President Obama on Values

I saw a link to this article and had to comment. It quotes President Obama like this:

Falsani: Do you believe in sin?
Obama: Yes.
Falsani: What is sin?
Obama: Being out of alignment with my values.

The author goes on to say: “Have you ever found a pithier summary of the narcissistic core of today’s “progressive” Left-liberal ideology?  I’m not sure I have.”

Okay, I have to say, this quote from President Obama needs more context before I’m willing to judge it. Did he mean that the very concept of sin is based on his values, as the author seems to read him? Or was he saying something a bit more innocuous: that sin is when you do something inconsistent with your own values and beliefs?

This is a verbal exchange, so analyzing the words and grammar to death will not do. When you a speaking, you use the words that come to mind to express the unspoken thought. What matters is what was intended and nothing else. I do not know what the intent was, but I’m prepared to not assume the worst.

55 thoughts on “President Obama on Values

  1. If we take him literally he is equating sin to dissonance. This is a reasonable definition. Is it possible to sin without dissonance?

  2. Kimball’s taking an unfortunate cheap shot that creates a distraction from the more interesting question:

    Does the president believe in the concept of absolutete morality? Because on the sound byte presented here, you can’t even portray Stalin or Pol Pot’s massacres as “sinful” so long as the individuals involved were acting in accordance with their own personal “values”.

  3. That article is sleazy. “My values” for a person of faith means the guidelines set out by God. Stop feeding trolls.

  4. There is something intellectually dishonest about this post without the complete interview so we can see the context for what the president apparently said.

  5. Here is the complete interview:

    The context is meaningless because it is part of a long interview on faith and the interviewer does not follow up the issue of sin but moves on to the next question without thinking, “hey, that’s a weird definition of sin” and following up. It would have been a better interview if the interviewer had probed deeper to see what Obama really meant about this.

    If you want to give Obama some slack, you can say that Obama gave a quick answer without really thinking about it. Or you can say he hasn’t really thought about what sin is very deeply and this doesn’t reflect his true feelings.

    Obviously, it is very problematic to claim that sin is whatever is out of alignment with your personal values.

    By the way, this interview is from 2004, so if liberals want to dismiss this as “old news,” they will have a point.

  6. I would like to add that it is not really cool these days to use a traditional definition of sin and to mention God and his commandments. When people say “we are all sinners” they sound like evangelical preachers (and are therefore “intolerant”). The concept of sin becomes extremely problematic for the progressive religious person like Obama, so his answer, that sin is anything out of alignment with his personal values, is meant to diminish the importance of real sin in theology. This is one of the reasons I wish the interviewer had spent some more time probing on this issue.

  7. Any chance that y’all could show some respect for the office and refer to him as President Obama?

    I think this is a great definition of sin, because it makes it clear that each of us can only judge for ourselves when we are sinning (unless we happen to have keys that permit judgement of others). Saves a lot of grief for the people around us.

    I think it is really important, because some of my worse sins have been sins of omission–not following a prompting to call a visitiing teachee that I had already visited, not inviting people over to dinner more, etc. I truly do feel that I will be accountable for not doing those things, even though they may not qualify as “sin” in someone else’s book.

  8. “….is meant to diminish the importance of real sin in theology.”

    Since the interviewer didn’t probe, we don’t know what he meant. Period.

  9. Naismith, we are Obama’s boss because he is a public servant. Any “respect for the office” is misguided, in my opinion. I am sure you chastised all people who said “Bush” instead of “President Bush” in a similar manner.

  10. Personally, I prefer the Jeffersonian concept of the presidency, ie Jefferson thought it was so unimportant that he did not put it on his headstone when he died. We need a modest, caretaker president who follows the Constitution, not an imperial president.

  11. Imperial or not, it is setup where he holds the authority of one of the branches of government, ideally checked and balanced by the other two. While maintaining control over and making higher decisions for the military, he commands my respect as a citizen and as a member on the taxpayer’s payroll, if you will.

  12. JimD,

    Good point!


    I don’t really feel refering to him as “Obama” is necessarily being disrespectful. And we all need to realize that little things like this just aren’t worth fighting over because it borders on a sort of enforcement of etiquette by raising it to the level of morality inappropriately.

