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Obama's U.N. Speech: Democratic Pluralism and the American Mission

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In his remarks at the United Nations on Tuesday, President Obama made two crucial and interrelated points about core principles that define our country and our role in the world. As many have discussed, he offered a ringing defense of the principle of free speech, but that's not all he did. Obama also defined an American Mission, arguing that our country can and must provide a model of how to accommodate diversity in a society unified around democratic principles of freedom and liberty.

On free speech, Obama explained that we protect the right of people to offend one another, because that is a core element of freedom:

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.

The president made clear that we value a robust freedom of speech because without it, all freedoms -- including the freedom to worship as one chooses -- are threatened:

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.

Obama further described our belief that hate speech is best countered with people speaking out against hate:

Given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

The president then condemned the violent reaction to the all-too-well known video which insulted Islam and its Prophet Muhammad. He further called out those who stoke extremism within the Muslim world, saying:

It is time to marginalize those who, even when not directly resorting to violence, use hatred of America or the West or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics, for that only gives cover and sometimes makes an excuse for those who do resort to violence. That brand of politics, one that pits East against West and South against North, Muslims against Christians and Hindus and Jews, can't deliver on the promise of freedom.

Obama has long focused his attention on combating hatred and divisiveness broadly defined, and in this speech he sought to explain some of the root causes of those ills:

At times, the conflicts arise along the fault lines of race or tribe, and often they arise from the difficulties of reconciling tradition and faith with the diversity and interdependence of the modern world. In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening. In every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they're willing to tolerate freedom for others.

Combating these conflicts and peacefully managing diversity are no easy tasks for any society or for our world as a whole. Obama has often expressed the view that America has a unique opportunity and an abiding interest in helping achieve these goals. At the U.N. the president stated that America "embodies" the idea that "we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them." For Obama, this idea is central to his understanding of what makes American exceptional.

Likewise, on Aug. 13, 2010, Obama defined America as "a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe." On Nov. 10, 2010, he stated: "Our national motto is E pluribus unum," and noted that our example shows "that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag."

In these speeches and throughout two decades as a public figure, President Obama has advocated democratic pluralism, the idea that a society can be wildly diverse while its citizens stand united as one people who share a commitment both to one another and to the democratic values that define the nation. He has juxtaposed democratic pluralism with its opposite -- a fundamentalism that suppresses dissent and seeks to impose conformity on the population of a country, a region, or even the whole world. Barack Obama has defined this as the definitive clash of the twenty-first century, and has assigned our country the mission of leading the way to victory.

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