Story By Ken Krayeske • 11:35 PM EST
America's destiny, since its first days, has been certain, indubitably wrapped in notions of divinely-blessed liberty, self-determination, expansion, and the republican form of democracy.
President Obama refused to discard the concept of the Christian godhead, but with a little-noticed word, he tossed Manifest Destiny to the wind. "God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny," Obama said in his inaugural address.
What does an uncertain destiny for America mean? First, what is destiny? In the modern cultural context, it is the Force preordaining Luke Skywalker’s being chosen for the purpose of challenging and defeating Darth Vader, overcoming the evil Empire.
Destiny as a word traces its roots to the Latin "destinare" – to establish, to determine. The Old French turned it into destinee, and the Middle English, around 1300, started shaping its current usage.
The Random House Unabridged defines it best:
1. something that is to happen or has happened to a particular person or thing; lot or fortune.
2. the predetermined, usually inevitable or irresistible, course of events.
3. the power or agency that determines the course of events.
4. (initial capital letter) this power personified or represented as a goddess.
For "that which is inevitable," synonyms include fate, fortune, kismet, lot, and predestination. These heady words seem to indicate that the future of the planet and billions of people seemingly rides upon the workings of the Constitution and its peoples.
This view of America's preordainded place in terrestrial affairs began with George Washington's first inaugural address in 1789.
"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people," Washington said.
Only 16 presidents since Washington have invoked America's destiny in their inaugural addresses, doing so in the context of a divine blessing for the labors to liberty.
Witness James Monroe in 1817: "If we persevere in the career in which we have advanced so far and in the path already traced, we can not fail, under the favor of a gracious Providence, to attain the high destiny which seems to await us."
In 1845, James Polk, aware of Andrew Jackson's expansionists who called America west with Manifest Destiny , said those in separate political factions have a "common destiny."
William McKinley in 1897 talked of our "highest destiny." Calvin Coolidge in 1929 linked America's destiny to freedom.
President Hoover in 1929 disavowed America's destiny as one of imperialism: "Superficial observers seem to find no destiny for our abounding increase in population, in wealth and power except that of imperialism. They fail to see that the American people are engrossed in the building for themselves of a new economic system, a new social system, a new political system all of which are characterized by aspirations of freedom of opportunity and thereby are the negation of imperialism."
Of course, we know Hoover was the failure of all stinking rotten presidents. He lied about the imperialism thing, too.
Roosevelt, whom Obama draws comparisons for taking office in a time of darkness, in 1933 invoked destiny as inspiration. Roosevelt said "These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Oddly, Lincoln, whom Obama is positioning himself as, didn't employ destiny in either of his inaugural addresses. In 1941, Roosevelt, speaking to a world threatened by fascist Hitler, quoted Washington's 1789 incantation – that America's destiny is to lead the world to justice.
The global fight for liberty enthralled Eisenhower, and he employed it in both his inaugural addresses. At the start of the Cold War in 1953, Eisenhower said: "[T]o meet the challenge of our time, destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world's leadership."
And in 1957, Eisenhower repeated "For our world is where our full destiny lies—with men, of all people, and all nations, who are or would be free. And for them—and so for us—this is no time of ease or of rest.
In the tumultuous 1960s, destiny meant individual choice. From President Johnson's speech in 1965: "For every generation, there is a destiny. For some, history decides. For this generation, the choice must be our own."
Nixon in 1969: "The essence of freedom is that each of us shares in the shaping of his own destiny."
Come 1997, Bill Clinton echoed those calls: "The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future—will we be one nation, one people, with one common destiny, or not? Will we all come together, or come apart?"
Bush seemed to do the same in 2005: "By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."
I would imagine that Jon Favreau, the 27-year-old speechwriter tasked with shaping Obama's first words as president, read not just the definitions of destiny, but every inaugural speech just quoted for perspective.
If Favreau failed to do this, he should be fired. His flub on facts, where only 43 presidents have taken the oath, not 44, certainly merits a pink slip. And if not that, does he deserve shitcanning for this photo of him groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton?
