The 2008 election provides a significant occasion to rethink our assumptions about justice and politics—concepts we rarely link together, least of all during presidential campaigns and elections. Justice connotes objectivity, rule of law, rights and rules that guarantee equality and fair play. Politics conjures up partisanship and special interests, shrewd tactics and divisive dogmas; we opt for the language of “public service” to signify the nobler side of political life. The best that politics usually can muster is compromise: a pragmatic sensibility or artful process of overcoming ideological differences for the sake of getting something done.

On Election Day 2008, however, Americans and the world glimpsed a different side of politics. One could sense it in the mood—quite apart from the usual post-election euphoria, the ousting of an unpopular president, or the uplifting message of his successor. Something else, something special, was taking place. The weariness associated with past politics was giving way to a moral reinvigoration that even opponents of the new President-elect could not ignore. The current President, for example, spoke in sincere anticipation of the “stirring sight” of watching the nation’s first black president and his family “step through the doors of the White House“: “I know millions of Americans will be overcome with pride at this inspiring moment that so many have awaited so long.” In short, there was a sense that something extraordinary was occurring on Election Night: the country was being overtaken by an unusual moment of political unity.

By political unity, I do not mean the trite orations one hears after every election cycle ends, when candidates pledge to work with their rivals or the victor reaches out to those who cast their votes for the opponent. No, the unity that came to mind was not some fleeting moment of political comity but rather a perceptible cementing of substantive moral commitments that hold a people together. Consider the remark from Senator McCain’s concession speech which, delivered to a group of disappointed supporters, stressed his and President-elect Obama’s shared recognition “that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still has the power to wound.” McCain then reminded his listeners of the contempt President Theodore Roosevelt endured in 1901 for inviting Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House. “America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time,” McCain continued. “There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.” (It should go without saying that such a statement clearly put McCain at odds with the relatively small percentage of those who voted for him because Obama was black.)

Images such as these—of Booker T. Washington dining with President Roosevelt or the first First Family of African descent crossing the threshold of the White House—are not merely symbols. Or, better put, we might say that these symbols are not merely symbolic. Rather, they are powerful signifiers of deep moral values and aspirations. In a world without Platonic forms, a symbol of justice is often the closest thing we have to justice-in-itself. The power of such symbols lies in their ability to transcend politics even as they touch down upon and shape polities. Such symbols inspire a common reverence that enables a nation, its diverse peoples, and their representatives to cohere. The shared love of such symbols-and the values they represent-generates a moral adhesive that solidifies civic relations and bridges rival factions.

Thinkers as diverse as Plato, St. Augustine, Abraham Lincoln, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have understood how justice sustains politics itself. In U.S. history, the periods when justice was under greatest siege were occasions that ripped at the very fabric of the nation and the integrity of the state. The Civil War, Jim Crow, King’s assassination—these are the counter-markers to the inspiriting images above. They point to what theologian Edward Farley calls “dark symbols”: oppression, prejudice, and vengeance. These and other forms of injustice rip citizens apart and tear polities asunder. Intense discord and violence are the telltale signs of injustice.

Conceiving politics as the project of uniting a people does not simply invite us to dwell upon justice—it requires us to do so. For we know there also have been polities unified by their love of things unjust. Hitler’s Germany, Amin’s Uganda, and the Taliban’s Afghanistan spring to mind. In all of these cases unjust forms of political unity precipitated conflict, only to be followed by war waged to bring about justice. That is, violent injustice precipitated justifiable violence.

Nor does the moral order of politics that I am setting out here—the cohering of citizens around shared symbols and the moral virtues and values they represent—diminish other forms and meanings of politics. Rather, a morally grounded notion of politics forms the precondition or backdrop against which workaday political differences, from the trivial to the significant, can play out. After all, essential policy differences between the candidates and their parties remain, despite the unifying symbols of the 2008 election. What I am describing, then, is a framework for combining two forms or meanings of politics—the transcendent and the quotidian—in ways that preserve an appropriate space for unity in the face of essential human differences. Justice serves as the plumb line for marking the moral measure of politics—for distinguishing the morally transcendent from the politically quotidian. But, here we need to say a bit more about justice—that is, the kind of justice we need—for making this distinction.

Much as the 2008 election invites us to think anew about politics, we would be wise to think more creatively about justice, which traditionally gets cast through the narrow prism of rights. Certainly justice includes the legal recognition and protection of civil rights, without which there would be no President-elect Obama. There are underlying values that rights signify and enshrine: human dignity and equality of human worth. But Obama’s election suggests more than just a victory for equality or the realization of hard-earned civil rights. For, just as Obama now shines under the lamp of King’s legacy, it is essential to recall that, for King, justice was never only about civil rights. Justice was also a political formulation of the “beloved community”: the uniting of diverse peoples in one “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Glimpses of this beatific vision pepper King’s most famous dream, as when he invokes images of the descendants of former slaves and slave owners sharing a common table; children of all colors joining hands; and people of diverse races and creeds working together, praying together, struggling together, and cherishing freedom together. To be sure, this was an ideal never to be realized fully on earth. But it is an ideal that is every bit as important to King’s politics and his pursuit of justice as the Forms were to Plato or the Heavenly City was to Augustine.

King’s dream makes clear that justice begins with rights. But justice encompasses so much more than rights just as the injustices of America’s past—slavery, lynchings, segregation—extended far deeper than any simple denial of rights. The suffering and inhumanity associated with these indignities tore apart individual bodies and ruined lives, not to mention the relations that solidify families, communities, and, at times, the entire nation. Justice, then, also entails the process of binding old wounds, of reclaiming moral wholeness, and, most of all, rectifying the civil relations that countenance moral disorder. So understood, justice is not established the moment slavery or segregation is abolished or the instant that civil rights are extended to all. Conceiving justice as such overlooks the ongoing role that civic attitudes and actions play in healing relationships among citizens and shaping the moral character of a polity that binds them together.

Rights, of course, help to prevent injuries and injustices from recurring. But alone, they cannot restore justice or heal old injuries. Moreover, the protection of rights depends upon the proper ordering of citizens’ loves—away from values that deny the humanity of some and pit races against one another, toward a shared esteem for the dignity and worth shared by all.

Politics remains the mechanism for codifying and communicating the moral values that sustain a people, that help them discern justice and distinguish it from injustice. Uniting citizens’ loves and ordering their minds and hearts toward shared moral pursuits entails moral assessment of the past, moral visioning of the future, and the identification of signs and symbols that chart the progress along the way, as when President Bush welcomed President-elect Obama and his family to the White House this week. But justice always entails an ongoing, arduous, and always unfinished process of transcending past injustices. So, while the President extolled the “dream fulfilled” by Obama’s election, we also would do well to recall the President-elect’s caution on the night of his victory: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you—we as a people will get there.”

That both men invoked the words of King reminds us of the power of moral principles to transcend and transform politics at once. As well, they both make clear that there are still moments when justice is close at hand, which only politics can help us to realize.