This election night, as I watched MSNBC’s television coverage, followed a few liberals around battleground states on Twitter and read through an assortment of conservative blogs, I began to experience the equivalent of political vertigo.
As the evening progressed, two very different views of Barack Obama’s election began to emerge from the dizzying swirl of images. One focused on the historic moment, not only celebrating a partisan victory and the election of our nation’s first Black President, but also reflecting on the journey of a nation that once accepted slavery as the norm. In the opinion of others, Obama’s election betokened the erosion of traditional American values, the economic collapse of the United States, and perhaps the fall of Western Civilization itself at the hands of a nattily-dressed and smooth talking anti-Christ.
Several phrases I encountered last night distressed me. One was that America is “getting what we deserve”. It was meant to be a perjorative statement, implying that a misguided, stubborn, and possibly evil nation is being punished by God for our misdeeds and thoughts. Quite apart from the question of whether God would punish an entire nation of Jobs for the political sins of a few, there’s a certain humor in the thought of Barack Obama as God’s chosen agent of destruction.
But not everyone is amused. Some express their frustration with the enormity of our problems and the rapidity of the changes overtaking our nation by saying, “This is not the America I grew up in”. And they’re right. It isn’t. But our parents said the same thing, and their parents before them. Society isn’t a museum but a living organism, constantly changing in response to the forces that ebb and flow around it. Romanticizing the past is tempting, but re-creating the past is impossible. Life moves forward, not back, and our destination is the future.
Different people envision different futures, of course. In the heat of last night’s moment, someone said, “I hope we can take back our country in the future”. It may have been a throw-away line or a bit of political bravado, but I experienced a brief flash of anger at the words.
The last time I checked, this is my country, too, and I prefer no one take it from me - particularly on the basis of my political choices. I was raised in this country’s heartland, and educated in its schools. I’ve taught its children and watched over its babies. I’ve traveled from its shores, and returned home to work in its hospitals, schools and churches. I’ve invested in its companies, and run a business that has employed other Americans, paying them a living wage.
I’ve written to corporations and Congress, and I’ve marched in the streets. I’ve picked cherries in New Mexico, harvested millet in Texas and detassled Iowa corn. I’ve hiked America’s wilderness, and hung out in its bodegas. I’ve worked the night shift in a nursing home and volunteered in soup kitchens. I’ve voted Republican and I’ve voted Democrat, but I’ve always voted. From my perspective, it’s one of the best ways to preserve our country and ensure that no one denies full participation in its life – to anyone.
Despite my optimism, not everyone seems to believe our nation can be preserved. Like a Greek chorus, the voices echoed through the election night coverage, a nervous counterpoint to the speeches and analysis: “The forces of godlessness have taken over.” “God has abandoned America.” “God has been expelled from our nation’s life.” “God help us.”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the conviction that one group or another “possesses” God so clearly expressed. It was chilling to encounter the clear assumption that no person of faith, Christian or otherwise, ever would have voted for Obama. Obviously, I’d missed the memo telling me a vote for Barack Obama made me party to forces of godlessness, destruction and darkness. In the midst of the evening’s celebration, despite my sense of hopeful anticipation and the wonderment of watching history being made, I felt stung. Who were these people to doubt my love for my country or my desire to see her led responsibly? What right did they have to declare me without faith, to question my interior life and dismiss my values? Above all, I wondered, “Who are you, to claim God for your side, and your side alone?”
In the midst of my questions, time itself seemed to collapse. I remembered other Democrats in Chicago, in 1968. The VietNam war was raging, the nation had been ripped apart, and people were claiming to support policies of the Nixon administration “in the name of God”. Some friends had gone to Canada, some already had died in Southeast Asia, and others were determined to put an end to policies they considered godless. As both sides attempted to batter the other into submission in the name of God, or ideology, or imagined moral purity, it was Bob Dylan who finally gave voice to the anguish felt by so many.
With God on Our Side may not be Dylan’s most memorable or popular song, but for many of us it perfectly captured the bitter realities of the VietNam era. At the end of this Presidential campaign, “weary as Hell” seems a fitting phrase, worthy of the situation in which we find ourselves:
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God is on our side
He’ll stop the next war.
Several wars are consuming this country, and those in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the most obvious. Last night, another war erupted into public view - the war between those who voted for a man they believe can bring needed and salutary change to this country and those who remain equally convinced that the slide to a godless, socialistic and morally bankrupt America is inevitable.
This is the first war that must be stopped, before issues of import to every American can be addressed. There should be no question that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all Americans. The fact that Blacks, Hispanics, gays, immigrants, the disabled, women, Native Americans, left-leaning academics, the homeless and even societal parasites are granted those rights may be distressing to some, but it is reality. Democrats may hate the fact that conservative talk-show hosts and right-to-life advocates have those rights, but they do. And no matter how much Republicans fuss and fume, environmentalists and conservationists have a right to oppose those advocating the rape of our world.
No matter which side of this motley assortment of social, cultural and economic divides you find yourself on, today is a day to stop, and consider your own convictions as well as the new course our nation has set for itself. No matter how vehemently we may deny it, each of us can be tempted to believe that God is on “our” side, ready to bless our cause and condemn to perdition those who disagree. Bob Dylan understood that human desires will never set God’s agenda, and the activity of God in history sometimes is difficult to trace. He understood, too, that those who “never ask questions, with God on their side” are condemned to exist without the answers that bring life, rather than death.
If you grew up with the song, remember it. If you’ve never heard it, listen. Consider the lyrics in the light of recent events, and remember this. Those “others”, the people whose beliefs and values seem so foreign to you, those whose lives are lived so differently – they’re fellow citizens. And Barack Obama - the purported elitist, socialistic, radical, left-leaning redistributor of wealth? He’s your President, too, and he just might have your well-being at heart.