President Obama’s farewell address from Chicago on Tuesday night will be studied by historians and political commentators for years to come. While most are not likely to use a religious lens to understand the text, Obama punctuated a presidency that often drew on the language of faith to bring Americans together with one last appeal to the common good. He offered nothing less than a robust defense of the communitarian values that have long been central to Catholic social thought.
Early in the speech, Obama underscored what he called “the imperative to strive together…to achieve a common good.” A centerpiece of Catholic teaching for centuries, the idea of a common good—detailed most specifically in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor, Rerum novarum—stands in stark contrast to the cultural and political headwinds now swirling around us. Individualism has long been a quintessentially American creed, of course, but an extreme go-it-alone libertarianism that puts blind faith in markets, demonizes government safety nets for the poor, and enshrines all matters of personal identity and choice as sacrosanct increasingly leaves us ill-equipped to appreciate how, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described it, we are all entwined in “a single garment of destiny.”
The infatuation with individual rights and personal autonomy finds a distinctive challenge and powerful corrective in the Catholic emphasis on community and solidarity. Rights have a place in Catholic thought, but never are severed from responsibilities. The president’s insistence that democracy requires a “basic sense of solidarity” and that its health depends on whether we participate as active citizens are two of the bedrock themes of Catholic social teaching.
Given the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ frequent tussles with the Obama administration over contraception funding in health care and LGBT rights, it’s easy to forget that a few decades ago they partially funded Obama's work as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side through its flagship anti-poverty campaign. But Obama clearly drew on such experiences when he told a crowd filled with thousands of young people and former campaign staff that he got his start “not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills.” It was as an organizer, he said, that he learned “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”
When Pope Francis spoke to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia in 2015, his message was similar but even more pointed. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he told a crowd of campesinos, union leaders, and grassroots activists in the poorest country in South America. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.” While Sarah Palin famously mocked Obama’s experience as a community organizer during the 2008 campaign, and conservatives blasted the president’s hope-and-change message, Pope Francis isn’t timid on these subjects. “The globalization of hope,” he reiterated during his speech in Bolivia,” must “replace the globalization of exclusion and indifference”:
Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable…. The earth itself—our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say—also finds it intolerable.
Obama also didn’t hesitate to wade into a bitter fight currently dividing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its more centrist establishment that began after the party bled blue-collar white voters in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Some on the left are calling for Democrats to recommit to reaching disaffected white voters in the Rust Belt through economic populism, many of whom voted for Trump and were critical to his victory. Other party leaders see that as a foolish pursuit given the changing demographics of the United States. Obama rejected such false choices and unwittingly channeled Pope Francis’s consistent appeal for a “culture of encounter.” As Obama put it, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
After rightly insisting that “if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination—in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system,” Obama made an appeal for empathy and encounter. After quoting Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around”—Obama turned to a different audience.
For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.
Radical empathy and encounter, Obama and Pope Francis remind us, are uncomfortable.
We’re now confronted with the grim reality of a new president whose megalomania and contempt for the common good seem to know few limits. “I alone can fix it,” Trump declared imperiously at the Republican National Convention. In Trump’s grand vision, he is the change he believes in. That’s the same fantastical and dangerous delusion that other authoritarians down through the ages have peddled. Obama wasn’t a perfect president, but his commitment to democracy and insistence that “We the People,” not a single individual, can bend the arc of history toward justice will be painfully missed. The good news is no matter how eloquently Obama was able to articulate that vision over the past eight years, the highest ideals in our nation’s founding creeds were there long before another improbable, if quite different, candidate—who soon will be president—burst onto the political scene. Our duty now is to guard them in dark times.