Van Ens: Demolish barriers dividing Americans
“The Bible tells us that ‘to everything there is a season,’” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9) said President Joe Biden in his inaugural address. Reiterating his campaign theme of ending hatreds and suspending ill-will among citizens, the president continued, “Now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.
“To make progress, we must stop treating opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans,” declared Biden.
This stirring refrain challenging Americans to mend fences echoes a major theme from President Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address. Our third president delivered it when deepening political divisions aroused suspicions whether our new-born nation might survive.
In 1801, Jefferson grappled with how our nation would hold together after losing the commanding presence of its first president George Washington. In 1790, the initial full year of Washington’s presidency, John Adams complimented his predecessor for acting as the glue, uniting pieces of our nation’s experiment in liberty and justice for all.
Describing how Washington expertly filled the presidential office, Adams asserted, “His person, countenance, character, and actions, have made the daily contemplation and conversation of the whole people.”
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Victor over Adams in the ugly, contentious 1800 election, Jefferson agreed. “In a government like ours,” he wrote, “it is the duty of the Chief magistrate, … to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people.”
America’s electorate split into competing camps in 1800. Vicious resentment swirled, turning political dust storms into vicious tornadoes of dissent raging over our country. Jefferson’s opponents assumed God was on their side. During the campaign of 1800, the Newport Mercury newspaper warned voters that Jefferson was “an infidel in principle, a coward in the hours of danger, [and] a dupe to the wild, anti-Christian and demoralizing theories of the age.”
Could conditions worsen much more in the U.S., seating a president who acted as Satan’s agent, fled from British Redcoats before they occupied his Monticello home during the Revolutionary War, and a purveyor of heresy that festered like cancer in America’s soul?
Other voters supporting Jefferson denounced rival John Adams. They joked about his fleshy posterior, short stature, and silly notions of using British sounding royal titles when addressing the president.
Like Biden, Jefferson chose in his first inaugural address to bind the nation’s wounds by bringing together a divided electorate. He exhorted listeners to regard themselves as harmonizing notes in a grand symphony, tones Biden sounded at his inauguration.
Jefferson declared, “… every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle: We are all republicans [spelled with a small “r,” meaning voters who elect governing representatives]; we are all federalists [spelled with a small “f” to signify the federal government’s power flows to citizens through the states].
Some Christians may wince after hearing Biden’s Jeffersonian calls for unity by repeating his campaign theme of “restoring our nation’s soul.”
Since our nation’s birth, preachers leading revivals have challenged sinners to repent and save their souls. As a child attending Daily Vacation Bible School, I joined other youngsters who “accepted Jesus as our personal Savior.” We affirmed God’s healing for our way-ward souls by singing at the top of our voices the Gospel chorus, “Thank you Lord for saving our souls; thank you Lord for making us whole.”
Biden uses this religious language as a healing ointment for our nation’s therapeutic good. “What I got most criticized for was, I said we had to unite America,” Biden confessed. “I never came off that message.”
What must our nation retrieve to rescue its “soul”? Save a sense of decency in the presidential office. Save honesty. Save respect for those with whom we differ.
Biden invests in these bedrock convictions of shared values that promote justice, spread liberty, furnish ground rules for civility, and erect constitutional guardrails to block one branch of government from usurping powers constitutionally reserved for the other two branches.
“I got widely criticized,” Biden remembers, “for saying we had to not greet Trump with a clenched fist but with more of an open hand. That we weren’t going to respond to hate with hate.”
Restoring our nation’s soul is not magically achieved. It takes voters’ resolve to do better to redeem our nation’s soul.
Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s senior op-ed columnist, surmises that Biden’s Jeffersonian impulse for unity may win the day. “Mr. Biden has to hope that his particular political persona is well suited for the moment. Being anti-Trump in style could be what the country is seeking; one theory of the presidency is that Americans seek in a new president the inverse of the last president.
“Mr. Trump was an antiestablishment disrupter; Mr. Biden will attempt to be the establishment unifier and hope that is what the nation wants,” observes Seib (“Old Guard Has Chance to Seize the Moment,” Jan. 19, 2021, page A-4).
Our nation desperately needs a presidential healer like President Biden.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.