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Barack Obama's $400,000 forbidden fruit and the need for American morality

President Barack Obama bows his head as a prayer is offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
President Barack Obama bows his head as a prayer is offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
Charles Dharapak, AP

Former U.S. President Barack Obama has accepted $400,000 to deliver a speech on Wall Street this September, according to reports.

The move shocked even strident supporters and prompted friendly fire from the liberal-leaning New York Times editorial board.

Yet, as the moralizing crescendos over this post-presidency money-grab (including the Obama’s $65 million book deal, celebrity-saturated vacations and swanky D.C. celebrations) it’s worth remembering that America must also collectively guard against the temptations that come after great achievement or worldly success.

When worthy ambition is consummated and finally fades, only a higher calling can stave off the sinister from seeping in to fill the void.

Will America hear and answer that call?

Individually, we may not experience Obama's level of life-changing wealth or status, but collectively, we live in heady times.

Although many remain on society's margins, and, every-day Americans still struggle, it appears that the nation's upper-middle class is wealthier and larger than ever.

This is relatively new territory.

Our society, after all, was not forged in luxury but in the hard struggle to survive and succeed. Today, however, with endless entertainment, easy credit and a lack of moral leadership from America's most privileged, the nation appears to be succumbing to a seductive kind of solipsism that too often follows great achievement.

During the depression, citizens scrimped; during the war they sacrificed.

They were pilgrims, planters and pioneers; slaves and soldiers; folks of toil and trade. They were mothers, fathers, innovators, founders, farmers and framers. The climb to succeed and the struggle to survive kept their eyes heavenward even as they harvested grace from the ground.

Amidst this fight to survive, however, sacrifice was rarely a choice. In that sense, perhaps the true moral test lies not entirely in the fight for survival, but, counterintuitively, in the battle to choose good when good no longer seems necessary for status or success.

This should be among the animating questions of our time: how do we stay morally tethered in an age of ease after achievement?

A new biography on Obama by Pulitzer-prize winning historian David J. Garrow, “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama,” details how by his mid-20s Obama “already had his sights on becoming president.”

The struggle to achieve, the ascent and the ambition no doubt bred in Obama a righteous strategy of self-sacrifice.

Indeed, as a newly minted Ivy-Leaguer, a young Obama chose to help organize inner-city communities rather than pursue money-minded positions. After graduating near the top of his class at Harvard Law School, he jettisoned the prospect of a lucrative legal practice for a boutique civil rights litigation firm.

By the time he was running for the Illinois state Senate his CV was soaking in service and sacrifice. And when he made the leap from freshman U.S. Senator to would-be democratic nominee for president, his social justice bona fides were unrivaled.

He won the presidency. He even donated his Nobel Peace Prize money to charity.

And, then, he won again.

So, now, with the presidency in his past, what is left to guide a man after he’s reached the zenith of political power and prestige — after he’s accomplished the very ambition he set for himself as an adolescent and which undoubtedly motivated so many of his personal choices?

Similarly, what can sustain American morality after the nation has become the greatest power the world has ever known?

“(If) you read a sacred text and you put it back on the shelf, it’s still making a demand of you,” explains Lord Rabbi Sacks of Great Britain. “It is saying this is a truth to be lived. . . . That is the difference between religion and culture.”

It’s also the difference between the lasting moral demands of God and the effemeral demands needed to reach positions or prestige.

Sacks continues: “Matters of the spirit live on the basis of obligation or ... (divine) command. Unless you hear a command (or) an obligation that comes from beyond you . . . you will not be able to generate sustainable (behavior).”

Obama’s ambition to become president may have driven some of his altruistic actions. That looming, ever-present goal undoubtedly demanded that he act in a way that would help secure him the highest office in the land. But after achieving it, there must be something more to sustain high moral standards or else they may slowly, overtime, break down.

The same is true for our nation. America has achieved its status as the world’s supreme superpower. Now, without a meaningful demand to bridle national appetites, we will be increasingly inclined to escape reality with, among other things, money, entertainment, or, if we can swing it, celebrity-style soirées.

The best antidote to America's hedonism is pro-social religion. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt observed: “For ‘not upon strength nor upon power, but upon the spirit of God’ shall our democracy be founded.”

If we bow to those higher aspirations and obligations, we answer a lasting command that never fades — it’s a command that comes from beyond human institutions and has the power to permanently shape our souls for the better. As we follow it, we answer a call not just from beyond, but, in the words of one religious leader, from above.

Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.