Many of us will never forget our first hearing of the soaring cadences as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, as he described his dreams for our country as “deeply rooted in the American dream”: dreams that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed;” that “one day … all will sit down together at the table of brotherhood;” that states “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice;” that his own children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” His voice rose and fell as he spelled out his dreams for a future in which America would shed the shackles of a history of discriminatory injustice.
I don’t have his eloquence, but I, too, hold dreams for a more just, equitable and peaceful country, hoping we rise to the best our principles expressed over the years, as well as the highest values demonstrated by all faiths. Currently, these dreams are shadowed by possible nightmares, in which many Americans and our leaders descend to discriminatory, racist, militaristic, xenophobic, isolationist actions shaped by arrogance and fear.
Our early revolutionary leaders dared to state that all people are created equal and that governments “are instituted to secure” their “inalienable rights,” yet their unwillingness to end slavery sowed the seeds for more than 200 more years of discrimination and injustice. These founders forged a Constitution to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…,” but neglected to end slavery. Amendments were added to respect freedom of the press, freedom of/from religion, and other guarantees to sustain liberty, yet interpretations of these have varied widely over time. The Constitution envisioned a government with equitable division of powers between executive, legislative and judicial branches, but lacked sufficient, specific safeguards against possible abuses. Over recent decades, this balance of power has been steadily eroded, opening the door for increasing autocratic behavior by presidents, unless their own party restrains them when they ignore limits on executive power.
At its best, America has opened our door to immigrants fleeing persecution, violence and poverty, allowing them to enrich our country with their hard work and talent. At our worst, fearful of diversity, we have periodically slammed the door, separated children from parents and put legitimate asylum seekers in prison-like detention centers.
At our best, we early established a system of free, public education. At our worst, we allow education to become a political football, weakening equitable access to the highest quality of instruction.
At our best, we have contributed to world peace: uniting former enemies through the Marshall Plan, leading efforts to establish the United Nations and recognizing the strategic value of foreign aid and Peace Corps volunteers assisting development around the world. At our worst, we have relied overly on weaponry, flexing our military might against countries with whom we disagree or who threaten our economic interests.
At our best, we understand the necessity of a free press to hold political leaders accountable; at our worst, we ignore facts and support only media that confirm our particular perspectives.
Whether liberal or conservative, it is time for all of us to recognize a simple fact: in a democracy, we elect our political leaders. Their actions are a symptom of our underlying forces and fears. We contributed to an environment in which “alternative facts” have eroded truth; free and objective journalism has been denigrated; and public trust in our institutions, particularly government, has been dangerously eroded.
We can resist a national nightmare and realize our best dreams only if we learn to listen to each other; take responsibility to examine competing claims; search for truth; demand that our leaders work together for the common good; set aside our preoccupation with money, celebrity and power; rejoice in the strength of diversity; and refuse to allow any political leader to manipulate fear or prejudice to gain our vote. Are we willing to elect servant-leaders with a long view of what is good for every citizen and for the environment? In this election season, which will win: our better angels or our fears and prejudices?