But politics is a young man's game, and he had two months to write a twenty-minute speech. He should know every word in that text inside and out, and have recited it dozens of times in front of a mirror, listening to its sound and tone.
For all their consideration, it's safe to say Favreau and Obama did not intend such a massive alteration in American cultural identity politics. They certainly painted it in context:
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
It can be seen as a call to harden America's collective resolve, like Clinton in 1997, challenging citizens unite and bear the brunt of liberty - sacrifice, duty and hard work. But from the past that this speech calls to, American displays certitude in its destiny. Its mission has never wavered.
Thus it strikes me to think that a constitutional scholar as astute as Obama wouldn't have picked up on the full implications of "uncertain destiny," as opposed to Manifest Destiny, which could be the ultimate reason for American complacency in the invasion of Iraq.
Maybe his staff missed how "uncertain destiny" could be distilled down to two words, and be placed in direct conflict with the national myth of Americans as the leaders of the free world. Or maybe I am making too much of two words.
But millions of lives have been born and gone on the weight of those two words.
Destiny is unknown, but unchangeable, inevitable, so does Favreau imply uncertain is just unknown? If so, it's a poor choice, and if you are going to spend two months on a 20-minute speech, why not choose your words more carefully.
In an uncertain destiny, how is America to face tomorrow if it not the beacon of truth, justice and liberty for those on the lifeboat of Planet Earth?
Does "uncertain destiny" mean fate favors America no longer? Bob Dylan in 1963 reduced to absurdity "With God on Our Side." Is an uncertain destiny America reordering itself, hold the theocracy?
And how do we know this? Does Obama, like Bush, talk to God? Though Obama seems not the messianic militarist Bush was, Obama certainly wears his faith on his sleeve. Between Rev. Wright and Rick Warren saying the "Our Father" before the inauguration, I can't see Obama eschewing God having chosen America. Especially not with Obama's affection for Israel, another sociopolitical entity allegedly touched by God.
Does "uncertain destiny" mean that America will one day fall? The National Review predicts a Christ-like Obama falling from grace. Back in the April 2008, Harper's folio "Falling, Confessions of a Lapsed forest Christian," , Donovan Hohn scribed "Lucifer falls, Alice falls, so does Icarus. The giant in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' falls. Jack and Jill fall. The Titans tumble earthward for for nine days straight."
Shall America fall too? Maybe Prophet Obama warns us of our our errant ways, treading from the path of truth and justice. But I am unsure what errant is in Obama-world. I would imagine that imperialism is errant towards the way of justice, but this week Obama bombed Pakistan.
So in an uncertain destiny, Jesus condones the use of deadly force. And maybe in an eye-for-an-eye world, God favors the Islamoterrorists, and this is Obama's secret sign of his Muslim brotherhood. Ha! Wouldn't the conspirowingnuts love that!
Or does an "uncertain destiny" infer that America needs to look for goals other than becoming the "land of the brave and the home of the free?"
Considering America's record-large prison population, and Gitmo (the closure counts only as a P.R. move, because those prisoners will not be released any time soon), perhaps. If an "uncertain destiny" means America is free to stop fighting overseas and instead provide health care to all its people, then sign me up for irresolution.
Yet Obama presents himself as the second coming of the Great Liberator, from retracing Lincoln's whistle stop train tour to using Honest Abe's Bible. Obama wants us all to be free, and he will wage Bush's war on terror to prove it.
Are Americans, in an "uncertain destiny," groping for a new economic theory in the face of the failure of free market capitalism and the invisible hand of the marketplace?
Obama calls on captains of industry to be responsible with their great wealth, and spread it around a bit. But I don't see him going Marxist on us, despite the right's fears. I am uncertain what "uncertain destiny” means. What should my efforts go to shape?
I'm not sure what Obama is angling for. But uncertain doesn't mean that we should waver in holding those in power accountable for their breaches to the cause of economic justice and egalitarianism.