    That being said, the advice, “we all need to realize the little things like this just aren’t worth fight over…” applies to me too. Thus…

    That being said, I am a conservative that voted for President Obama and still do not regret my vote.

  13. Well, I would much rather discuss the substance of my comments than your nitpicking.

    But I am not sure if this is true or not. When visiting a new LDS-oriented blog, I notice that those who refer to Elder and President SoandSo seem in general more respectful of church leaders than those who refer to them sinply by a surname.

  14. I think it’s a great definition of sin. While some rightfully point out that it could simply be a facade meant to justify true sin, I think that an honest implementation of this definition is compatible with Mormonism.

    We don’t claim that people who drink coffee are sinning (unless maybe they

  15. On that link, one of the commenters, an anonymous writer wrote “skeptic” “Stupid mutli-culti trash — based on this “analysis”, the Nazis have not sinned since they honestly believed killing all those Jews was the correct thing to do — but not at all the same thing as saying that nobody else should disagree with him.

    It’s like the “you didn’t build that” comment. Clearly in context he meant that you didn’t build it absolutely on your own, but used government-build roads etc.

    The real problem isn’t so much in the substance, but in the rather bone-headed way he says things that can so easily be misinterpreted. I guess that comes from years of having the media treat him like delicate china.”

    There’s something to that.

    Naismith, you can show respect for him by calling him President Obama. Each individual will follow their own conscious, and their constitutionally guaranteed free speech until Obama takes it away.

  16. I call him Obama, precisely because I have no respect for him and consider him a Marxist and not an American President. Why do I want to show respect for someone who I don’t respect and frankly consider a danger to the United States? All I’m doing is following my values, and my Constitutional right of free speech. This so-called out of context quote wouldn’t have the power if he didn’t say and do things that prove his narcissism and self-importance bordering on worship.

  17. I agree with not judging Obama over this, and am open to believing that he didn’t mean it precisely the way it comes across. Nevertheless the fact that he chose these words off the top of his head, rather than “disobeying God’s commandments or God’s will” or some such, I think does indicate something significant.

    Also, I call Romney “Romney” (rather than “Governor Romney”) and called Bush “Bush” when he was prez, and I’m a registered Republican. So don’t read too much into the “Obama” thing. Especially in a comment thread! : )

  18. Obama is a Moral Relativist, just like Paul, Jesus, Moses, and all the Biblical authors, who gave different moral codes for different times and different peoples.

    “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” James 4:17

    If someone does not know something is evil, they cannot sin. Sin comes from the law. When there is no law given, there is no sin. You cannot judge a man who does not have the law the same way you judge someone who does have the law. Unto whom much is given, much is required. Unto who little is given, little is required. Every man is given a different degree of light and truth, and according to the degree they have been given, they can sin against it.

    “But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong…let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” Romans 14:5,15

    Paul said that for those who believe eating meat is a sin, it is a sin. For those who believe it is not a sin, then it is not a sin.

    What Obama said was eloquent, true, and perfectly Biblical, even when it is taken grossly out of context as it was.

  19. That’s a weaselly and weak definition of sin, but I don’t see the narcissism in it. Obama wasn’t saying that he go to define sin for the whole world.

  20. Nate,
    the Bible doesn’t teach moral relativism as such, unless you adopt what is IMHO a fairly uselss and extreme definition of moral relativism.
    But in any case, Obama isn’t hinting at moral relativism. He’s hinting at moral subjectivism–that one’s moral code is personally defined.

  21. As someone who believes that there is an objective moral order to the Universe, I reject the notion that we get to make it up as we go along and avoid the consequences.

    It’s perfectly legitimate for President Obama to suggest that for him, sin is doing something that violates his personal values or ethics. Fair enough. But surely you can see the philosophical difficulties arising from the notion of using your own personal values as a benchmark for morality. It puts Mother Theresa and Hitler on the same level. And that is the scary subtext that logically flows from the remarks.

  22. Nate,

    Moral relativism does not to me mean giving different commandments at different times.


