The Last, Best Hope

In recent weeks thoughtful, distinguished journalists and scholars have been suggesting that the era of American global leadership is coming to an end. For the last three and a half years I have watched in dismay as a president and his administration systematically dismantled, one by one, the elements of American global influence and leadership. We have watched our beloved nation diminished in front of our eyes. The President single- handedly removed the United States from a nuclear arms control treaty with Iran, laboriously negotiated with a coalition of important allies. The President withdrew the United States from the most important global effort to stem the relentless tide of climate change and global warming, as glaciers melt, sea levels rise and unprecedented national disasters increase in number and severity: fires, floods and tornadoes. The President has insulted traditional allies who have supported us, fought and died with us, and complimented autocratic dictators in Russia, North Korea, Brazil and Hungary. He has withdrawn American support from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic, cast doubt on our support of the United Nations and NATO, attempted to reduce support for critical scientific research. The list is long. The tragedy unfolds.

Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, said in 1968 that “the United States is, and remains, the one indispensable nation.” Her comment has been echoed by political leaders from both Republican and Democratic parties: Jeb Bush and Joe Biden, Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Michelle Bachman. A case may be made that Albright’s statement is no longer true. In fact, reality is the reverse. The Irish Times recently contained an editorial under a headline that I never imagined I would read: “The World has Loved, Hated and Envied the United States. Now, For the First Time, We Pity It.”

History teaches that empires come and go. Nations rise and fall. Why should what is happening to us be any different? I think it is different, profoundly different. I believe that the United States of America is different, founded on uniquely different values, approaching eternal values, approaching God’s will for how human life on earth can and should thrive. It is not a new idea. It’s certainly not mine alone. At a truly dark moment in our history, December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln sent his annual Message to Congress. It was one month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that what he was about to sign would forever change the trajectory of American history. He believed that what he was about to do was right, good and just and he said: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion….Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.”

We are at another inflection point. If the current momentum continues we will see in sad detail the loss of the “last, best hope of earth.”

The stakes could not be higher. I come at this not only as an American citizen who loves his nation so much he wants it to be better, more just and generous and fair, but also as a Christian, one who believes that deep in scripture is an idea with radical political relevance: that in the life, death and resurrection of one we know as Emmanuel, God with us, we can see how those radical ideas look when lived out in the world. My faith, my religion, begins with what are perhaps the most radical words ever written: “Then God said ‘Let us make humankind in our own image’…. So God created human beings in his own image.” Human beings bear the image of God. Every human being is, therefore, sacred, with inherited dignity and value.

That idea is clearly reflected in the founding ideas of our nation: The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: “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..”

I do not assume that the United States is a Christian nation, that Christianity is America’s official religion. In fact, part of the genius and brilliance of our Constitution and Bill of Rights is that they establish and protect Freedom of Religion, the right of every citizen to choose what to believe or what not to believe, what religion to support or not. Nor am I a starry-eyed idealist about our history. Our history is, in a sense, the story of a nation striving and struggling to live up to its own highest ideals. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, and the brave proclamation that “all men are created equal” meant “men”, literally, for more than two centuries. My nation has shown the capacity for injustice, domestically and internationally and has been tragically slow to recognize institutional racism, a task still incomplete as recent events have reminded us yet again. But the underlying ideals of equality and justice for all have never disappeared and our global leadership has, in my life time, manifested itself in a costly victory over fascism, limiting global oppression, combating poverty and disease, establishing peaceful relationships between nations through treaties and global organization: the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Health Organization.

I deeply regret my nation’s retreat and abdication from global leadership, the withdrawal from international treaties and structures that have mostly maintained peace. I am sorry when my president insults and disparages allies who have stood with us. I am appalled when the American President ignores science and reduces funding from critical research and development – not only because of my own personal political preferences which are no more important that anyone else’s – but because I believe Abraham  Lincoln was right: that this experiment in republican democracy, and the radical ideas of human rights, human dignity, human freedom are, indeed, the last, best hope of earth.

Comments

  1. Barbara Fountain says:

    May God help us.

  2. bandhdmitchellbmm0226 says:

    Amen, thank you John. HD

  3. Fred Schuler says:

    yeah man

  4. Milton D. Hakel says:

    Where are the compassionate conservatives now that they are needed? Be sure to vote this November. And act to preserve and strengthen the right to vote.

  5. Frances Coe says:

    A great one, John. Thank you.

  6. Lynn DeJong says:

    Bravo. Never could I have said all of these things with such eloquence. May God hear our prayers and provide us with the leadership we so desperately need.

  7. Stephen Littell says:

    Amen. A great reminder of the risks President Lincoln took and of his inspiring language. Thank you.

  8. Bob Doak says:

    Thank you John,
    I look forward to your messages. Your words remind me of the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”. There is a lot of work ahead for our country to remove the recent stains.

  9. Allona Beasley Mitchell says:

    I was hoping to hear your wise insights … your words are so very much appreciated. Thank you.
    aBe well

  10. Sarah Odishoo says:

    John, the dark shadow you articulate profiles not simply a man but at least half of this “democratic” culture.
    The population itself of USA is at a loss for the way the founders imagined a more “just” society for all. The
    President reflects at least half the culture in its fear, uneducated opinions, and deliberate ignorance of “others.”
    The problem(s) are multiple and deep for this imagined society!
    Thanks for your insightful comments and the congregations who are privileged to hear you. You are one of this country’s frontiersman!
    With gratitude, Sarah O

  11. Sandra Laurenson says:

    Your post was shared with me by a college friend who was one of your parishioners in Chicago. Thank you for such a thoughtful, reasoned essay! Much appreciated by this atheist.

  12. A friend shared your blog with me, and I will subscribe so I can remember to read it regularly. My takeaway from this one is that our nation is not perfect, and never will be, but we have always had lofty intentions, and we mostly have tried hard to achieve them. The current state of our “leaders” seems to be bent on undermining those intentions and doing whatever they can to increase their own power and wealth at the expense of everyone else. We must remove them before they totally destroy what is best about our country.

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