The Limits of Political Morality

By Vincent LloydFebruary 10, 2019

The Limits of Political Morality

Kennedy and King by Steven Levingston

THERE IS MUCH TALK of Donald Trump blending the roles of celebrity mogul and politician, but we should not forget that Barack Obama, too, scrambled our expectations for the professional politician. He was both moral leader, in the tradition of Civil Rights movement activists, and calculating politician, with a background as a deal-making state legislator and US senator. This was his promise as well as the reason he frustrated and disappointed those on both the left and right: Obama alternated between playing the moral leader, soaring in the rhetorical clouds, and playing the calculating politician, cautiously pushing incremental change. He was not able to play both at the same time, making the moralizing ring hollow and the political calculation seem over-thought. Obama had promised to redefine excellence at the presidency, yet in his wake Democrats faced the choice between wholly calculating (Hillary Clinton) and wholly moralizing (Bernie Sanders).

In a sense, Obama aspired to be both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Each achieved excellence in a different role within democratic political life: Kennedy in electoral politics, King as a leader in civil society. Excellence at these roles required excellence at different everyday practices, from managing a bureaucracy and a legislature (for Kennedy), to engaging staid religious communities and excitable youth (for King). But Obama’s aspiration was plausible because there was a good deal of overlap between the practices at which Kennedy and King showed excellence. Their oratory could soar, they could listen and learn, they attended to the opinions of multiple publics, and they each balanced principled commitments with tactical calculations.

For Steven Levingston in Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights, Kennedy and King eventually share in excellence derived from the right mix of warm morality and cool political calculus. On Levingston’s telling, it is King who has the recipe correct from the time he enters public life. Kennedy, in contrast, begins as a cold political operator, like his father, with only flashes of moral insight and feeling. The whip-smart young man comes to realize that his life is incoherent, that he must find a way to blend the moral and the political. He failed to fully condemn the communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, privileging the political capital gained by a family friendship over the wrongness of McCarthy’s actions. Kennedy intellectually recognizes that he erred, and he responds by frantically studying up on courageous men in American politics, resulting in his book Profiles in Courage.

At that point, as the junior senator from Massachusetts in 1957, Kennedy had ideas about courage, he knew it was desirable, but he did not yet possess it. His actions in political life were still guided by political calculation and personal ambition, both of these bestowed on him by his father, Joseph. On Levingston’s account, it was the birth of his first child, Caroline, later that year, that opened up his heart. Four years later, Joseph Kennedy’s stroke both lifted the weight of paternal authority from then-President Kennedy and further loosed his emotions as he helped care for his incapacitated father. The death of the president’s third child, Patrick, two days after his birth, brought tremendous sadness to the Kennedy family, and resulted in a new emotional intimacy between the president and his wife.

With his heart steadily opening, and with his head commanding courage, Kennedy was primed to become a moral leader. The central claim of Levingston’s book is that Martin Luther King Jr. provided an occasion for Kennedy, in his final months of life, to achieve excellence by fully integrating the moral and the political. Throughout their careers in public life, King directly and indirectly pushed Kennedy to frame civil rights as a moral rather than a political issue. Kennedy hesitated. He thought he needed Southern support to win the presidency. He was intimidated by the Southern lions of the Senate. His attention was focused on the Cold War. But as Kennedy’s personal life changed, and his emotions loosed, and as King staged civil rights demonstrations that hit home the immorality of segregation, the president eventually realized that courage was called for. Five months before he was assassinated, in a televised address from the Oval Office, he finally framed civil rights as a moral issue, and announced that he would support a package of legislation aimed at ending segregation.

Levingston tells the story of Kennedy’s moral and political evolution in parallel with the story of King’s resoluteness. Through the highs and lows of the movement, from the victory in Montgomery to what was effectively defeat in Albany, from what seemed likely to be another defeat in Birmingham to miraculous victory achieved by risking the lives of children on the front lines of the protest, King held firm to his belief that segregation was utterly immoral, and used his political skills to mobilize a community and a nation to end the practice. No matter how threatening or cruel or violent his opponents became, King maintained his commitment to achieving moral ends through peaceful means. His world and Kennedy’s were too distant for the two men to build a rapport with each other, but King’s courage was recognizable to Kennedy, who eventually realized that he should respond with courage of his own.

This is the history of Great Men: the triumphal history of victors. It is also the history of two very naughty men, though Levingston only occasionally alludes to the two men’s personal vices. It is certainly odd, given present sensibilities, to portray two notorious philanderers as moral exemplars without even grappling with their vices. Even saints have their vices; hagiography portrays saintliness by naming rather than concealing vice. Kennedy and King reduces morality to obvious indignity, emotion to family life, and everything else to politics. In the end, everything is politics: the emotional lessons of family life allow for morality to integrate with political calculation, resulting in political excellence. Climax: Kennedy, the Great Man. And his sidekick King, the Magical Negro, a supporting character with special moral insight that allows our white hero to triumph.