    I must have read 6 news stories today that called him “Obama” without the “President” by it in most cases. I do not believe there was an attempt to be disrespectful going on at all in those stories. I’m sorry, but I think you are a) right that it’s nice to add the “President” in front — that is why I did, b) off base that there is a moral duty to do so or that a failure to do so implies disrespect. You will be a very frustrated person with that moral rule that the rest of the world clearly does not agree with you on.

  23. Maybe I am using a different definition of moral relativism than Bruce or Adam G.

    Still, I don’t think Obama believes in what you would call objective morality. Maybe in the case of certain sins, like murder, but there are other controversial moral causes upon which we vehemently disagree. Who is to say who is right, when both make impassioned appeals to the inspired truth of their particular moral perspective?

    You cannot appeal to anything objective. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the modern prophets? These things are only truly objective on a personal level, if one has received a personal revelation from God that they are true. Then who gives you the right to judge others unto whom God has not revealed Himself? Are you on a crusade to establish through force and coercion, your particular moral code on others who don’t share it, and who have just as strong of a moral sense in a different direction?

    Joseph Smith said, “I do wrong, but not the wrongs my enemies accuse me of.” Joseph was a sinner. But it was not his spiritual wivery that was a sin, in spite of an entire civilization that believed in the objective morality of monogamy.

  24. “These things are only truly objective on a personal level”

    Nate, this is where you go astray. If something is by nature objective, then it exists apart from the person doing the cognitive understanding. Something only being “objective on a personal level” is a logical contradiction.

    You are correct in pointing out that there are many controversial moral causes upon which we all vehemently disagree. But that disagreement does not metaphysically contradict the objective moral order. It simply showcases that many are simply ignorant of it.

  25. “Still, I don’t think Obama believes in what you would call objective morality. Maybe in the case of certain sins, like murder, but there are other controversial moral causes upon which we vehemently disagree.”

    Nate, this is exactly where your logic falls down. You should read Bruce’s many posts on morality. Either there is no objective morality (and nothing is bad) or there is some objective morality. You appear to say there is some objective morality. So, if there is objective morality for some sins (like murder), then what is the basis of the objective morality? As theists, we believe it is a moral order that we and God are part of. So, murder cannot be the only sin in this case. There must be other things that are sins, such as adultery, covetousness, stealing, bearing false witness, etc.

    This is exactly the problem with Obama’s definition, ie, sin is whatever is out of alignment with his values. No, sin is what is out of alignment with objective morality, ie, the moral values of the universe that God has asked us to obey as part of the revelation of the commandments. If sin is whatever is out of alignment with Obama’s values, it means that objective morality changes from person to person and a sin is whatever Obama decides it is or whatever Hitler decides it is, etc. Then morality is completely subjective and therefore meaningless.

  26. “Then morality is completely subjective and therefore meaningless.”

    I would even add, not only is it completely subjective and meaningless, but the meaninglessness of it contributes to the kind of sadistic, warped thinking that gassed six million Jews, not say nothing of the millions eliminated under Stalin.

    Hyperbole, you counter? How dare we suggest that Obama’s logic is the logic of brutal genocidal maniacs?

    If you drill down the issue to its logical ends, that is exactly where it takes you. Ideology matters. It matters a great deal. The consequences can be cosmic in scope.

    Now, I will be generous and assume that President Obama was simply spouting the otiose platitudes that he usually deigns to parcel out to the masses. This wasn’t a real interview anyway.

  27. Might I add, the fact that one’s subscription to moral objectivity makes it very easy to (presumably) classify something as sin or not–and the fact that moral subjectivity seems squishy–does not mean that one is a viable framework and the other is not.

  28. Trevor, until you can make the case that a belief in an absence of an objective moral order won’t lead to the kinds of horrors we have seen on planet earth, then I think your calling it into question is rather suspect.

    An objective moral order does indeed make it easy to classify something as “sin”; this ease of classification might have been useful in 1930s Germany, as just one obvious example.

    Unfortunately, Trevor, this is a scenario where this is no squishy nuance. Either you believe in an objective moral order or you do not. No halfway pregnancies here.

  29. Presupposing that one isn’t a psychopath (e.g. Hitler, Stalin), is there really genuine concern that one’s moral framework, arrived at sincerely and honestly, will lead to mass murder and genocide?

    I can’t make the case that evolving social norms won’t eventually lead to the celebration of widespread public castrations, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to uphold the polar opposite and say we should lock into our current M.O. forever.

