Posts tagged with: barack obama

My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.

Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.

Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.

Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
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Here are some excerpted quotes from the text of President Obama’s Inaugural address that are relevant to the themes of this blog. Some are already beginning the parsing of these words:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 18, 2008
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The blogosphere is atwitter over the news that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, will give the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The decision on Warren’s part to accept is getting criticism from the right, while Obama’s offer of the opportunity is getting criticized from the left.

At Redstate Erick Erickson views Warren’s participation as evidence of his desire to be the next “Protestant Pope” after the decline of Billy Graham. Erickson writes that Warren “wants to be the moral voice of the moral majority the way Graham used to be and he has a bigger ego to boot. So he’s happy to lay his hands on the new President and have the media give him the legitimacy the media once gave Billy Graham.”

And from the other side of the spectrum, Peter Daou’s entry at the Huffington Post does a good job summarizing the massive criticism Obama has gotten from the more radical strands of his party. In Daou’s words “the progressive community is outraged.”

Of course, they were also outraged when Obama participated in Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. And so too were many religious conservatives doubtful about Warren’s commitment to the two rails of the Religious Right, marriage and abortion. Many conservatives were pleasantly surprised when Warren (politely) pressed Obama on his views about abortion, which spawned the now-infamous “above my paygrade” response from the now President-elect. Quite frankly, Warren doesn’t need the media to “give” him legitimacy…his popularity, his pulpit, and his ability to bring together politicians in a public forum do that well enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren again surprises his conservative critics, even though an inauguration invocation is hardly the place for political grandstanding or pontificating. My opinion about Warren remains unchanged. At the time he organized the Saddleback forum, I thought it was a mark in his favor that he could act as a fair dealing arbiter and get the two major presidential candidates to appear. Only someone who had garnered a level of trust from both sides could achieve that kind of thing, and that’s where the comparisons to Billy Graham are most accurate and complimentary to Warren: “Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform.” He seems to be doing the same thing here.

Gina Dalfonzo over at the Point says that “a Christian leader given the opportunity to stand up and pray for the nation in public on an important occasion should generally take it, I think, no matter who’s doing the asking.” I do think pastors should avoid partisanship, as best they can, and I think Warren has done so rather admirably.

On this point there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Warren’s appearance at a presidential inauguration and the offer to Joel Hunter and Cameron Strang to pray at the Democratic National Convention. Strang, who is the founder and CEO of Relevant magazine, initially accepted the invitation, and then declined under criticism that his appearance would lend partisan credibility to Obama. Strang explained his choice to withdraw, saying, “If my praying at the DNC was perceived as showing favoritism and incorrectly labeling me as endorsing one candidate over the other, then I needed to have pause.”

So here’s the question: is praying at an inauguration more or less partisan than praying at a party’s convention? Or are the two equally partisan? I’m inclined to think that praying at the inauguration isn’t nearly so easily identifiable with “endorsing one candidate over the other” or “showing favoritism.” Once the election is over, the President is everybody’s President. Before the election, that’s a different story.

Is Senator Obama a closet socialist waiting for inauguration day, at which time he and a Democratic Congress will immediately pursue a massive increase in the size and power of government in our lives, accompanied by massive tax increases and massive redistribution of wealth? Or is he really a moderate pragmatist, a canny politician who when he was getting started in politics used his radical contacts from his ultra-leftwing Hyde Park community, but now is in a position to use more moderate figures to build a centrist working coalition? Which is the real Obama?

Stanley Kurtz of National Review has been investigating Obama’s political past for months now, and in a recent piece on Obama’s ties to such far left groups as Acorn and The New Party, Kurtz suggests a third alternative that I find both more nuanced and more cogent than either Obama-as-Clintonesque-pragmatist or Obama-as-Manchurian-Candidate. (more…)

A 2001 radio interview of Barack Obama surfaced yesterday in which he said that “one of the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement,” and one of the limitations of the Warren Supreme Court, was that although they won such formal rights as the right to vote and “sit at the lunch counter and order,” they “never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth.”

