America’s Moral Identity

 In his speech on March 28 at the National Defense University defending his decisions to use American military force to intervene in Libya, President Obama said:

"To brush aside America's responsibility ....... to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

I am not interested in debating this issue of America's responsibility to circumvent such atrocities in every time and place nor will I talk about times when we have turned a blind eye to atrocities in the past.  What I am interested in is Obama's moral justification for intervening in Libya to avoid what could have been a bloody massacre of innocents:  It is just who we are.  It is what we do. 

It turns out that this very justification is what often motivates us to moral action.  It is called moral identity.  Moral identity is the binding of the self to a set of principles.  It is the commitment to those principles that results in moral action.  Psychologists have discovered that those who have a strong moral identity, and have made a public commitment to that identity, are more likely to act in a moral fashion.  (For a more complete discussion see Schlenker, B. R., Miller, M. L., & Johnson, R. M. (2009). Moral identity, integrity, and personal responsibility. In D. Narváez & D. K. Lapsley (Eds.), Personality, Identity, and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.)

Moral identity has been used by the faithful not only to motivate ourselves to moral action, but to motivate God to act morally and to intervene on our behalf.  When God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, Abraham confronts God with God's own moral identity and says to God: "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (vs. 23-25)  The Psalms are replete with prayers that appeal to God as "merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."

As Christians we claim our identity is bound up with the crucified one, who gave his life as a ransom for many.  We look to Christ both as a model for moral action and as a teacher of those principles that identify us.  While each individual may articulate these principles differently, the guiding principle is love.  Our commitment to love also comes from our identity as "beloved of God."  John says it best:  "We love because God first loved us."  (1 John 4:19) 

A national moral identity is a lot more complicated than an individual moral identity. There are a lot of competing principles involved in military action, even if it is used to prevent a massacre of innocent people.  Other innocents may die in the process.  We may be dragged into a prolonged civil war.   However, by appealing to our moral identity as a nation, Obama gives us a meaningful justification for action in Libya and moves us toward assenting to his decision to intervene as the right thing to do.