From a White House lectern, the president — who himself has lost a wife, daughter and later an adult son — delivered a somber account of our past year. Taking from his pocket a notecard, which his staff supplies every day to track the death toll, Biden said: “Today we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone. 500,071 dead. That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.” And he warned, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. … As a nation, we cannot and must not let this go on.”
In the most moving portion of the speech, he gave voice to the uniqueness of each victim. “We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing,” he said. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They span generations. Born in America, emigrated to America.” As he did so frequently on the campaign trail, he promised that those in mourning will heal. “It seems unbelievable but I promise you the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye.” He added, “We will get through this, I promise you.”
He closed on a poetic note. “This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again,” he said. “And as we do, we will remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”
He, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff then observed a moment of silence outside the White House, with a trail of candles running up the staircases behind them and spilling onto the Truman Balcony.
It was a remarkable display of compassion and a return for the presidency to the role of mourner in chief. Some carry that burden better than others; the last president did not bother to try. Few before Biden, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln (who presided over the deadliest war in U.S. history and experienced great personal loss, including the deaths of his mother at a young age and of two sons), could authentically express sorrow in a way that provided comfort for a national tragedy of immense proportions.
The Democratic Party, which has recently recovered its ability to use the language of faith, now steps onto a stage in which not only faith but morality, truth and decency have been abandoned by its political opponents. Biden’s rhetoric is not a partisan use of religion or a cudgel to bash enemies. Rather, it is a return to the civic religion that generations of Americans experienced regardless of denomination or personal observance.
Historian Jon Meacham called this the “American Gospel”; Benjamin Franklin called it the “Public Religion.” It is a set of virtues — self-sacrifice, honor, honesty, personal responsibility, charity, tolerance, fairness and belief in something greater than oneself — placed within a sacred tradition. Since the Founders, Meacham wrote, “Succeeding generations of Americans have moved through war and hardship, believing themselves committed to, and frequently alluding to, God, a supernatural force who created the world and remains interested in — and engaged with — history.” He added, “The common story of America from the Pilgrims onward is a powerful one; it draws on some of the most vivid and important themes of Israel, investing the United States with a sense of earthly grandeur and divine purpose.” In other words, civic religion is the public foundation for virtues essential to a democratic society.
Lacking a single religious tradition or leader, the pastor for that civic religion was traditionally the president — until the 45th. In reaffirming our collective civic religion and the existence of an American community, Biden takes a step in his much vaunted quest for “unity.”
Unity has been mistakenly characterized as political consensus. That is not it at all. Biden’s unity is a sense of collective interest and shared fate. In recovering that sort of unity, Biden — and those who believe government can be a force for good — hopes to appeal to better angels and make a diverse, contentious and raucous democracy governable.