Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mr. Obama and the Golden Rule: Morality Depends on Moving Beyond Words to Actions

I have persistently suggested that (e.g. here and here), by remaining silent regarding one of the key human rights issues of his presidency—the denial of rights to gay citizens in many areas of American life in general, and the denial of the right to marry in particular—Mr. Obama is eroding the moral foundations on which his platform of progressive change needs to rest, if it’s to be successful. And so I’m interested to read a number of recent articles whose analysis moves in a similar direction.

Commenting at Huffington Post on President Obama’s important Cairo speech this week, Aaron Zelinsky cites the following statement by the president:

There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew.

And hearing that statement (with which I wholeheartedly agree), I have to ask, “As the president makes this statement, does he mean to say that he would have done to himself what he continues to permit to be done to gay citizens of the United States, simply because we are gay?” If the president happened to be gay, would he want to be denied the right to serve his country in the military? Would he like to be devoid of any legal protection against discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, in most states in the nation?

Would he rest easy with the denial of his right to marry the person he loves, to enjoy all the privileges and protections pertaining to marriage in our society? Would the president like to be told, when he begged to visit his dying spouse in the hospital, what Janice Langbehn was told at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami: that he could not see that spouse, because he happened to be in a homophobic state with homophobic laws? Would he like to be susceptible to violence solely because he was gay, and without any federal laws combating that violence, while laws exist to protect other targeted minorities?

Can one credibly say that one cherishes the rule that lies at the heart of all religions—do to others what we would have done to ourselves—when one has the power to speak and to act on behalf of many brothers and sisters whose lives are constantly affected by unjustifiable prejudice, and one does nothing? As Aaron Zelinsky notes, the president also cited the golden rule and Luke 6:31 in his Notre Dame speech.

But Luke’s gospel connects saying and believing to acting. Moral insight is inauthentic, it is meaningless, when it does not issue in action:

Here, Obama references Luke 6:31: "Do to others as you would have them do to you," which he also referenced at Notre Dame. Luke 6:49 is less supportive: "But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built a house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great."

Rachel Sklar makes the same point in another HuffPo post this week, this one discussing the president’s visit to Buchenwald. As she notes, the president’s appearance at this Nazi death camp site, and his unambiguous condemnation of anti-Semitic lies and Holocaust denial, was an amazing moment.

Sklar adds, however: “But moments must be followed up by more moments, and action.”

As Sklar notes, the brilliant Jewish thinker Elie Wiesel, who accompanied the president on his visit to Buchenwald, told Mr. Obama, "Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you... because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place." And the president replied, "I will not forget what I have seen here."

But what do these profound moral insights have to do with the world in which we live on an everday basis? What do they mean; what do they mean in the world beyond mere rhetoric? How will they issue in action?

Great. Awesome. Done. But now what? The Wiesel speech was all over the cable nets, and is burning up Twitter. The image of the kindly-faced elderly man with snowy-white hair blowing in the wind beside the solemn-faced U.S. President and German Chancellor was a great TV moment. But moments must be followed up by more moments, and action.

It is not enough to talk about human rights. It is not enough to bow to the grand aphorisms of the moral life and of human rights traditions. When one has the power to change things—the power to speak out, the power to set legislation into motion and to influence it, the power to abolish grossly discriminatory regulations with the stroke of a pen—and one does nothing, one is not reaching the threshold of an authentic moral life.

The test of the moral life is not what we say. It is what we do. The longer the president remains silent about one of the key moral challenges facing his presidency, the more he erodes the moral foundations on which his entire platform of progressive change needs to rest, if it is to be effective.

And what to make of the promises the president made during his campaign, which he now appears willing to break without any explanation at all? David Sirota asks that necessary question in a probing commentary at Salon this week. As Sirota notes, “It's true that politicians have always broken promises, but rarely so proudly and with such impunity.”

But. But,

We once respected democracy by at least demanding explanations -- however weak -- for unfulfilled promises. Then we became a country whose scorched-earth campaigns against flip-flopping desensitized us to reversals. Now, we don't flinch when our president appears tickled that a few poor souls still expect politicians to fulfill promises and justify broken ones.

The worst part of this devolution is the centrality of Obama, the prophet of “hope” and “change” who once said that "cynicism is a sorry kind of wisdom." If that's true, then he has become America's wisest man -- the guy who seems to know my kids will laugh when I tell them politicians and voters once believed in democracy and took campaign promises seriously.

Suggesting that others break promises, or that your predecessors have done so, is not good enough, Mr. Obama. We elected you because we hoped for better from you. We are a nation hungry for positive change, which puts the politics of cynicism behind us and places hope in the foreground.

And you are disappointing us.

As Jenna Lowenstein notes in an article at 365Gay this week, we are disappointed on moral grounds:

But what if instead of worrying about politics and power, Obama worried about moral authority? How he gained moral authority, how he can hold on to it, and how he can refuse to cede it in the face of small-minded bigots. Twice in the last few weeks, Obama has given speeches on the importance of remaining steadfast in our American ideals. First, when he announced his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Obama emphasized a message of equal rights and social justice. Then yesterday, he delivered a speech to the Muslim world, much of which emphasized the necessity of holding on to moral authority at all cost.

President Obama is a smart guy. He knows what he’s doing is based on political calculation and not idealogy [sic], and he knows that’s not courageous. As Andrew Sullivan put it recently (and it drives me crazy to quote Mr. Sullivan), Obama seems to be acting on LGBT issues with “the fierce urgency of whenever.” And that’s just not good enough.

As the religious right has long told us, it’s about morality in the last analysis. It’s about the moral foundations of our society.

Unfortunately, the religious right’s claim to speak with moral authority has been definitively exploded, and its pretense to be the moral voice of our society has been resoundingly rejected by the American voters, who recognize that the moral center of our society lies not in stigmatizing minorities but in building a humane society for all.

One centered on recognizing the rights of all—because that is what people do, when they do unto others as they would have done to themselves. In continuing to belie this central principle of the moral life through silence about discrimination to gay and lesbian Americans, and in continuing to do nothing at all to combat that discrimination when he has the power to do a great deal, the president is eroding the moral foundations of his platform of progressive change, and is setting his presidency on a precarious footing.