Van Ens: Salute fallen heroes by restoring trust in our republic
On Memorial Day, Americans place hands on hearts as they remember our nation’s fallen heroes. In cemeteries with American flags fluttering over graves of war dead, we silently salute the trust these military veterans placed in our republic. They sacrificed their lives so that our nation might flourish in freedom.
Memorial Day is a time when citizens kneel before graves of the war dead. Its commemoration marks a reverent day on America’s ceremonial calendar, “… A sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of redemptive sacrifice is extolled, and pledges to American ideals are renewed,” observed historian Conrad Cherry. Citizens bow, obeying the biblical command: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, James Madison grappled with a huge task of restoring trust in government. The young nation reeled because the Articles of Confederation, which governed the states after the Revolutionary War ended, did not function smoothly. States waged rising tariff wars against each other, did not grant governing power to tax beyond state control, and severely limited the size of a federal army so these troops did not confiscate power from local militias.
As chief architect of our nation’s founding document, Madison balanced two centers of trust: Citizens needed to extend a trusting hand to the fledgling federal government, and this government would reciprocate by trusting most citizens had its back. If this delicate balance of trust between government and citizens tipped, the republic would totter and fail, Madison believed.
Today, trust in our republic goes missing in action, caused by deep partisan divides. Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud that stole the last presidential election from him weakened our democracy and goaded citizens to question the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency. The Republican Party’s push for bills in several states to restrict voting magnifies this mistrust, making it more difficult for minorities to exercise their voting rights.
Wrecking confidence in voting by mail by spinning conspiracy theories about a stolen presidential election spreads massive distrust in our Republic. In CNN’s early May 2021 poll, nearly a third of Americans, including 70% of Republicans, believe Biden’s election was illegitimate because of massive fraud.
U.S. judiciaries at every level, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly ruled false such claims against the 2020 presidential election. Still, repeating lies about voter fraud adds converts. Innuendo breeds lies, which metastasize like cancer cells into half-truths about stolen votes.
“It’s like a perpetual motion machine — you create the fear of fraud out of vapors and then cut down on people’s votes because of the fog you’ve created,” laments Michael Waldman, head of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“Politicians, for partisan purposes, lied to supporters about widespread fraud,” said Waldman. “The supporters believe the lies, and then the belief creates this rationale for the politicians to say, ‘Well, I know it’s not really true, but look how worried everybody is (about alleged voter fraud).’”
Distorting what is true about voting is not a recent phenomenon. Like dandelions springing up overnight, doubts about alleged voter fraud have been planted, cultivated and harvested since my start in Christian ministry during the 1970s. Then an amiable communicator habitually told tall tales to his large radio audience.
If asked whether what he said about voter fraud was an outright lie, this former Hollywood actor would innocently shake his head. He told lies so often that he believed in their reality. This charming radio broadcaster sounded sincere when his recited dubious statistics and corny one-liners from B-grade movies. His tall tales spread like dandruff on a dark suit. It was hard to get rid of it.
“Look at the potential for cheating,” Ronald Reagan thundered in 1975 when Democrats proposed a system to allow citizens to vote by mail. A voter can be John Doe in Berkeley and J.F. Doe in the next county, all by saying he intends to live in both places …”
“(Reagan) took up the same cudgel shortly after (Jimmy) Carter’s inauguration (in January 1997) when California adopted easier procedures. ‘Why don’t we try reverse psychology and make it harder to vote,’ implored Reagan,” writes Rick Pearlstein in “Reaganland.”
Trump word-for-word plagiarized Reagan’s rant he perfected a half-century ago about mail-in voter fraud. Effective lies survive like radioactivity, stealthily destroying citizens’ confidence in election integrity.
You can ride for miles in Wyoming where lies about voter fraud are as common as tumbleweed blowing across the highway. A billboard on the prairie approaching Cheyenne, the capital, catches travelers’ attention. It features the smiling face of this state’s lone congressional representative, Republican Liz Cheney. Her mother wrote an acclaimed biography of James Madison. Ms. Cheney’s father served as vice-president in George W. Bush’s administration (2001-2009).
This billboard declares in huge letters, “Thank you Rep. Cheney for defending the Constitution.”
Wearing a trademark blue suit with a replica pin of George Washington’s battle flag, Ms. Cheney waged war against lies about voter fraud and stealing a presidential election.
On the House floor the night before she was ousted from her leadership role, she delivered a rousing pre-Memorial Day address. “Our freedom only survives if we protect it,” Ms. Cheney declared. Convinced that our Republic’s survival is not guaranteed. She defended this truth our fallen heroes died to preserve.
“Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar,” Ms. Cheney declared in the spirit of fallen heroes. “I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our (Republican) Party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”
Those war dead we honor this Memorial Day fought to preserve what is true. Their deaths are not in vain when we join Ms. Cheney in a patriotic chorus. Its lyrics defend preserve, and promote truth, which is the heart of the American Way.
The Rev. 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 aimed to make God’s history come alive.