A caller to the station, WBEZ Chicago 91.5 FM, then asks if the courts are “the appropriate place for reparative economic work to take place.” Obama responds that “you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally,” but a more effective approach is “the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributed change.”

Does the radio interview demonstrate that Obama harbors radical views? Does it suggest that the black liberation theology of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, plays a bigger role in Obama’s thinking than he claims? Should black Americans get substantial monetary payments from other Americans as repayment for slavery and racism? If these are the primary questions swirling around this radio interview in the coming days, an important question may go begging: Would reparations specifically, and wealth redistribution generally, actually help poor black Americans?

In a new Acton video short, “How not to Help the Poor,” experts on poverty fighting argue that government wealth redistribution has devastated poor communities.

One of the experts interviewed is Robert Woodson, a former Civil Rights activist and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “We in Washington today lead the nation in 21 separate categories of poverty expenditures,” he notes. “Explain to me why a child born in Washington D.C. has a life expectancy that’s lower than a child born anywhere in the western hemisphere second only to Haiti. We have the highest per capita expenditure on education and we’re 48th in outcomes for kids.”

Woodson does not find the answer in the history of blacks under slavery but in U.S. social policy after 1960. “The black marriage rate in 1930 to 1940 was higher than in the white community. Eighty-two percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising children. But what happened in 1960 when government intervened with the poverty programs, a major paradigm shift occurred and contributed to the decimation of the family.”

Why do such well-intended programs have such devastating consequences? And what has proven to help lift up the poor? The video short also explores these questions.

An early transcript of the Obama radio interview is available here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, October 3, 2008
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It looks to me like Obama has this election about wrapped up. Why?

Some of his opponents are resorting to the tired and fallacious reductio ad Hitlerum (aka argumentum ad Hitlerum).

Exhibit A is this video:




(The original context is this video.)

This stuff is just beyond the pale in so many ways. You can find all manner of other similarly odious political rhetoric at YouTube (just check out the “related videos” category). Also, in 2004 Joe Carter discussed what he called “The Hidden Danger Behind the Hitler Comparisons.”

In real Nazi-related news, today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell, an ecumenist, politician, and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did his best to support the cause of the nascent opposition movements within Germany.

August 28 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, the son of a black African delivered a rousing acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. It occurred 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and told America “I have a dream.”

Even Americans unconvinced that the Democratic nominee is the right choice for America should take heart from the fact that half a century after King struggled against vicious, institutionalized racism, the United States has become a place that can fairly consider an African-American for the highest political office in the land.

But if as King urged, we are careful to judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, the convergence stretching across 45 years begs a question: Has Barack Obama’s political career embodied Martin Luther King’s dream of justice for all?

King dreamed of a day when his nation would “live out the true meaning” of a creed inscribed in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reality is, Barack Obama supports policies that aggressively, even violently undermine that dream.

One might assume I’m referring to the rights of the unborn, and certainly Obama has voted consistently to deny unborn babies the right to life. Obama even blocked modest attempts to end the gruesome practice of partial birth abortion. After the cervix is dilated in this procedure, the baby–who often is old enough to survive outside the womb–is partially delivered, feet first. The abortionist then sticks a needle into the back of the child’s head and suctions out her brains. As an Illinois state senator, Obama twice refused to support a bill banning the practice.

While this is worth noting, I had in view a more startling instance of Senator Obama deviating from Dr. King’s vision of justice for all. Recently California pastor Rick Warren interviewed Obama as part of the Saddleback Forum and, at one point, asked the candidate, “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” The senator said that answering the question was “above my pay grade.”

Most of the subsequent media analysis assumed that his answer applied only to unborn babies. But the senator’s voting record tells a different story.

In 2001 and 2002, as an Illinois state senator, Obama repeatedly declined to vote for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, a bill to protect newborns who survive late-term abortions. Senator Obama has asserted that problems in the wording of the bills drove his decisions not to support this and the partial-birth abortion bills. But in 2003 the Born Alive Infant Protection Act was sent to a committee Obama chaired, giving him the chance to modify anything about the bill he disliked. He never called the bill up for a vote.

