11/13/2012 04:22 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Love Is in the Air, and Not Just at the CIA

President Obama disclosed his own concern with love and the affairs of state in accepting his electoral victory.

Don't remember? Take a second look.

Upon securing reelection, President Obama reminded us that voting was only the beginning -- the down-payment on citizenship. We must now address all that divides us -- all that reduces us to be no larger than our willingness to belittle the other guy. How? We have to follow the American way, said the president, "We are to be guided by love, charity, duty, patriotism."

Love and charity? These words hardly describe the campaigns just concluded with each side predicting apocalypse if the other won. Both sides would be wise to admit their nastiness, whether abetted with direct dollars or the billions milked from corporations. Frankly, the president prevailed because he governed differently.

In America Undecided, theologically trained religious freedom expert, Edward Gaffney, Harvard and USC Medical specialist, J. Patrick Whelan, M.D. and myself called the election for Obama predicting that the ambivalent voter would go with the president out of social justice concerns. These proved to be matters of high importance especially to Catholics, Jews, Latinos, Women and young people -- all winning constituencies for the president. In the first term, the Obama administration put the needs of the middle class and those of the less fortunate front and center: a costly war was ended and an unprecedented restructuring of the health system has the potential of supplying care to tens of millions who presently are without care except in emergencies.

These first term actions rest in love of neighbor and now, they lend credibility to presidential promises for round two to rectify injustices within an improving, but still skewed, economy limping along fiscal cliffs as well as to undertake comprehensive reform of a broken immigration system and minimize the abuse of our fragile environment.

But all this is the president's work in conjunction with the Congress. What is our personal patriotic duty of love and charity?

There are good primers here on how we can personally find common ground. One of the president's dearest friends, Jim Wallis of Sojourners gives multiple examples in his recent release. So too, our personal initiative can be inspired by recollection of the work of the late Catholic Monsignor John Sheridan who built his theology not around snap judgment, but an inclusive, "theology of kindness," as he called it, that "loves recklessly" in the sense of always being open to the differing understandings of others. If nothing else, these approaches avoid rushing one moral point of view into law to be used as weapon against another. Majority approval of some uses of marijuana and same sex marriage, for example, illustrate how even the most dogmatic or categorical position can be rethought based upon an empathetic grasp of the needs of others.
Using kindness to refrain from the negative or to slow down our tendency to judge or stereotype far prematurely is a good start, but isn't there more to our personal duty?


A little over two decades ago, TV and film talent manager Ken Kragen engineered the fundraising hit "We are the World," and shortly thereafter "Hands Across America," both of which raised millions of dollars for people living at the margins of society. The song and the coast-to-coast demonstration of concern for the homeless and the poor is still talked about today as one of the most memorable events in the lives of those who joined their hands and then pooled their time and resources to confront those issues.

Inspired by the President Obama's call to love and to act with charity, Kragen is urging the president to use his second inaugural to focus on ways in which we can refresh our country through common effort and generous service to others.

He is not alone. Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity has been in regular contact with Kragen. Sinclair has struck a joint venture with MTV for programming that will supply design assistance to help rebuild the Jersey Shore after Super-storm Sandy. Sinclair's initiative began before the President's remarks, but the effort--like thousands of other volunteer possibilities -- confirm the point that the true essence of our nation is not the bickering of recent years, but quite the opposite -- a hope that we might always think about the other guy.

Hope is not naïve optimism. It is the practical understanding that one person's inspiration -- if acted upon -- is indeed all that is necessary to enliven the human spirit in a greater feeling, and reality, of harmony.

Kragen's idea is not complicated, but he does want the president to act swiftly now -- well, yesterday really -- or at least to be prepared to announce at the inaugural a presidential call for a nationwide commitment to spend at least two hours a month doing volunteer work in our local communities. It could easily mean a half a billion more volunteer hours to organizations like Sinclair's or Habitat for Humanity, or to homeless centers, assisted living facilities, hospitals, schools, and wherever human vulnerability and need offer us an opportunity for solidarity and service.

The numbers are staggering, but more than spontaneous generation will be needed to have it work. Anyone who has ever volunteered for cleanup day at the local high school or trash pickup road-side knows that there is nothing more frustrating than being ready to help and finding little to do. Yet Kragen pals around high-tech LA that thrives on making social media do the unimaginable. His Facebook page is now overrun with hundreds of "count me in" messages.

Kragen disclaims any need for a sprawling new bureaucracy, but the president should jump on the opportunity to put the full weight of his moral support behind this marvelous call for renewal through service. In fact, the Kragen proposal should have appeal for both parties. So Obama and Biden should also involve their erstwhile opponents Romney and Ryan.

The idea of neighborliness itself can be made tangible. In many urban areas in the U.S., neighbors don't even know the names of those around them, let alone any immediate needs they may have. These needs can be as simple as a ride when a car is in the shop or sharing insights one may have on how to finance the college education of a neighbor's son or daughter.

Duplication of effort? Not really. President Obama did re-energize the Corporation for National Public Service, but its clearing house functions should complement Kragen's initiative. And the idea is truly one of national service. This is not the draft, for example, which commandeers a discrete 18-26 year old segment of the male population, or the Peace Corps requiring a minimum two year commitment, which, again inevitably becomes the province of the young (with very rare exceptions, such as my older, unmarried brother who retired at 65 from his job in medical administration to land in Moldova with the Peace Corps). Likewise, it is more encompassing than high school community service or AmeriCorps or other efforts -- public and private -- to attract especially young people to reach out to others with tutoring in math and science or basic language skills. None of that is excluded, but none of it sufficiently describes a national initiative appealing to every man or woman over the age of 18 to pitch in and do whatever we can to help, to the best of our ability.

Obviously, two hours each month is intended as only a base, not a ceiling. As the program takes off, some have envisioned tapping into an on-line registry where the tangible fruits of the service could be seen and perhaps in some circumstances, rewarded. For example, those who devote their time and effort might have a higher cap allowing greater charitable deduction.

Kragen's reaction to President Obama contains echoes of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Like JFK -- whose inspiration for the Peace Corps came during a late night (2 am) stump speech at the University of Michigan during the 1960 campaign -- Kragen sees the initiative as a multi-generational flowering or harnessing of human purpose for which we all yearn. Putting off this yearning imperils genuine community and consigns us to a life of consumption over service -- with productive hours wasted in malls or at the movies. Not that Kragen frowns on the industry he partially inhabits. He doesn't. But he does know life is richer shared in community. And insofar as malls have become the modern American equivalent of the town center, they themselves might become inventories or access points for opportunities to assist others as well as consume.

So will the president incorporate an idea like Kragen's in his upcoming inaugural? Respectfully, the president seemed to challenge us, saying effectively it's up to us.

The 2008 Obama campaign slogan "Yes we can!" always struck me as more compelling than the rather tepid "Forward" used in 2012. Now, however, I understand the word more as direction than slogan, as in:

FORWARD THIS COLUMN to everyone you can think of requesting the president's encouragement to indulge what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." I guarantee the FBI will have no cause to investigate that expression of love via email.