07/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

President Obama: The Birth of a Moral Leader

A few years ago, in 2004, I wrote an article called "Is God a Pacifist?" It was a wide-ranging piece that covered many areas--peace, religious violence, nonviolent activism, etc. But it also was a philosophical analysis of the moral issues involved with the use of power and force. And one of the many interesting realizations that came out of my research for that article was the recognition that progressives and liberals are often quite uncomfortable around the use of power, in particular state power. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the gritty business of politics, and all the inevitable compromises it involves, is below the idealistic impulses of the more progressive among us. It's certainly true that many of the moral heroes of the 20th century, as well as the movements they led, were primarily defined not by their heroic use of power and office, but by their inspired opposition to the powers that be--from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela


Obviously, there are many exceptions, but it's a gross generalization that reveals a subtle truth. Moral courage, in the last century, has meant speaking truth to power more than it has wielding power and force--particularly the power and force of the State--with moral courage. It has often meant fighting against the corrupt structures of power rather than embracing those same structures as a means to achieve positive change. As political scholar Alan Wolfe noted in an essay a few years back, "liberals, in a word, are uncomfortable around power, and, because they are, they criticize politics more than they engage in it." This point was particularly brought in one of the interviews I conducted for the issue. I described it in the article itself.

In a conversation with Professor Abdul Aziz Said of American University, an inside-the-beltway peacemaking expert and a deeply spiritual man, I asked if he ever saw the need for the use of violence in politics. "No, I couldn't use violence," he said. "I try to only use nonviolence." Moved by his conviction, I nevertheless had to ask: "Do you think that in government, there are times when we must use violence?" He paused for a moment and then chuckled, "I think that that is why I've never been in government."

Of course, there can be good and high-minded reasons why progressives or idealists might be hesitant to engage in the gritty, contact-heavy sport of politics, and we can certainly respect legitimate reasons for choosing other paths. And yet the unfortunate truth about power is this--if we do not exercise power in the world, then we surrender influence over the world to those who may be much less able, but much more willing.

The same dynamic can be seen around issues of morality. In her recent book, Moral Clarity, philosopher Susan Neiman laments the way in which the political right has been able to lay claim to the territory of morality whereas the left has remained hesitant. In a recent interview she noted:

Those on the right are able to do one thing that progressives are seldom able to do: They can use words like moral and noble and hero without using air quotes and turning them into "moral" and "noble" and "hero." Philosophers call them scare quotes. A number of things are being said with this: "Don't take me too seriously." "I mean it a little ironically." "I'm worried about looking sentimental or sappy or kitschy."

Neiman calls on us to embrace a "grown-up idealism" that is not afraid of the most progressive ideals, that is not hesitant to think in moral terms, and that is willing to embrace the kind of difficult realism needed to actually make change happen. Enter President Obama. Watching him over the last week in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Buchenwald,

and Normandymade me realize that we have crossed some kind of threshold. Talk about a grown-up idealist! Here is a president who directly engaged some of the most delicate moral minefields of geopolitics, and he seemed to barely break a sweat. Indeed, Obama is a progressive leader who is completely comfortable with power (but not enamored with it) and he is willing to wield moral ideals as if they were Japanese Katanas--elegantly, but with deadly effect. The Office of the President of the United States is many things, but it also a platform to speak to the world. Of course, that function has been underused recently, but don't underestimate it. It can be much more than a bully pulpit for domestic politics; it can also be a platform that addresses who we are as a global society--not as a monolith, but as a collection of cultures struggling to come to terms with our differing systems of values, common aspirations, and increasing interdependence. And our shrinking world has only made this function more relevant.

So here's to a president who is unafraid of moral clarity, who can unapologetically call on our highest, moral aspirations without a hint of irony. And here's to a president who can turn the bully pulpit around and address the world, turning morality and idealism into diplomatic tools of the best kind--the ones that inspire the best--and shame the worst--in us all.