As the United States determines its next president, another decision will be rendered. Voters will reveal who they are and who they want to be when they elect the future leader of the nation.
President Abraham Lincoln once quipped, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
With more than 70 million ballots already cast and millions more heading to the polls, the country faces one of the most significant decisions it will ever make. The most important questions before us speak to the soul and character of our identity, both as a people and a country.
Are we a people ready to turn our backs on truth, decency and equality for years to come? Are we a people ready to embrace fully authoritarianism? Are we a people ready to extend further to an irreparable divide? Are we a people ready to deny the rights of others in order for the privileged to maintain control?
Or, are we a people ready for a new direction built on honesty, kindness and fairness? Are we a people who still believe in the Declaration of Independence when it states that everyone is “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
My hope persists we are still a “freedom and justice for all” kind of people.
Yet, there are individuals, groups and systems that cling to the past, wanting the U.S. to retain a utopia that never existed – or that only existed for a privileged few. They claim to want to make America great again, but they are only making it great for a select few.
These citizens fondly remember the days when suburbia reigned supreme, gender roles were ingrained, marriage and divorce were between a man and woman, the church was the center of family and civic life, and everyone was “equal” but segregated.
The rest of America remembers those days quite differently, and they were not so great.
They were filled with oppression, suppression and inequality. Black and brown citizens fought for equal education and voting rights, while women and LGBTQ persons stood their ground, seeking equality under the law. The fabricated utopia of white suburbia remained an unreachable dream for many because American institutions favored the privileged and thwarted the advancement of others.
To combat the constant threat against their privilege, white citizens used American institutions to beat back the rising tide of equality. So, they declared there was a decline of morals and values across the country, especially among minority classes, that they would help to reverse, while declaring that “law and order” would help bring this about.
This is what the privileged have always sought to do: maintain their status through disinformation, diversion, division and destabilization.
Disinformation came through broad generalizations based on unfair and unjust characterizations. Diversion came by pointing toward a symptom rather than addressing the real problem. Division came from defining and laying claim to everything patriotic while condemning everyone else.
All these, and more, led to destabilization for which the privileged claimed they alone could solve, even after being the ones that created it.
In reality, what we are seeing and living through is not a completed degradation of society, as some assert. Granted, morals and values have changed over time but that is not the threat about which many are truly concerned.
Instead, white citizens – especially white male citizens – have become keenly aware their privileged status is in jeopardy.
This leads back to my original questions: “Who are we, and who do we want to be in the future?” If this election is much more than the selection of a president, then we need to take a long look in the mirror and make some very serious observations.
The presidency of Donald J. Trump revealed more about America than it did about him. Trump has always been Trump, a rude and callous person wrapped up in self-interest and self-promotion.
America, on the other hand, has apparently been pretending to be something we were not: a land of opportunity and freedom for anyone willing to work hard and contribute to the American dream.
America is a tilted democracy built on the foundation of white supremacy and maintained by a privileged class who reap the benefits from the sacrifices and hard work of others.
Because America has never truly addressed her original sins of white supremacy and racism, her foundation remains tilted in favor of those who built and maintain her social and economic institutions.
America has made great claims throughout her history, citing opportunity and equality for all. However, those words ring hollow against the backdrop of white supremacy and white privilege.
When minority classes – either indigenous or immigrant – begin to rise, America’s original sins mobilize quickly in order to reestablish the rules in their favor, tilting the foundation even further.
We are better than what we have become.
The late Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Because we are fallible, we make mistakes. As Niebuhr suggested, our inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary, but we can no longer permit that inclination to rule. We must embrace our capacity for justice. We must embrace our better angels.
Standing at the threshold of a civil war, President Lincoln offered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, just one month after seven Southern states seceded from the Union.
Lincoln ended his address with these words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Unfortunately for Lincoln and the Union, those better angels were never heard. Instead, the sounds of cannon fire and gunshots filled the air as the (not-so) United States went to war with itself.
It truly pains my heart, but it seems we currently stand at another life-altering threshold. If breached, like the others before, America will never be able to return.
I am not naturally an alarmist. In fact, I have always been more of an optimist, believing in the goodness and compassion of humanity.
However, I no longer pretend to understand the thinking and logic of many of my fellow citizens. I feel like the Apostle Paul, looking through a glass dimly, not fully knowing what I am seeing. Yet, I also hold tightly to hope, especially amid difficult trials and downturns.
When writing to dejected Christians in Rome, Paul concluded, “We also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts” (Romans 5:3-5).
America, who are we? Who do we want to become?
As a Native American, I’m tempted to conclude the system is so far gone it should be burned down to start again. That would be the easy way, but that would be wrong. For you see, the hopes and dreams of the founders, despite their failings to fully embrace and live into their lofty ideas, still resonate within me.
The idea that all humans are equal appeals to my soul as a created being of God. The notion of freedom calls to my heart and head, inspiring me to grasp for opportunity and strive for achievement. The knowledge of being part of a United States of America challenges me to care and advocate for my neighbor.
These ideals remain self-evident for me. So, as I cast my vote this week, I do so with hope in my heart and a calling in my ears for the better angels of our nature to emerge.
Engraved on the Liberty Bell are these words from Leviticus 25:20, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.”
May the sounds of liberty once again be heard and may the inhabitants of this land once again remember they dwell in a realm where inclusivity, freedom, equality and justice for all reign supreme.
CEO of Good Faith Media.