The Professor and the Pundits

What's at stake when the president makes moral arguments?

By Nathan Pippenger

Damon Linker has penned the most persuasive criticism of President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks last week, if only because he acknowledges—as many critics have refused to do—that on the facts, the President was right. Reflecting on Islamic terrorism, Obama reminded his audience: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” Perfectly true, Linker admits, although the President has no business saying it: “The problem is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and not its professor in chief. It isn’t the president’s role to stand apart from and above the nation he leads, issuing supposedly even-handed, dispassionate, scholarly, objective, or prophetic moral judgments about the sins of America and Western civilization.” The President, Linker insists, is our leader, not some disinterested moral judge—and when he judges his own country, he positions himself outside it, abandoning his leadership role in the process. Or, to put things a bit more bluntly: “Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?”

Personally, I don’t see why a President can’t do both. In fact, Obama is doing both: While he’s delivering remarks reminding Americans of the potential for violence in any religious tradition, U.S. warplanes are engaged in an intense bombing campaign against ISIS. But Linker acknowledges that, and at any rate it’s not the point he’s most interested in making. The real object is to draw a division of labor between presidents, whose job is to remain partial to the particular community they lead, and moral critics, whose condemnations and comparisons imply a stance outside any particular community: “Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal.” The moral critic is detached and impartial, Linker suggests—and these are not virtues in a wartime president.

But surely this is not the only way to think about morality. To engage in moral criticism doesn’t necessarily position a person outside the community being criticized. In the fact, it’s just the opposite: Effective moral criticism often works precisely because it comes from within a particular community—speaking its language, drawing on its traditions, making warnings and proclamations that make sense within its moral world.

Seen in this light, Obama’s invocation of slavery and Jim Crow were not mere academic points, more befitting a professor than a president. They were specifically American warnings, intended to remind his fellow-citizens that the United States has much to lose by casting Islam itself as the problem. Christianity, too, has been invoked to defend atrocities—atrocities that our own ancestors committed—and yet none of us would reduce Christianity simply to slavery and Jim Crow. Slavery and Jim Crow carry special moral power for Americans; to invoke them is to speak an American moral language, in the service of imparting a lesson Americans need to hear. And that lesson is not some abstract academic point about the potential for any community to engage in violence; it’s a specific warning: don’t mistake the current struggle for a civilizational or religious war; don’t foolishly imagine that Islam itself is the enemy—any more than the opponents of slavery or Jim Crow would imagine that Christianity was the enemy. The United States has had far more success than Europe at integrating its Muslim population. If it begins to imagine itself at war with Islam; if it mistakenly thinks that only Islam can be dubiously invoked in the name of violence, that social success is at stake. Similarly, Obama has stressed repeatedly his desire to disengage the United States from long, costly Middle Eastern wars. Americans should be careful of confusing strategic engagements with Islamic extremists with a broader, civilizational struggle against some amorphous force like “Islamism.” Down the latter path lies more pointless, open-ended war; a more hubristic foreign policy; a more jingoistic outlook. To push back against that easy impulse is not to engage in some abstract discussion. Exactly the opposite: it’s an appeal, one couched within America’s moral language, for Americans to avert costly and disgraceful blunders in the here and now.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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