Somehow during the long campaign season, I never got around to reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. In recent weeks, two very bright friends of mine — and not political supporters of the president — rather warmly recommended the book to me. So just a few days ago, in preparation for a long plane trip, I bought The Audacity of Hope at the airport and read it en route. I saw clearly why my friends thought highly of the book, for there is much to admire in it. It is gracefully and persuasively written, revealing on practically every page the considerably charming, reflective, and intelligent character of its author. Obama has many insightful things to say about polarization in government, the dangers of our money-driven political culture, the evolution of the Democrat-Republican debate in the years following the roiled sixties, the similarities between Reagan and Clinton — and much else. And his tone throughout the book is optimistic, uplifting, and inspiring.
One of the chapters of The Audacity of Hope is concerned with the Constitution, and I confess that I turned to it with special interest, given the fact that Obama had been for some years a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. The President shows that the peculiar genius of Madison, Jay, and the other framers lay in their establishment of a system of checks and balances, a deliberate pitting of conflicting interests and factions against one another so as to produce, through a lengthy process of debate and argument, a rough practical consensus. Precisely in this, they saw, would violent domination by any one party or set of interests be precluded. Obama sings the praises of this rough-and-tumble, pragmatic process, identifying it as a uniquely American contribution to political philosophy and praxis. So far, so good. But then comes this rather startling line: “Implicit…in the very idea of ordered liberty was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology…” And a page later, this: “The rejection of absolutism…has encouraged the very process…that allows us to make better, if not perfect, choices, not only about the means to our ends, but also about the ends themselves.” This pragmatism even about ultimate ends allows us, Obama continues, to escape “the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.” I’m afraid that this is where I felt obliged to get off the train.
I completely share the President’s enthusiasm for deliberative pragmatism and creative checking and balancing in regard to the nuts and bolts of practical governance. But when he allows what is legitimate at that level to hold sway at the level of the moral structure of a political system, he points the country down a short road to chaos. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have vigorously defended the democratic form of government, but both Popes have also reminded us that a representative democracy must be grounded in certain definite ethical principles, lest it devolve into license, disordered freedom. Members of a democracy can debate all they want about the best means of achieving their moral ends, but if the ends themselves become the subject of debate, the system implodes. Indeed, one of the surest signs that one has fudged this distinction is the tendency to characterize those who hold to moral absolutes as “jihadists” or purveyors of “Inquisitions.”
Now here’s what’s really puzzling: I think Obama agrees with me! As the chapter on the constitution unfolds, we can, as it were, see into the worried workings of his lawyerly mind. Having made his vigorous argument for deliberative pragmatism at all levels, he draws back, recalling the examples of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown during the period just prior to the Civil War. Those impassioned abolitionists did not think that the deep immorality of slavery was a matter for debate or pragmatic compromise. They were, for want of a better word, absolutists on the subject, and yet they all participated in different ways and to varying degrees, in the democratic system. And it was their principled, uncompromising convictions that led to changes in our country without which Barack Obama’s emergence on the public stage would have been unthinkable. It leads him to this conclusion: “I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty — for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute.” Quite so, Mr. President, but you can’t have it both ways.
All of which conduces to the issue which oddly haunts The Audacity of Hope: abortion. Obama addresses the question of abortion directly in his chapter on faith, but it is surprising just how frequently he mentions it, obliquely and tangentially, throughout his book. If I might risk a bit of arm-chair psychologizing, it is a subject that clearly preoccupies him, bugs him. And it does so, I would argue, precisely because it lies on the fault-line in his thinking that I’ve just identified. The direct killing of the innocent is, like slavery or racial discrimination, one of those absolute intrinsic evils, the avoidance of which constitutes the moral framework of any decent human society. One ought no more to deliberate about the rectitude of killing the innocent than to debate the legitimacy of holding other human beings as property.
It is only when we have real moral clarity about ends and means that we might have the audacity to hope for a just society.