  30. Trevor, it doesn’t have to lead to mass murder or genocide. (It has in the past).

    Perhaps it just leads one to commit the kinds of soft fascism that we see all around us. Perhaps it leads one to believe that it’s ok to sleep with other men’s wives.

    Perhaps it leads one to believe that it’s ok to take money from another person and put it into one’s own pocket.

    Perhaps it leads one to get involved in politics so that they can exercise real power to enforce their value system.

    Perhaps it leads one to believe that all churches *must* sacralize gay marriage ordinances.

    As you can see, the ills are legion.

  31. Perhaps it is the concept of morality that is hanging us up. Let’s change the argument of “what is sin” to anything that is contrary to the commandments of God. We can clearly see from the scriptures that God’s commandments vary widely depending on the time and place of it’s dispensation. Can we at least agree that if someone has not been given a commandment, or that he lacks the “degree of light and knowledge” of a particular subject, that he cannot sin? Do we hold Obama accountable to all the peculiarities of LDS commandments? No, of course not. We hold him accountable for those things according to the light and knowledge he has received from the Light of Christ within him, exactly as he said: the values he holds, which are obviously those the Light of Christ has given to him personally.

    I have read Bruce’s posts on morality with interest, and I do believe there is something universal about the nature of morality. But in the particulars of how that morality is manifest, things vary widely. We have the clear example of Joseph Smith and D&C 132, which explains that whatever God commands, is right, whether “thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt not utterly destroy.” Human beings may have some kind of natural repulsion to murder, but in the scriptures, God often asks man to override that natural repulsion. You use the examples of Hitler and Stalin, who killed masses for personal power, but you don’t use Moses and Joshua, who killed masses because of the commandment of God.

    Perhaps we could say that the principle of objective morality exists in the abstract. Every culture has different sexual taboos, and God gives different commandments on sexual unions depending on time and place. The essential thing is that there is a taboo. Sexuality must be controlled in some way. That is a moral constant: Man is not an animal like a dog, to do it everywhere on everyone. But it’s particulars change according to custom and commandment.

    However most of us try to crusade for our particular construct of what morality is, instead of trying to understand the abstract universal that allows for various manifestations. I do not believe in crusades. I believe in preaching what you believe, and letting God prick them in the heart, if it so be that God wishes to speak to them, or if he wishes to “blind their eyes and shut their ears” or speak in riddles or parables to protect them from greater light and knowledge.

  32. Michael Towns,
    In this quote “until you can make the case that a belief in an absence of an objective moral order won’t lead to the kinds of horrors we have seen on planet earth,” you are asking Nate to prove a hypothetical, which is impossible. Ask him to demonstrate that only 42 angels can dance on the head of the pin while you are at it. You are also asking him to prove a negative while you are at it. I think this post and the thread following it are all somewhat silly, but on that particular argument I say to you, sir, Shenanigans!

  33. Silly questions? The whole point of religion is based on objective moral relationship to God, even if interpretations can be subjective. That is why I find spiritual but not religious to be “silly” because the concept of spirituality comes from organized religion. Add to that a religious person believes in holy books and stories. Those have moral lessons and statements that are meant to influence personal values. Obama’s statement does not acknowledge where his values come from, only that he has them. Worse, that sin is defined by him alone. For religious people that is blaspheme.

  34. Worse, that sin is defined by him alone. For religious people that is blaspheme.

    It has been the world’s sad experience that self-professed religious people are often out of step with the will of God. So much so that I would prefer to give the President of the United States the Christian benefit of the doubt rather than run the risk of condemning him unrighteously.

  35. What does my opinion of it have to do with anything? I’m not offering interpretations of Obama’s comment. Sure, religions generally define sin, but I’m happy to admit definitions that don’t explicitly come from religion. I can certainly see not being true to thine own self as being a type of sin. I have an optimistic view of humanity, though, so I don’t really see folks as inherently evil or some such.

    I think some of ya’ll are going out of your way to come up with ill-intent on Obama’s part in a pretty innocuous conversation. This thread is it’s own form of gaffe-mongering. As Bruce notes, this was an off-the-cuff statement that the interviewer didn’t pursue, so any interpretation we give to it comes from what we read into it, not from some authorial intent that we can’t know. So, those inclined to distrust and dislike Obama see narcissism and those not so inclined don’t. That’s all there is to this.


