02/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama and the Work of Remaking America

With tens of millions in America and worldwide breathlessly awaiting his words, Barack Obama spoke of the "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" of crisis brought on by our profligate ways.

The economic meltdown, he declared, is "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices." Our failure to take energy conservation seriously has served to "strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." And the crisis we face is not only marked by data and statistics but also by "a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable."

Amazingly, it took the new president less than five minutes to call an end to an era of denial.

Many would argue that this era of denial began when George "dubya," dubiously elected in the debacle of 2000, claimed a mandate; when he exploited 9/11 to impose a foreign and domestic agenda guided by a "you are either with us or against us" mentality; when he implored Americans to keep shopping to bolster the economy in a time of war; and when he declared "mission accomplished" for a crusade waged on false pretenses.

Others, however, could claim that our era of national denial dates back to our failure to heed Jimmy Carter's call to end our dependency on foreign oil. On July 15, 1979, before a live TV audience in prime time, Carter called upon America to overcome "fragmentation and self-interest" and to reject "a mistaken idea of freedom" characterized by "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." He warned us of a weakening dollar, economic stagnation, skyrocketing inflation, and deepening personal and national debt.

But he may have been too prophetic for his own good when he remarked that "too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." His next words -- "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns" -- became the mantra of a new era of easy money, lax regulation, and Wall Street excess.

Standing at "a turning point in history," Carter called on us to find "the path of common purpose" and bring about "the restoration of American values." Deep down inside, we knew that "piling up material goods" would not answer "our longing for meaning" or "fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." "The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers," said Carter, "clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual."

This was Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech. It became commonly-known and ultimately ridiculed as his "malaise" speech -- the mark of a failed presidency. I was stunned by how much Obama's inaugural address, rooted in the theme of "a new era of responsibility," echoed Carter. That took audacity.

But more than Carter's speech, I thought of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who moved to end not only our national denial of the problem of racism but also the problems of materialism and militarism.

For most of the inaugural address, I maintained my scholarly sense of historical context and analytical detachment. What finally reduced me tears, however, was Obama's invocation to return to difficult truths and timeless values that have been "the quiet force of progress throughout our history." These are the truths and values that define "the price and the promise of citizenship."

"We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world," spoke Obama, "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."

More than ceremonial trappings, these expressions of human purpose are what I find most moving. I was especially reminded of how, as a young preacher in 1954, King called on the faithful to "rediscover lost values." He remarked, "Automobiles and subways, televisions and radios, dollars and cents can never be substitutes for God." Sometimes, he advised, we need to go forwards by going backwards.

King tried to shake us out of a denial that allowed Americans to believe that dropping atomic bombs on civilians could be a force for peace. Our moral and spiritual progress, he declared, needed to catch up with our technological and material progress. We had become a society with "guided missiles" but "misguided men."

And when he proclaimed that we must reckon with our history as a nation "founded on genocide," as well as slavery, King challenged us to embrace not only the purity and of the American ideal of freedom but also the suffering and struggle that are the true ingredients of democracy.

As King embarked on a long and arduous struggle, as he moved to square his "other-worldly" ideals with "this-worldly" realities, as he endured tremendous personal sacrifices of his health and well-being, as he witnessed his comrades maimed and his people attacked, and as he watched his "dream" turn into the "nightmare" of white backlash and the Vietnam War, he began to redefine the meaning of going forwards.

King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967):

The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing'-oriented society to a 'person'-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.

None of us can predict what will come of the Obama presidency. The debates over policies, regulations, and spending have just begun. And we can't know if Obama's call to reclaim lost values will be the first step toward a revolution of values or the last. Indeed, we should already understand that it us up to all of us -- the "yes, we can" millions -- to determine what this turning point in history will ultimately represent to us, our children, and our children's children.

Still, as a leader, Obama displays every evidence that he possesses a fast learning-curve and a tremendous capacity for growth. "We remain a young nation," he reminded us, "but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." It is up to us "to shape an uncertain destiny."

Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement leaders defined their mission: "to save the soul of America." Obama's address can serve as a reminder of that incomplete mission. "Starting today," he declared, "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Watching the presidential inauguration in Philadelphia on a giant screen set against the backdrop of Independence Hall, the birthplace of the American republic, I thought of how each generation is blessed with the opportunity and charged with the responsibility to renew and redefine the struggles of those who came before us.

When Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," the sound of freedom never sounded sweeter, my love of America never greater.

Standing within sight of the Liberty Bell, near the hall where Obama delivered his stirring address on race, and among an incredibly diverse crowd of people, we fully appreciated Obama's message that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

And as I watched the first African American president take the oath of office while holding my three-year old daughter -- who had just visited the Constitutional Center and was proudly shouting "We, the people!" the rest of the day -- I thought of how far we have come as a nation and how much potential we have to go further in our quest to build a more perfect union.