President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma is the clearest recent example of a leader explicitly defining his moral vision that I know of.
In an earlier post I defined a moral vision as “sense of what matters and is meaningful, of what has value and worth, of what deserves respect and attention.”
And I claimed that leaders communicate their moral vision – implicitly or explicitly – every time they give a speech.
Not everyone would agree with Obama’s moral vision. Many would – and do – vehemently disagree.
But that’s what makes Obama’s speech a refreshing counterpoint to the tepid posturing of many leaders: his willingness to take a stand.
There are three elements of a moral vision: 1) identity, 2) values, and 3) mission. And Obama addressed all three.
The Three Elements of a Leader’s Moral Vision
1. Identity: Who are we?
Obama’s speech is, in essence, a definition of what America means and of what it means to be an American.
“It [the Selma march] was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills: a contest to determine the meaning of America.”
The last third of Obama’s speech identified who we are, beginning with the phrase, “We are Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea,” and continuing on for ten more “We are…” phrases.
In a 3,500-word speech, Obama used “we” 119 times, “our” or “ours” 45 times, and “America” or “American” 48 times.
2. Values: What principles guide and define us?
A large part of who we are as a people – of our identity – is shaped by the principles that guide our actions, the values that we espouse, the standards by which we judge ourselves.
For Obama, the principles that exemplify America at its best are justice, fairness, inclusivity, and generosity.
3. Mission: What course of actions are we to take?
Leaders don’t defend the status quo or inaction. They stir people to an ongoing course of action in order to achieve some desired goal.
Here is where Obama circles back to his initial campaign theme: Change.
In Obama’s moral vision American is “a work in progress.”
American ideas and ideals have not been fully realized. They must be advanced, expanded, and realized anew in each generation, just as they were by those who marched in Selma 50 years ago.
Things have certainly changed for the better, but things still need to change: “For we were born of change.”
If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
Obama calls out three specific actions we must take – reform the criminal justice system, roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity, and protect the right to vote – but only as a part of his more far-reaching moral vision “…to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
Maybe you agree with Obama’s moral vision. (I do.) Maybe you reject it. But you have to admit this: he stakes out his position boldly and unequivocally. I think that takes courage. And I applaud him for it.