In starting his second term, President Obama took the oath of office not on one Bible but two – those of Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then, in his inaugural address, he spoke of God five times and freedom seven times. He did so mainly to underscore this point: Americans “must act on behalf of those who long” for the freedoms that are a gift from God.
To help prove his point, Mr. Obama kicked off the three-day Inauguration weekend by participating in the National Day of Service – along with some 13,000 other people nationwide – in an event that yearly honors the King holiday. With his family, he stained a bookshelf at a local school.
Action is now Mr. Obama’s second-term theme, not only action by government but “collective action.” Every citizen has the power to set the country’s course, he stated. The gap between the nation’s ideals and its reality is too great for people not to act.
The president’s call to action reveals the depth of his personal empathy for those who have not yet fully realized “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And as studies show, leaders who display empathy are more effective as leaders. Other research shows that people who witness good deeds – even if only through the news media – are more likely to perform good deeds themselves.
Each new leader builds on this kind of “moral elevation.” Reverend King had a vision of Americans as a “beloved community.” One of his last sermons read, “The question that the lord of the universe is asking now, and will ask forever, is what did you do for others.”
Lincoln sought to unify a nation torn apart over slavery by appealing to the “better angels of our nature.” He achieved it.
Obama’s vision lies in the nation acting “now” on its founding creed of rights for all. His compassion is as evident as his impatience for results. Or as American essayist Susan Sontag wrote: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”
To whom will Obama’s message most appeal? Perhaps most of all it is to that generation which is the most service- minded since World War II – the so-called Millennials, born between 1981 and 2002.
By next year, this group of 92 million will represent half of the workforce. They were raised on doing public service. They buy fair-trade goods, ride bikes to work, join Teach for America, or help out after a big storm. More than a quarter of college students regularly volunteered in 2010. This “civic generation” is happiest in their jobs when they participate in workplace volunteer activities, one study finds.
The emergence of Millennials in society may help explain why volunteering reached a five-year high in 2011. More than one in four adults volunteered through a formal organization while 2 out of 3 did favors for neighbors.
Yet they also see personal acts of caring as not dependent on institutions, such as government or organized religion. (Only 19 percent of businesses provide paid time off for volunteering.)
The Millennials are also marked by another big qualifier. They are more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people. A third of them are “nones,” or none of the above on questions of religious association.
This does not mean they are all secularists. In fact, if the service-mindedness of the nones can be explained, it lies in the fact that more than two-thirds believe in God or a higher power. And 41 percent say they pray.
As a Pew study of the “nones” states, “not belonging does not necessarily mean not believing.” They are as unwilling to embrace atheism as they are a local church.
If Obama is to tap this generation for action, he must appeal to their beliefs in a love higher than themselves and one that is expressed more heart to heart than through organizations.
A 2009 survey of adults by the University of Akron found people who most often reported feeling God’s love were more than twice as likely as the average American to give time to those in need more than once a week. Or, as philosopher Roy Brand writes in a new book, “LoveKnowledge”: “Love is not something to know, but something to live by and act. Love demands love, not knowledge, as a response. It cannot be explained, only performed.”
The American concept of rights is really only one step in humanity’s long journey to show that kindness and caring come not from genes but is a way to overcome the notion that genes determine behavior. To fulfill such an ideal is first of all an act of understanding this universal love, then acting to see it fulfilled in one another’s good.
This is the highest ideal to achieve a nation’s unity. Or as Obama said in his address: “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
He stated that soon after lifting his left hand from the personal Bibles of two leaders who also inspired others to act.