“Dance with the One that Brung Ya” is the title of a song of uncertain (to me) origin but brought into public political discourse by President Ronald Reagan who used it to underscore the importance of consistency in promise and behavior in the political process.
It has become one of those sayings that capture ideas of significance, in this case resisting the appeal of something in the short run that is more attractive and expedient than more substantial, longer-term commitments.
It is not surprising such a saying would come to mind in a context where monetized pressure tends to replace moral integrity and consistency in the exercise of political power.
The lofty goals of public service to a common good seem to be easily distracted by shorter term, expedient objectives.
The current season of our political life has found me thinking of the covenant by which we have lived throughout our history.
Formulated in a constitution and elaborated by two and a half centuries of interpretation, amendment and application, that covenant has been the reference point of our common life.
It was not and is not perfect. Its flaws have been amended and refocused, and it is still being fine-tuned to address places where historical blindness let us fail to see where it needed further refinement.
We live by covenants on many levels. Some are deeply profound and even sacred, while others are more casual and superficial.
But all covenants imply a commitment on the part of the parties to a good that transcends the particular desires of those who participate in it.
When any party subverts its purpose for personal benefit, the covenant is broken, and the relationship it created must be restored, if possible, by a recommitment to the community that seeks to live by it.
It may be a stretch to suggest a comparison of a flirtatious distraction at a “dance” that lets one forget the partner one came with, and the kind of Faustian seduction that a people can fall to in response to a promise of a return to a time and place where life was more consistent with personal desires and privileges.
I wonder, though, if that is not what we are experiencing in the almost unexplainable divisions among us about who we are and where we are going as a nation.
The covenant that “brung us” to the dance is one we know well and proclaim our allegiance to at every turn.
Yet in times of stress – internal and external – many of us find ourselves drawn to promises and narratives more expressive of our fears and prejudices, than of our commitments and hopes for the “more perfect union” our covenant envisions.
The appeal of a “greatness” that somehow can ignore the darker corners of our common life where many have been excluded from the benefits of the covenant’s promises is hard to resist when its embrace is easier than the hard work of building the bridges and shining the light into those darker corners of the covenant’s still incomplete work.
The most significant covenants seem to share this challenge.
Israel’s covenant “brung” them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the land of promise, only to be abandoned at the dance of a new kingdom, where the seductive dance partners of power and wealth eventually brought their downfall, requiring a new understanding of the covenant, forged in exile, for their continued journey.
Our national covenant has also been an empowering and sustaining commitment through many “trials and tribulations.”
And it has been abandoned many times in response to the seduction of attractions that offered more immediate benefit (the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, suffrage restrictions, Jim Crow and so on).
But in spite of these seductions, it has also been the basis for addressing them and moving in a direction of restoration to its vision of a nation and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
The seduction of more attractive dance partners seems always to be a possibility – only their costumes change. But the covenant that transcends those seductive promises is still in place, still being revised in both understanding and application.
Let’s hope that at the dance of these next few weeks, when we make decisions that will have a lot to do with both our short-range and longer-range future, we will “dance with the covenant that brung us.”
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).