President Obama's inaugural address revealed something important, but worrisome, about how he understands America.
He sees himself as a centrist -- very sincerely, I believe -- when actually he is not one. He is a very divisive leader but does not know it. He presides over a deeply divided country but sees himself as a legitimate heir to its mainstream tradition, which he can expect all Americans to embrace.
Today there are three Americas. One subculture believes in entitlements; another believes in competition and accepts the inequality it brings, while a third doesn't like either approach. But since we have only two major parties, these three Americas split the national vote into red and blue voting districts. There is no center to America any more.
In his well-crafted speech, Obama surprisingly seemed oblivious to the intensity of America's continuing cultural civil war. The center he envisions for himself does not exist. What he takes as the mainstream is, in reality, only the entitlement subculture.
Obama's misreading of the American story is what he was taught at Harvard Law School, which is no longer a fountainhead of American traditions. He sees the bending of American culture to the left as natural when it is only a partisan alternative. He presents the American founding as venerating a single aspiration -- equality -- when in fact the Declaration of Independence speaks to us of multiple "truths" being self-evident.
Interpreting the meaning of our founding is the very battlefield on which our cultural war is being fought. Not everyone accepts Obama's vision of what it means to be an American. Half the country holds contrary views. There are many ways to think about "equality," and some do not lead to privileging some Americans over others in access to government entitlements at a large expense to the commonweal.
Those who do not accept Obama's vision see themselves, with some justification, as being just as faithful as he is to the founding. The Tea Party movement, to name one alternative, presents itself as defending core American values against Obama's policies.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that, in addition to equality, another self-evident truth is that all persons have a creator. A third self-evident truth is that all people have inalienable rights the government can't take away. A fourth self-evident truth is that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A fifth self-evident truth is that governments exist to secure these rights. A sixth self-evident truth is that government must derive its just powers from the consent of the people. A seventh self-evident truth, according to the Declaration, is that the people have a right to alter government if it becomes destructive of their rights.
If we take seriously all these additional self-evident truths, we won't necessarily end up with Obama's belief that an entitlement state is a necessary evolution of the American founding.
Consider those Americans who take belief in a creator seriously, which according to polls is the vast majority. Belief in a creator leads to a belief that one's life should be guided by the purposes and moral order established by that creator. Belief in a moral order beyond human manipulation can logically lead some Americans to different cultural priorities on sexual conduct and gender roles than the ones President Obama now asserts as inevitable.
How then should he speak to and respect this opposing point of view?
Or, let's take the self-evident truth that all of us have rights. The Declaration does not say we have self-evident entitlements to a share of government income to make our lives easier. Why am I entitled to something that is yours? Our self-evident right is to pursue happiness on our own, not demand it from our neighbors or from the state.
More important, it is very possible to believe, as did nearly all the framers, that rights are merely powers for us to use on our own behalf. What we get in the exercise of our rights is not equality but inequality of outcomes. It's understandable that today some Americans still believe that this should be the mainstream course of our democracy.
The role of government -- another self-evident truth in the Declaration -- is to protect us in the exercise of our rights, not to take sides against us when we prove too successful or when we attempt to live in accordance with the moral desires of our chosen creator, which is part of our right of liberty.
Obama's notion -- that the rights held self-evident by the Declaration of Independence are entitlements -- was an intellectual innovation that came to America after the founding. So it is not fair to say that Americans who don't believe in an entitlement state stand outside the American dream. They have their own justifiable version of that dream with just as much of a claim to being mainstream as the president's.
As the Japanese say, we Americans are now "sleeping in the same bed dreaming different dreams." By equating an entitlement ideology with core American values flowing from the Declaration, Obama makes himself not the president of the American people, but only a spokesperson for some of them. The next four years will be very divisive ones for us.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.