As on previous occasions at this site, this is not a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. And, of course, I don’t mean should the President be a moral person. The question is whether the ultimate political leader in our democratic system should also be one who focuses our national attention on the shortcomings of our society in humanity and justice.
For example: we have a growing number of homeless children. Over 90% of the students in a California grade school were homeless according to a recent news story. One in five American children do not have any health care. Well over ten percent of employable people cannot find work. Many elderly people have lost their homes. My friend Bill Shore’s hunger relief organization Share Our Strength regularly documents the huge number of children who don’t begin to have adequate diets. Afghan and Iraq veterans are living in public shelters or on the streets. The evidence is overwhelming of a great gap between what our society ought to be and what it actually is on the moral scale.
Many conservative people accept deprivation as a fact of life and assume private charity (“a thousand points of light”) will take care of the poor and needy. The more cruel ones believe the poor are poor by choice due to ignorance, sloth, or having an unlucky number in the lottery of life. Many of the rest of us, liberal or otherwise, take our religious teachings seriously and believe we have a duty as a society to care for each other.
But should the President point out the gap between what is and what ought to be? And if he or she does, will that be considered the kind of moralistic “preaching” that got leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmie Carter into trouble? Though he never became President, Robert Kennedy assumed this kind of role in forcing the nation to face poverty in the South and racial discrimination across our society. He has been respected, even revered, more in death than in life for doing this.
President Obama has walked a fine line on this matter. Many thought his race, together with his record of social activism, might cause him to be a voice of conscience. At his finest moments he has done so. But a struggling economy, widespread conflict over the role of government in our society, and a hard right opposition have forced him into the role of bargaining over what is instead of what out to be.
We must hold out the hope that the better angels of his nature will come to rest upon his burdened shoulders and he will lift up a prophetic voice that calls America to the highest standard of social justice and national morality. Now is the hour, and it is not too late.