Verily, I tell you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
– Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:40, King James version)
When John Kerry, former Senator, Secretary of State, Presidential candidate and Vietnam War hero, spoke at the Democratic Convention in America the other night, his speech took me back to an earlier oration of his in 2004, the year he was the nominee.
I remembered how he stirringly delivered the summation of the case that the entire week had made: a case for the welfare of all Americans. I felt proud. It seemed an airtight case to me. It always does.
Later in the campaign, of course, disingenuous attack-ads, based on hearsay from another former soldier who had never even met Kerry in Vietnam, created a new English-language verb: to “swiftboat”—assassinate someone’s character via such unfounded rumors. Snopes.com meticulously considered the claims and counter-claims, and has labelled all charges questioning Kerry’s heroism as false. But the ads “went viral” and Kerry lost the election.
Still, that moment after his speech at the 2004 Convention was a powerful one for me. Reviving that vivid memory brought home a clear awareness of what these gatherings every four years are: a “meeting of the tribe”; a potent reaffirmation of a shared faith.
The faith, most simply stated, is based on the New Testament quote with which this article begins. The Democrats’ “faith” is the vision that what has perennially been called the American dream is meant to extend to every last one of us!
To me, the logic of that proposition is unassailable. Our representative democracy is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That description likens us, in my mind, to a vast family directly connected with one another. It seems completely appropriate to me that the government purporting to represent every American must be an agent of the extension of human and civil rights, as well as a reasonable standard of living, to everyone.
Earlier stirring words in our founding documents—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—were used in spite of a stunning hypocrisy! The only way they can be justified, it seems to me, is as expressing not a reality but a vision, which we must continue to gradually transform into literal truth over time.
The Democratic conventions, for me, are quadrennial celebrations of the common belief that God is in everyone*, and thus, everyone deserves such things as adequate health care, housing and a living wage, every bit as much as Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg.
This has been the “faith” of Democrats, at least since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in two previous existential crises, the Great Depression and the Second World War, didn’t flinch but met each moment squarely.
The legacy of our forbears also leaves us the achievements of the Labour Movement—five-day work weeks, overtime, the right to organize and laws banning child labour; and of the Civil Rights Movement—all citizens are entitled to vote and to live safely, free from second-class citizenship. Battles that have been under attack in recent years and continue into our own day.
As we move toward recognition of the full humanity of every human being, the Women’s Movement, including #metoo) that of the LGBTQIA people, and the new face of the struggle for racial justice (Black Lives Matter), have gained more of the positive notice they deserve in our national dialogue and in the Democratic Party.
Other significant moments of “our faith”
Other watershed moments of “our faith” that have inspired me in recent years were Barack Obama’s speeches at three separate conventions and Al Gore’s speech in 2000. I remember Governor Mario Cuomo (father of New York’s current governor) stirring me to tears in 1984 as he described the qualities of this faith.
Especially, I remember the night—the moment—when the first African-American candidate for our highest office suddenly became the President-elect! Millions of us watching on television witnessed his family joining him onstage in an outdoor venue in Grant Park in Chicago, amid faux-Greek columns.. My heart sang!
The feeling lingered through the next morning, as I took myself out to breakfast to celebrate. It was almost as if a golden mist permeated the air, proclaiming as I walked through it: This is the embodiment of “Thy Will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”
Such golden moments don’t last, although it’s my opinion they don’t disappear, either. They remain benchmarks in a long, continuing struggle. Soon after Obama’s inauguration, Senator Mitch McConnell declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”—citing no positive alternative vision for America—and the opposition stonewalling began.
They’re not “bought and sold”
I have social media friends who seem to believe that all of these heroes and heroines of mine are bought and sold by the corporate establishment: that there are no truly heroic investigative journalists anymore, either, and that the word “corporate” should always appear before the word “media;” That President Obama was and is no different, having ordered murderous drone strikes in the Middle East; that the word “neoliberal” describes everything (pre-Trump) that either Democrats or Republicans have had to offer for years.
I don’t buy the “bought and sold” line. No one has ever claimed that Obama is perfect. If there were such drone strikes, it was likely because the President listened to the counsel of military experts, rather than that he was “stoked” about it. Modern geopolitics is extremely complicated, and Pentagon personnel inevitably exert a certain influence. Finally, the word “neoliberal”, to me, it is an abstraction too often invoked in place of descriptions I can feel.
“I could feel his grief”
And so it comes down to faith. During the recent Democratic convention session, I heard the anguish in Obama’s voice as he delivered an unprecedented warning about the mortal danger our country will be in if it re-elects the man who followed him into office.
Our previous Chief Executive broke a long tradition of Presidential restraint about making stark public judgments about one’s successor. I’m sure that he would rather have done almost anything else in the world—had he not felt it absolutely necessary, because the danger is real!
After Obama’s speech, Barbara (my wife) turned to me on our sofa and said, “I could feel his grief.” I immediately realized that was indeed his condition—an anguish that four years after he left America in the best shape he could, its survival after a nearly 250-year noble experiment as a democratic republic is in jeopardy.
I have profound respect for every word our former President articulated. If anything, the pressure of the situation led to him making his utmost effort to leave the deepest impression he possibly could. I felt it to be a nearly perfect speech. I hope it succeeds in its mission to deepen awareness of the gravity of our current state of affairs.
The spotlight’s on Biden
On Thursday, the last night of the convention, we heard Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. Like many other friends and commentators, I felt Mr. Biden hit the ball out of the proverbial park. As others have said, he demolished any future references to his mental state by Trump or anyone else. He is sharp. He spoke in terms of light and darkness that were effective, I feel, across a broad swath of Americans. He, like both Obamas, defined the situation as it is. And he gave us all the gift of his empathy, speaking in a way that was reminiscent of nothing so much as President Roosevelt in his justifiably-famous fireside chats which helped Americans through the dark days of World War II and the Depression of the 1930’s.
My respect for Biden had already been on the upswing lately. I’d been hearing testimony after testimony about how he’s been able to rise from his own experiences of traumatic grief to offer loving and personal counsel to numerous Americans who have suffered similar losses. I see this gift of empathy as the badge of a true “man of the people.”
This week, the Republican Convention will likely set a far different tone. You know what its by-word will almost certainly be: fear. We’ll hear stories from people whose loved ones have been murdered by undocumented immigrants. We’ll hear tales of “Antifa rioters.” It’ll be like two different worlds vying for our endorsement.
I’m pretty sure I know which one I’ll choose.
*”The highest revelation is that God is in everyone.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson. Note: there are nontheistic ways of affirming this truth, in Buddhism and elsewhere. The 20th-century author Albert Camus, who was an agnostic or atheist, based his philosophy on a similarly nontheistic assertion, that our entire existence is in fact “absurd”, and yet here we are, and that the only plausible response is to live and act for the common good.
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image 1: Max Reif; image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 3: Wikimedia Commons; image 4: Wikimedia Commons; image 5: Gage Skidmore