  36. Like I said, in isolation I agree this Sin quote isn’t much to point to. But, he has said and done things in the past that I can’t agree the criticisms are without merit.

  37. I have a few President Hinckley remarks from various interviews to recommend to those who think media interviews are an optimal place for determining theological nuances.

    Jettboy says:

    I call him Obama, precisely because I have no respect for him and consider him a Marxist and not an American President.

    Are you saying you don’t consider him an American president in the absolute sense, or in a sense of it being your own personal opinion? (edited)

  38. Obviously as my opinion. The same opinion, I might add, as the left had for Bush. Thst said, my opinion includes the absolute sense, but what am I to do? Doesn’t make any difference as he is the man in power.

  39. I’ve never seen “the left” claim that GWB was not “an American President.” I saw a few slogans that said “not my president,” mainly on the backpacks or laptops of undergraduate punks. They aren’t “the left,” of course, nor did they question whether GWB was the “American President.”


  40. Not my “Birtherism,” but my Americanism, Capitalism, Constitutionalism, and my anti-King-ship-ism is showing. Obama is a Marxist Dictator wanna-be and not an American President.

  41. Bhodges and John C, could I please ask you to take this to some private e-mail discussion or someplace else? We’re really not interested in personal attacks on other commenters here. It is getting tiresome editing your comments, and the next step is a complete ban. Thanks.

  42. “Universal law is the law of nature. For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.” — Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.13.1373b5. The Works of Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).

  43. Michael,
    Are you saying that we should only obey universal laws (insofar as we understand them)? I don’t understand the intent behind your quote.

  44. John C.,

    Anytime the word “only” is used, it’s usually a prescription for misunderstanding. I don’t think it’s vital that we “only” obey universal laws. I think that not doing 60 in a residential is prudent.

  45. Fair enough. You are saying that there are universal laws that everyone should obey. And you are saying that they are distinguishable from more temporal laws (bound by time and place (like speed limits in residential areas)). Do you see these in a hierarchy? Like does the universality of universal laws make them more important, never to be superseded by temporal laws? Or do you think that God is the source of the universal and man of the temporal and place them in a hierarchy that way?

    I personally find the manner and means that we use to make these kinds of decisions interesting (of course, I used to teach an ethics class regularly, so I would).

  46. Nate,

    Sorry I didn’t get back sooner.

    I actually think I see your point. And, as I stated in the post, I’m prepared to not assume the worst about Obama’s comment. Refering to sin as being out of alignment with one’s values might well have been a way (perhaps poorly worded) of allowing for all religions to have differing practices and values and therefore differing (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) concepts of sin. The example of the Word of Wisdom is a good one.

    John C,

    What did you find silly about the post? I thought I was on your side on this one.

  47. John C,

    I am no philosopher, but I spend most of my spare time reading. I would hesitate to answer because honestly I don’t think I have fully developed my thinking on the matter. Still learning. Keeping an open mind.

    Here is a partial answer: I think that there are some universal laws (“higher laws”) that trump temporal statutes in an absolute sense. However, that doesn’t justify breaking the temporal law. We all get sent to jail for claiming higher laws. Caesar rules on earth.

  48. Unless there’s background to it, it’s impossible to say what O implied.

    One: We have too many preachers preaching about sin by way of telling others to “do like I do”. Thus, tongue-in-cheek response to what is sin.

    Two: We are judged according to what we are given. Thus, God knows our hearts and can judge when we were doing things that we actually knew were wrong.

    Three: The narcissistic power-tripper as implied in the article.

    Four: The (God forbid!) Moral Relativist.

    Really? Which is the most obvious one? There are a few more that I could think off the cuff. Context is everything. Often the shorter the sound bite, the more it is take out of context. I don’t know that this is so here.

    I believe in practical Christianity, and not the “preachy” one. Esp. American Evangelicals have been good at producing Televangelists who preach Hell, fire and brimstone and are obsessed with sexual morality; only to be caught with a prostitute in a cheap motel.

    What you have in mind is what you talk about.

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