‘The angry hopeful soul of America’

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The day after William Jefferson Clinton was inaugurated as our 42nd president, on Jan. 20, 1993, I wrote a poem beginning with these words: “Maya Angelou read a poem/Yesterday, not any day,/Inauguration Day/Her voice strong and clear and deep/Out of Arkansas, out of Africa/Out of the angry hopeful soul of America.”

There was a certain level of anger in the air as Clinton took office: deepening partisan strife, a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and smoldering racial resentment – that endemic blot on our national character. 

Nevertheless, there was a palpable feeling of hopefulness in the words that rang forth from our Capitol’s steps into the sunny winter chill.  To echo the opening words of our Constitution, “We the People of the United States” still sensed that it was within our collective grasp “to form a more perfect Union.” Back then it was still possible to believe that the American Dream was not an impossible dream.

How different this nightmare year of 2020!  Today it seems so difficult, so nearly impossible, to muster our national resources to forge a productive togetherness of hope out of our self-defeating, self-inflicted anger directed at each other.  Today we stand at the edge of an abyss – despairing, disillusioned, defeated by our fears: fear of COVID-19, fear of economic collapse, fear of environmental catastrophe and – worst of all – fear of our fellow Americans.

To make matters even worse, our political discourse is now utterly debased. We cannot as a nation even agree on the meaning of the word “truth”: you have your truth and I have my truth.  And there are those in high places who are deliberately casting doubt on the integrity of our elections, the very bedrock of our democracy.  During these past few months, for the first time in my life, I have begun to worry not about the outcome of the Nov. 3 election but about whether our nation is still capable of holding an election that is free and fair, an election that will ensure a smooth and peaceful transition of power. 

I am writing these words about two weeks before Election Day, and I am feeling in my gut the urgency of Benjamin Franklin’s “IF.”  As many of you have heard, the story is told that when Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, just after the ratification of our nation’s founding document, he told an inquisitive passerby that he and his colleagues had created a republic, “IF you can keep it.”  If you can keep it. …

That means you and I must work together with all our might to preserve our now-threatened democracy.

Our knowledge of American history should offer us at least some measure of comfort.  The issues that divide us are not new, they are as old as our constitutional republic: we continue to be torn between two fundamental and, in a sense, contradictory values – our demand for individual liberty and our competing demand for equality of opportunity for every citizen, regardless of socioeconomic status. 

This competition between personal liberty and social equality turned deadly during our Civil War because, for Southern slave-holders, “liberty” meant the freedom to deprive Black people of their liberty – and neither side could see a path to compromise.  Abraham Lincoln offered his war-weary fellow Americans some much needed perspective in his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865:

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. … The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”

When you are reading this column, the results of the Nov. 3 election could still be unsettled; we could still be anxious, angry and dispirited by what feels like an attack on the core of our democracy, the undoing of our electoral process. 

If this is the case, let us turn for guidance, for a second time, to Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice towards none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

If we are indeed to make these United States better than we are today, if we are to form a more perfect union, we need to transform Lincoln’s healing words into our own healing actions – not only for our sake, but for the sake of our children and our children’s children.

Today’s column also appears
in the Barrington Times.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.