Bending the Arc to Justice

May 10th, 2017

Throughout his career, President Obama has employed, with great rhetorical effect, a phrase often attributed to MLK: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” On Sunday, while accepting the JFK Profiles in Courage aware, he tweaked it a bit, adding “It bends because we bend it. Because we put our hand on that arc & we move it in the direction of justice.”  For three reasons, I am not keen on this bromide.

First, the quotation is plucked entirely out of context. King did not come up with the expression, but instead quoted the 19th century clergyman and abolitionist Theodore Parker, in the February 8, 1958 edition of The Gospel Messenger (p. 14).

For both King and Parker, the quotation has a distinctly religious context. Michael Wear, who directed faith-based outreach for the Obama administration, explains:

 “It’s very clear that, apart from Jesus Christ, the idea of a moral arc of the universe was inconceivable to King. It only made sense within the context of a declarative faith statement.”

Matt Lewis added:

In this context, it is clear that bad people often prevail in this carnal world where Caesar still rules. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in political activism, but it does mean that we shouldn’t assume some sort of magical force is inexorably leading us to some utopian progressive or liberal end of history.

Which leads me to my second objection. As it is used today, the phrase “justice” is synonymous with political liberalism. That is, all policies that serve progressive goals are just, and those that oppose progressive goals are unjust.  But what is justice? For that matter, what is liberty? Abraham Lincoln offered these wise words in 1864:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.

Liberty is not self-defining. Nor is Justice. Do not presume that the end-game of our universe comports with your pre-conceived notions of morality. Such is the ultimate fatal conceit.

Finally, while on its face, the phrase is quite aspirational, as applied to modern-day political movements, it is quite divisive: those opposed to “justice” (as the speaker defines it) will be left behind by history. For example, Ohio governor John Kasich, who supported expanding Medicaid in his state, famously told an opponent, “When you die and get to the meeting with Saint Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.” This mode of argumentation is not much different than the Puritanical message: follow us or you will go to hell. Or, in the more modern sense, you’re either with us or against us. I would never presume that there is only one correct answer to every policy debate, but the arc of the universe question presumes exactly that. By itself, the phrase is conclusory, and uprightly dismisses arguments to the contrary.

Many progressive goals are laudable as a policy matter, but the conscriptions on seeking those goals that are imposed by the rule of law and a written Constitution are important as well. Justice, justice, we shall pursue.