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Obama Understands There's More to a Country Than Politics -- Values Matter Too

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On January 21, 2012, President Barack Obama's words took the nation back to its founders:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

And forward into the present.

"Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.

"But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."

Unlike the Glen Becks, Rick Santorums, and Paul Ryans of the world, who espouse a mythological individualism -- or the more "modern" incarnation of Ayn Rand's "dog eat dog" world, a far right interpretation of Darwin's" survival of the fittest" -- President Obama is aware of Darwin's understanding of survival of the fittest as it applies to societies. As Darwin wrote in Descent of Man, "There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection."

President Obama is trying to lead the United States back to the true meaning of its foundational documents based on ethical monotheism that promotes freedom and equality.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still."

His repetition of "We, the people" speaks to his desire to remind the country that democracy is based on a living social contract that in modern times began with what Hobbes, Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau described as an agreement that makes it possible for citizens to "give up certain of their rights and freedoms, handing them over to a central authority, which in return, will ensure the rule of law within the society and the defence of the realm against external enemies." The social contract refers to the practical aspects of government, the infrastructure that promotes democracy and freedom and equality for all.

But there is more to a country than politics. There are also the values of the society. The social contract and the values of the society must be self-reflective if the nation is to flourish. This was recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville. He was traveling to America at the same time that Darwin was surveying the Galapagos, studying the flora and fauna. De Tocqueville discovered that the separation of Church and State allowed religion to be more influential than one would have thought. Religion was influential in America because of the separation of Church and state: because religion never got involved in politics. De Tocqueville discovered that religious leaders in the 1830s were involved in strengthening families, building communities and starting charities. They inspired people to a sense of the common good, educating them in "habits of the heart," and giving them what he called "their apprenticeship in liberty." He wrote, "In the United States religion exercises but little influence on the laws and the details of public opinion but it directs the customs of the community and by regulating domestic life it regulates the state."

The state and the clergy have two different purposes, but they are not at cross purposes. They both participate in forming a country that continues to develop shared stories, beliefs, values and priorities. History shows that these are the nations that thrive: ones that care for the stranger, the other, the weak and the poor, the widow and the orphan. Nations that thrive include religion in the public square.

As President Obama said, "while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth." And that can only happen when citizens remember that rights come with obligations, responsibilities and duties to others. The President reminded the people that competition and altruism must come together to bring about compassionate action to repair the world. To accomplish this vision, he must bring together under the same canopy, the far right social conservatism of individualism and the far left fundamentalism of entitlement to a middle ground, back to ethical monotheism, the underpinnings of all western culture.

Barack Obama in his "Call to Renewal Keynote Address," June 28, 2006, in Washington D.C. said:

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religion to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

This article came about after I read The Ebor Lecturs 2011 given by The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sacks.

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