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Reflecting on Barack Obama’s recent statement on gun control, Anna Dixon considers what motivates former political leaders to speak out. 30/08/2019
Nearly two and a half years after President Barack Obama exited the White House, he continues to command a political and moral authority for many Americans. Although it is rare for modern presidents to publicly speak out against their successors, Obama made an exception to this rule by releasing his own statement in the wake of the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio earlier this month. It is no secret that gun control in America is an issue that Obama feels extremely strongly about. Talking to the BBC in 2015, Obama identified his failure to pass ‘common sense gun safety laws’ as the greatest frustration of his presidency. These attacks are not the first of their kind to have occurred since Obama’s time in office, but this is the first time he has spoken publicly about the issue. Given the relative rarity of Obama choosing to make public statements as a former president, what does his intervention here tell us?
The most striking words in Obama’s intervention come in the final paragraph, where he states that, ‘We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.’ Although Obama refrains from naming President Trump, the context is telling. It follows criticism directed at the President over a series of tweets attacking four congresswomen. The tweets were widely condemned as racist, not least by the House of Representatives. Obama also released statements following Trump’s travel ban and his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals DACA programme. His select choice of political causes reveals a great deal about his motivations for making public interventions. All three interventions relate to America’s treatment of minority groups. I would argue that, on the few occasions when Obama has spoken out, he was motivated to do so by his sacred values and his words were given power precisely by his status as a former political leader.
Like anyone else, former political leaders will hold a unique set of sacred values which has been shaped by a complex combination of both religious and non–religious influences. What distinguishes these sacred values from other concerns and principles is the powerful moral characteristic of these ideas. For religious believers, there is an extremely close relationship between their religious beliefs and their understanding of how to live a good life. Political leaders face the kind of high–stakes ethical dilemmas most of us will never have to comprehend. It is conceivable that in exploring their moral world, they may well tap into existing religious beliefs to help guide them. These difficult moral quandaries may help to form powerful sacred values which the individual holds on to after their time in office. The task of unpicking these sacred values to correctly recognise when former politicians are motivated by faith in their public statements would be nearly impossible.
As Nick Spencer puts it in The Mighty and the Almighty, the Theos collection on how political leaders have “done God”:
We cannot trace a simple line from the Christian faith to a political agenda, but nor can we pretend no such lines exist and that all the faith stuff is mere window dressing, moral bouquets that make the stench of realpolitik more tolerable.
However, we do know that few public figures are scrutinised and questioned more over their religious beliefs than political leaders. Having been through the rigmarole of this process, former political leaders will have had the opportunity before, during, and after their time in office, to reflect on questions of faith. For some of these former political leaders, the answers they come up with will colour, or even define, the sacred values that motivate them to speak out.
The scenarios in which they intervene mark cases where they feel their sacred values have been contravened by those currently holding power. These sacred values have a moral element to them and are often formed by religious beliefs and traditions, although not exclusively so. Former political leaders are in a unique position to defend their sacred values on a public stage. The fact that they are former political leaders allows them to focus solely on debates that relate to their sacred values, a luxury current political leaders do not possess, while the fact that they are former political leaders provides them with political authority and wisdom, built upon the democratic mandate they once held, and the experiences they have had in power. Former political leaders are no longer accountable to the electorate and can speak out on issues which have far–reaching implications for the population. These individuals should not be viewed as an existential threat to those currently steering the reins of power, but instead as thoughtful and generous contributors to political conversations, willing to share their sacred values with the world.
 Nick Spencer, ‘Conclusion’, in Nick Spencer (Ed.), The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017), p.339.
Image: John Gress Media Inc/shutterstock.com
Anna Dixon is Content Writer/Editor at the Catholic Diocese of Westminster. Prior to this, she worked in the Communications team at Theos. She has previously worked for an international news channel and for a Member of Parliament in Westminster. She holds a BA in Philosophy and Politics from Durham University and an MA in Broadcast Journalism from City, University of London.
Posted 28 August 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.