” to justify binding everyone else. We have a history of testing such claims and should continue to use our minds and senses to do so. This doesn’t mean we don’t end up sometimes accepting claims that later prove to be false. And it doesn’t mean that sometimes the minority’s claim does rest on absolute truth and should be adopted. And it certainly doesn’t mean that some things are not absolutely true.
    To me, his comments merely state the obvious, though now as I go over them again, I tend to agree that they could have been better edited. Even good lawyers are sometimes imprecise, trust me. But I think Obama is doing nothing but making a rather pedestrian point, which is that we try things out in America, we simply don’t do things (and seldom have) because someone tells us it’s the truth. So to blast him for advocating some sort of “It’s your thing, do whatcha wanna do” philosophy is nonsensical, in my view.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Jonathan wrote:

    “This blog is ample evidence that a real downside to American Lutheranism (WELS, ELS, or LCMS) is the absence of blacks or Hispanics, or, put another way, the almost complete presence of (largely midwestern) white middle- to upper-middle class Republicans.”

    What do you expect from a bunch of Norwegians and Germans?!? It’s changing slowly. There are congregations that are the exception to the norm, but time will change that. And yes, we need to reach out to our neighbors and draw them in to our churches. Also, consider that in the WELS, ELS and LCMS worldwide, there are many congregations that are not white at all.

  • Anon The First

    Truth either is or isn’t. If it isn’t, there is no point to this discussion.

    Either there is an objective reality, or there isn’t. If there isn’t, then even the observer reading this would be an illusion, which is absurd, and then there is literally nothing.

    So, there is an objective reality, at which point, talking about objective truth is not nonsense. Claiming that it doesn’t exist, is nonsense.

    Talking about the nature of reality is worthwhile. But a claim that different melanin concentrations per unit area of skin results in different superimposing realities is nonsense.

  • M.Garmon

    The founders did not have to be perfect to assist the country toward emancipation. Without the votes they left behind to limit slavery extension with federal power, Lincoln never would have been elected. Read Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union. Understand Lincoln pulled every clue, every vote to prove a majority of the founders, although unable to resolve the issue, intended slavery to die out. They also left the ability for Constitutional amendedments, which allowed freed blacks to vote and women as well. Slavery was alive and well on our continent 100 years before any founding father was ever born. What we accomplished in so short a time is amazing. Obama thinks moral compromise is the way we should go, for sake of peace. What he wants is no opposition to his agenda. He eschews moral absolutes because they get in his way. Allen Guelzo says “Society shuns moral absolutism ut does not shyn all moral absolutes – that is why Lincoln did not shun them 150 years ago.” There are no comparisons between Lincoln and Obama, sorry.

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  • nancy

    edgar is a liar

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