Obama has presented himself as a pro-choice moderate. In fact, Obama is far to the left of his own party on the born-alive issue. A similar bill in the U.S. Congress was opposed by only 15 members of the House and was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate. The bill was even supported by NARAL Pro-Choice America. This is not surprising: the bill outlaws infanticide. What is surprising is that Senator Obama could not find a way to support the bill.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” But Obama has refused to extend justice, even the most basic human right, to a segment of the youngest children among us.

Some people have tried to minimize the difference between King and today’s abortion-on-demand lobby by pointing to an award King accepted from Planned Parenthood in 1966. But in a Feb. 25 written release, King’s niece, Dr. Alveda Scott King, noted that King accepted the award when “abortion was illegal in every state and before Planned Parenthood started publicly advocating for it.” In Planned Parenthood’s citation for the award, “not only is no mention of abortion made, it states that ‘human life and progress are indeed indivisible.’”

King’s niece added, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the future of his children for personal comfort and safety,’ and, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ There is no way my uncle would condone the violence of abortion, violence that Planned Parenthood has always tried to mask, which brings painful deaths to babies and can result in torn wombs, serious infections, and emotional devastation for their mothers.”

The Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution that followed, called for a limited national government that protected the inalienable rights of its citizens. At least as regards health care, Senator Obama is advocating something quite different: an ever expanding nanny state intimately involved in our medical choices, and yet one unwilling to protect a newborn child’s inalienable right to life.

In his interview with Warren, Obama emphasized that as a nation we “still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least of these.” But who counts as “the least of these”? A newborn who has survived an attempt on her life strikes me as a pretty good candidate.

I just got a chance to catch part of the Saddleback Civil Forum. I’ll have to go back and watch a replay of Sen. Obama’s appearance.

I’ll just say a couple things right now.

First, I have had a hard time understanding a lot of the criticism of Rick Warren, through the lead-up to this event especially. There are a lot of conservatives who want to cast Rick Warren as Jim Wallis-lite, a politically progressive Christian who stealthily is trying to undermine the conservative movement.

Warren, to me, acquitted himself very well tonight. He’s not a professional journo, and shouldn’t be judged by those standards. He asked tough questions but let the candidates speak for themselves, something that has value even if it isn’t what journalists typically do.

The great thing that Rick Warren has been able to do is position himself as an honest broker that can get both candidates to the table in a forum like this. That’s something that somebody like Jim Wallis, for all the bi-partisan touting of his Sojourners compassion events, is unable to do (not least of which because he’s probably unwilling to do anything more than give lip service to being non-partisan). Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform. But for the reason I state below, I’m glad he’s around and willing to pay that price.

Second, for all the wanna-be pundits who hate the fact that a forum like this was held in a church, I see it as a perfect example of how a vibrant civil society ought to function. As a nation we are all better off for having had a forum like this. It’s a great service to the public square, I think, to see the candidates’ reaction to questions that many people want to have asked and are interested in hearing, but so many of the media and political gatekeepers aren’t interested in communicating.

There’s a great deal of talk about this event all over the blogosphere. Let me recommend the insights over at Mere Orthodoxy for particular attention.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, August 11, 2008
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Writing in the London-based Times, Chris Ayres in “Welcome to Nannyfornia” looks at the “frenzy of puritanical edicts from California’s politicians” that cover a host of sins, ranging from transfats to the highly objectionable use of the terms “Mom” and “Dad.”

Ayres raises a “disturbing” question:

Is Nannyfornia providing us with a glimpse of what Obama’s America might look like? After all, Obama is a classic banner. He recently proposed banning all toys from China. He banned his own staff from wearing green clothing during his recent trip to the Middle East (green is the colour of the Hamas flag). He banned the New Yorker magazine from his press plane after it depicted him as a terrorist in a political cartoon. He wants to ban “excessive” profits by raising capital gains tax. Why? Because he thinks it’s fair. No matter that the state’s revenues from the tax have always gone up whenever the rate has been lowered.

Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, is one of many Americans who fears all this prohibition is going too far. “The Government here in California is banning a food product simply because it’s not healthy,” he complains. “What do you ban next? Bacon fat? The possibilities are limitless.”

