Newly elected President Obama, writes John Couretas, Executive Director of AOI in his essay “Obama and the Moral Imagination” frequently makes use of the phrase “common story.” This phrase “may sound strange to the ears. But it is impossible to understand the new president unless his brilliant use of narrative is first grasped,” Couretas says.
It’s a page taken from the Reagan playbook and masterfully executed. Couretas writes:
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”
A “common story” is a smaller narrative that ties into a larger one. This larger narrative reaches into, draws from, and informs the moral imagination — the place where values, morals, purpose, resolve, all the constituents that direct the individual, and bind communities and societies together, reside. American philosopher Russell Kirk, in his essay “The Moral Imagination” described moral imagination as, “the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience.”
Couretas challenges Obama’s appropriation of the narrative even while acknowledging Obama’s facility in employing it. It’s a fair challenge. The radical social agenda of the hard left, while soft-pedaled during the campaign, has been moved front and center the first day Obama took office, including the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (go to the White House web site, scroll to “Support of the LBGT Community”). Social philosopher Dennis Prager implicitly makes the same point in an essay published today, “An Uninspiring Inaugural” although touching on different issues.
More directly, Couretas challenges cultural conservatives to recover the moral narrative in ways the affirm, rather than supplant, the enduring institutions and relationships. Couretas writes:
If religious conservatives…are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative to “change the trajectory.” No small task.
When Obama invokes, as he did in his inaugural address, Washington’s inspiring words at Valley Forge about “hope and virtue,” it is not merely a matter of the new president finding a politically expedient way to link current troubles to the American revolutionary struggle. The story is, first of all, filled with truth. In telling and retelling the Valley Forge story, we understand ourselves as a nation. But it is not Obama’s story to do with as he pleases, one he can freely make use of without anchoring it to how Washington understood “hope and virtue.”
Couretas concludes by asking:
Will those who work in the tradition of the moral imagination provide a counter-narrative on those questions where there is a fundamental clash? Do they understand, as Kirk did, the need for “the renewal of our awareness of transcendent order, and the presence of the Other”? Will they find their voice?
(Readers interested in how the moral imagination shapes culture may benefit by reading Dr. Vigen Guroian’s “Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society.”)