Politics is sports. Even when we know we are watching winners, hearing the details of each play titillates. Will they fumble? Will there be a surprise block, a Hail Mary throw, a miraculous catch? Will Kennedy recover from the Bay of Pigs? Will he order troops into Birmingham? Will King’s letter smuggled out of a jail cell convince moderate clergy to support civil rights? Will Kennedy be threatened by the March on Washington, or will he watch it with pride?

Such moments of suspense have entertainment value, but they mystify the actual workings of American politics. Excellence at politics — electoral or movement — requires excellence at a set of mundane practices, just as for the athlete. The sit-ups and running drills and accounting maneuvers and magazine interviews and all the rest make possible the clutch performance at game time or, mutatis mutandis, in political crisis. There is no problem with concealing the mundane practices and relishing the emotional highs and lows of game time — when the purpose is entertainment. When morality enters the picture, however, the stakes are higher. And if we believe politics ought to have some relationship to justice, morality always enters the picture.

Levingston names the goal to which King is committed, and which Kennedy eventually embraces, “black justice.” This locution feels out of place in a book whose style is largely that of a bygone era when the liberal, Coastal consensus (of white men) was fully self-confident. That was an era, ending just a few years ago, when in the popular discourse African Americans were one color in the national rainbow of ethnicities, and sexual harassment was receding into history, along with socialism and populism. That was an era when law and politics fixed problems, an era of pragmatism. When law worked properly, justice was achieved.

Now morality is back. As a public discourse, robust moral vocabulary had pushed to, and passed, its limits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we spent 40 years in the amoral, pragmatic desert. Even Carter translated his moralizing instincts into the legalistic language of “human rights.” Today, movements claiming the mantle of justice abound: against anti-black racism, against mass incarceration and the indignities of imprisonment, against patriarchy and sexual violence, against economic inequality, in favor of the dignity of work. Levingston is right to talk about black justice: for King and Kennedy at their best, as for millennials today, politics and law are a means to achieve justice, and blackness names a distinctive American ailment concealed by the ideology of liberal (or neoliberal) multiculturalism.

But black justice today does not mean the same thing it did for King and Kennedy. Both were excellent players in their respective games, Great Men, if you will. Both imagined justice could be achieved by excellence in these games: they played to win. In doing so, they themselves bought into the sports analogy. If only they practiced hard, acquired all the necessary skills, continually adjusted their game, and performed at their peak, they could achieve victory — that is, justice.

In contrast, in the moral language of the present, justice names what is achieved when systems of domination are defeated: anti-black racism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, the carceral state, perhaps even capitalism. Changing laws or even hearts is important, but insufficient. The agents of change are not players in a game, not charismatic leaders exhibiting their excellences. Rather, the agents of change are those most affected by systems of domination. They are the authorities on justice. When Great Men speak of justice, it rings hollow — and always hints at the vice that those men engage in behind closed doors. In other words, what black justice means today is not found in the perfect synthesis of political calculation and moral commitment. It is found implicit in the struggles of blacks who are poor or queer or women or immigrants or incarcerated to overthrow the systems of domination that deny their dignity.

Levingston cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reflection that the American presidency “is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.” What if Levingston’s narrative were not about Kennedy learning to become a great president from King, but about King learning how to be a great civil rights leader from Kennedy, and from the paradigm of the moralizing presidency?

In that alternative narrative, King would have begun his career with the rich, textured moral vocabulary of the black community that he inherited from his family. As he saw the workings of cold, calculating reason in the white world during his studies in the North, and as he was increasingly exposed to white supporters and media, King’s instincts to follow the moral lead of the most marginalized would gradually be suppressed. Where he once dismissed pragmatism as “survival of the slickest,” he would come to see himself charged with making pragmatic choices on behalf of all black Americans. If not “De Lawd,” as some young black activists pejoratively labeled him, King was fashioning himself, intentionally or not, into the moralizing president of black America. As King’s political calculations increased, his moral vocabulary thinned. He maintained the wrongness of segregation, as well as economic inequality and militarism, but he did so in a language that spoke increasingly to liberal elites rather than poor blacks. He was now an activist rather than an organizer, providing leadership rather than resourcing those at the margins to allow them to take leadership themselves.

In short, if Kennedy and King were King and Kennedy, it would be tragedy rather than triumph. Moralizing politics may once have seemed praiseworthy, but today we see the futility of playing by the rules of the game. The true experts in morality are excluded from the game, and for them, for those who live under domination, politics means interrupting the games of the privileged in order to survive. No justice, no peace.


Vincent Lloyd is the author of several books on religion, race, and politics including In Defense of Charisma and Black Natural Law. He teaches at Villanova University.

LARB Contributor

Vincent Lloyd is associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at Villanova University. He co-edits the journal Political Theology and directs the Villanova Political Theology Project. Lloyd’s books include In Defense of Charisma (Columbia, 2018), Black Natural Law (Oxford, 2016), and Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics (Orbis, 2017), co-edited with Andrew Prevot.


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