Read “The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations” by the Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the Acton Web site. Quote:

It is a mistake to entrust the modern state with the enforcement of certain moral codes of behavior that extend beyond obvious crimes against person and property. When government is allowed to go beyond these limits and enforce a wider array of moral issues, it will substitute its own form of morality for traditional morality. A government program like recycling, for example, could be deemed more morally worthy than traditional virtues like fidelity in marriage. Obeying securities regulations could be seen as the very heart of virtue, whereas teaching children at home seen as a vice. The government’s sense of morality, especially when it is influenced by excessive power, is often at war with traditional standards and common sense.

Also see “Cigarette Tax Burnout” in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Democrats are planning one more pre-election go at a $35 billion children’s health program expansion (S-chip) funded by a 61-cent per pack tobacco tax increase. They justify the new levy as a “sin tax.” OK, but if Americans don’t start sinning a whole lot more, states and Uncle Sam are going to go broke.

Robert Stackpole of the Divine Mercy Insititute offers a thoughtful analysis of the positions of the major presidential candidates on health care at Catholic Online. I missed part one (and I don’t see a link), but the series, devoted to examining the electoral responsibilities of Catholics in light of their Church’s social teaching, is evidently generating some interest and debate.

Stackpole’s approach is interesting because he tries to steer a course between the two dominant camps that have developed over the last thirty years of presidential elections: Catholics who vote for Republican candidates in large part or solely because they are at least marginally and in some cases significantly more in line with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life with respect specifically to the legality of abortion (I belong here); and Catholics who, reluctantly or otherwise, vote Democratic because they perceive that candidate’s platform to be more in line with Catholic teaching on a range of other issues (death penalty, welfare, health care) and thereby to outweigh the Democrat’s unfortunate position on abortion.

Stackpole avoids two common mistakes made by Catholics on the Democratic side: he does not minimize the preeminent importance of abortion as a grave abuse that might be easily outweighed by other issues; and he does not oversimplify the respective Democratic and Republican positions on other issues by claiming, for example, that Church teaching indisputably favors the Democratic policy on welfare.

On health care specifically, he is scrupulously fair both to McCain and Obama, eventually siding with Obama’s plan as being more compatible with Catholic teaching. Not that I agree with the conclusion, but it is a serious argument.

On one more general point, however, Stackpole trips. Here is the problematic passage:

Strictly “political” issues would be things like who has the best experience to be the next president, who has flip-flopped more on key issues, who is beholden to which special interest groups, whose tax and spending policies would be best for the economy as a whole, who is right about offshore oil drilling, and who has the most sensible proposals for dealing with global warming. Such questions are purely political, matters of factual analysis and prudential judgement about which Catholic Social Teaching and the Divine Mercy message can have little to say.

In contrast, he asserts, the issues of abortion, health care, and the Iraq war are “matters on which Catholic Social Teaching can shed considerable light.”

I would say, instead, that every matter that he cites has a moral dimension, and the principles of CST can shed light on them all. It’s true that there are facts, independent of CST, that must serve as the basis for judgment about how to deal with all political questions. To give Stackpole the benefit of the doubt, he possibly means to say that the very narrow question about what economic impact a particular tax policy has is a question of fact, not moral judgment. The statement could easily be interpreted, though, as meaning that tax policy is purely a political question, when it instead has all sorts of ramifications, through the incentives it creates, for the discouragement or encouragement of personal virtue, healthy family life, and the flourishing of mediating institutions (including churches). To separate neatly certain “strictly political” questions from other matters with a moral dimension is, I think, a dangerous move for any person of faith.

Which is not to say that there are important distinctions to be made. Better, however, to go with the approach taken by Archbishop John Myers of Newark, in a 2004 statement on the political responsibilities of Catholics:

Some might argue that the Church has many social teachings and the teaching on abortion is only one of them. This is, of course, correct. The Church’s social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various situations.

For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, “I do not care about the poor.” If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a matter of conscience in the proper sense.

But with abortion (and for example slavery, racism, euthanasia and trafficking in human persons) there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion.