OPINION: Making the case for moral leadership and changing our politics

Robert Franklin is the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University.

Credit: Courtesy Candler School of Theology

Credit: Courtesy Candler School of Theology

There’s no question we Americans are in trouble, so divided we can’t see straight.

We can’t see the efficacy of wearing a mask in our fight against COVID-19. We refuse to see the impact of climate change on our environment. We can’t even agree that the Black Lives Matter movement has nothing to do with dishonoring the flag and everything to do with saving lives.

A good many of you have heaped a lot of blame my way for daring to even point out societal ills, especially racism. Like a disgruntled spouse who resorts to absolute terms like “never” and “always” during a disagreement, you say that’s all I do.

It’s not all I do but I do see it as one of the most important aspects of what I do, always with the hope that you’ll take another look and perhaps respond to the call to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Given all the partisan bickering, I’ve never felt more strongly about this, never before longed for the kind of leadership the late John Lewis embodied, someone who, with love, might steer us through the maze, who will say what they mean and mean what they say.

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I tuned in recently to the first installment of “Talking Politics During Turbulent Times,” a weeklong online conference sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary and Emory University’s James T. and Berta Laney Moral Leadership Program, and I think I found my answer — at least for the short term.

In a 20-minute lecture titled “Moral Leadership During Turbulent Times,” Robert Franklin, an ordained minister and professor of moral leadership at Emory University, suggested that whenever America has faced crisis and unsettling conditions, moral leaders have emerged to guide us forward by encouraging the “better angels of our natures.”

“Moral leaders serve the common good, and they invite us to become a better version of ourselves,” he said. “At a time of great uncertainty, volatility and high anxiety about our health, safety, elections, and jobs, we need moral leaders like John Lewis who can inspire us.”

Franklin also happened to be one of seven candidates vying for the chance to fill Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat left vacant by Lewis' death in July.

He faced former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, Lewis' 2020 primary opponent Barrington Martin, retiring state Rep. Mable Thomas, former state Rep. Keisha Waites, Georgia minister Steven Muhammad and customer service representative Chase Oliver in a special election on Sept. 29. Hall and Franklin, the top two vote-getters, are headed for a Dec. 1 runoff.

I don’t live in Lewis' old district, and this is not an endorsement of Franklin’s candidacy. The voters of the 5th Congressional District, who chose to elect Lewis 17 times, have proved they are more than capable of making a great choice.

What Franklin, author of “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination,” is proposing is less about whether he’s the best candidate in this race, but more about how our politics at every level is in desperate need of empathy, a reliance on facts, sustained efforts to build community bonds and moral clarity.

Before the start of the conference, I asked him why a former Morehouse College president and distinguished academic would want to run for office for the first time at age 66.

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Franklin told me he made the decision soon after leaving Lewis’ funeral and talking and praying with his own wife.

He said he first wants to make the point that budgets are moral documents that express our highest priorities and values. His second task would be to hold the Trump administration accountable for incompetence in managing our COVID-19 response, and various instances of ethical misconduct. And third, address the ongoing national crisis that continues to claim lives.

“We’ve lost over 200,000 lives,” Franklin said. “We need to pause and absorb that loss and grieve for our fellow citizens. I think a moral leader would call the Congress to hit the pause button and appreciate what is happening to us. Let’s not just pretend these families are moving along with business as usual.”

Franklin believes, too, that he could play a role in helping heal our nation’s racial divide and call together people in this district to create a commission to explore ways to respond to John Lewis’ call to unite and redeem the soul of the 5th Congressional District, and America.

In a moment of nostalgia, Franklin reminded me that when our republic began, the early founders stressed the importance of virtue in public leaders.

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For instance, he said, when the nation was at war, Abraham Lincoln provided a powerful diagnosis of our national condition as “a house divided against itself.”

“That is an apt diagnosis for our current moment,” Franklin said. “19th-century America had Lincoln to help heal our national wounds and call us together. Now we have a ‘divider in chief,’ so we are losing the American habit and opportunity of calling forth the wisdom and strength of the people united.”

Franklin said John Lewis saw our possibility to stretch just in the distance and he inspired us to do that.

“That’s how I interpreted his words in The New York Times printed after his death,” he said. “Together you can redeem the soul of America. That’s what really called me forth to offer leadership in extending John Lewis' moral leadership agenda.”

That’s why Franklin’s message is so important. He’s in this race because he wants to provide the mature pastoral leadership that can move from policy to the more philosophical ethical themes Lewis felt were important — being honest, having the will to develop new allies, and getting in some good trouble. Perhaps just as important for Franklin would be influencing other elected leaders to abide by those standards.

He’s not angling for a political future, he told me. He simply wants to be the bridge between his friend Lewis and hopefully Nikema Williams, the Georgia Democratic Party chairwoman handpicked to run for the next full, two-year term in the Nov. 3 general election.

“I’m really responding to this moment to extend John Lewis' legacy,” he said.

Before you vote this election season, what we expect from our leaders ought to be top of mind. We pay them and should receive a return on that investment. Instead of fear, polarization and confusion, they owe us hope, unity and solutions.

Even if he is not elected, Franklin told me that will be his goal. I believe him.

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MORE ONLINE

“Talking Politics During Turbulent Times”

Now through Oct. 9 on Zoom. To tune in, register here: Center for Lifelong Learning (app.certain.com/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x3211590abcd), or log on to the Candler School of Theology’s Facebook page to watch live.

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