Obama’s Living Virtues

Jasper-johnsflags1968_2-224x300Jennifer Herdt over at The Immanent Frame:

Many commentators have taken Barack Obama to be proclaiming a new set of civic virtues or even a new civil religion to guide Americans into an uncertain future. Yet in his Inaugural Address, Obama himself argued otherwise: “Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old.” So we may well ask—how old are these values? In what traditions are they rooted? Are they religious or secular? For the answers to these questions will be reflected in Americans’ willingness—or unwillingness—to unite around them.

Obama terms these “values.” But they are for the most part more specifically virtues, that is, settled traits of character that dispose a person to act in excellent ways. And Obama does elsewhere speak of these as virtues, most revealingly, I think, in his early memoir, Dreams from My Father, written before he aspired to political office. During his college years, his growing consciousness of racism tempted him to wallow in hatred and despair, to cling to an identity of alienation from anything tainted by white culture, including its hypocritical moralism, its “needlepoint virtues.” Yet he eventually came to recognize these virtues as themselves unsoiled, to see that the fact that these were the values of his white Midwestern grandparents did not mean he had to reject them in order to be authentically black.