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In our opinion: Moral leadership: The role of moral teaching in a democracy

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 8:46 p.m. MDT

 (Associated Press) (Associated Press)

In the wake of Britain's recent and unprecedented rioting, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke forcefully about the need to stem society's moral decline.

Many welcomed Cameron's bracing moral critique. Indeed, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, provided a forceful amendment to Cameron in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that lamented the dire consequences from believing that there is "social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement."

But some have berated Cameron for "simplistic and divisive moralizing." Such was the formal editorial response from the New York Times, which implied that Britain's austere fiscal policies and class divisions were the root cause of the looting.

Clearly, simplistic moralizing never did much good. But simple and direct moral teaching that inspires lasting improvement in attitudes and behavior is absolutely critical in a democracy where liberties depend upon the corresponding responsibility of citizens to honor law and the dignity of other citizens.

Exactly 48 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shared with the nation a powerful moral vision. During a time when society legally and socially divided people on the basis of race, King eloquently invoked the universal moral ideals found within our nation's charter documents and asked for their full application to people of color.

This week the nation honors Dr. King through the dedication of a memorial to his legacy on the National Mall.

King's thinking was rich and profound. But the expression of his thought was unforgettably direct, clear and simple. Few orators have been so gifted at painting an image ("out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope"), turning a phrase ("meeting physical force with soul force") or creating a vision ("one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood").

And his visionary expressions of justice, equality and nonviolence were always rooted in a deep Christian morality that understood the gravity and urgency of one's moral choices, the dignity and worth of all God's children and the imperative for forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is altogether fitting that King's moral leadership, which helped harmonize the attitudes of a nation with its ideals, should be memorialized on our National Mall. And it is appropriate that it be placed directly in sight of memorials to other great leaders like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Of course these men were not perfect, but each used eloquent, simple and powerful moral suasion in their public rhetoric to encourage the "better angels of our nature."

There is some irony in the difference between what contemporaneous critique latches onto and what the sieve of history captures as ultimately enduring. The National Mall is now graced with memorials to leaders who were controversial in their day but honored now in stone because of their lasting moral vision.

The difference between simplistic moralizing and lasting eloquent moral teaching is a fine one borne out over time in how closely action matches words. But given the moral fabric that is required for self-governance, clear moral instruction and encouragement from trusted voices should be welcomed rather than resisted.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company