The Moral Choice Facing the Biden-Harris Administration
The presidency of Donald J. Trump came to a violent conclusion on January 6, 2020. This marked the sad day that thousands of Trump supporters mounted a deadly raid on the United States Capitol to stop Congress from ratifying the Electoral College victory of President-Elect Joseph Biden. Years of White House disinformation, right-wing media deception, and fringe conspiracy theories have exacerbated this nation's political and cultural fault lines. Therefore, as the Biden-Harris administration assumes the federal government's executive branch, the United States is at an inflection point.
By stating that the nation is at an inflection point, I do not suggest that this historical moment is unique. Nor do I agree with contemporary commentators who have employed adjectives such as "unparalleled," "unprecedented," or "extraordinary" to describe our current national state of affairs. There is nothing new about an anti-democratic mob attempting to exert its violent will to deprive others' Constitutionally protected rights.
The "American Party," also known as the Know-Nothings, terrorized Irish and German immigrants throughout the mid-19th century. They instigated deadly riots across the country in cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. Following the dismantling of Reconstruction, Southern Democrats overthrew multiracial state and local governments in the final two decades of the 19th century. Filmmaker D.W. Griffith valorized these white supremacist insurgencies in what most consider to be the first blockbuster film in America, "The Birth of a Nation." And recall the violent repression of ordinary citizens in this country throughout the 1960s. There was Bloody Sunday atop Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Alabama law enforcement and "deputized" citizens beat nonviolent civil rights protesters like John Lewis and Amelia Boynton for daring to seek the right to vote for African-Americans. Each of these events speaks to the limited notion and precarious nature of freedom that has always hamstrung American society.
As a fragile, though persistent, experiment of democracy, this nation's leadership must decide whether it will continue to expand narrow and nativist assumptions about American freedom that have held purchase over a critical mass of this society since its inception. Like the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the black freedom struggle in the mid-20th century, the Biden-Harris administration what it means to, as President-elect Biden puts it, "fight for the soul of our nation." Abraham Lincoln knew that he could no longer save a country that tolerated chattel slavery. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that the federal government needed to provide a new deal to a labor force that understood that it had been given an exploitative raw deal by Wall Street and speculators in previous decades. And Lyndon B Johnson realized that unless Congress could pass official laws outlawing the discrimination of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in matters ranging from hiring, housing, education, and voting, America could not remotely approximate the Declaration of Independence's promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Therefore, the Biden-Harris administration has a choice. For the past forty years, there has been an ironic bipartisan agreement that neoliberal economic policies that privilege private enterprise and promote individual entrepreneurial flourishing are preferred over investments in social safety nets and public services. Of course, these policies varied in extent between party and president. Yet, there is no denying that the poor and working classes' economic opportunities dwindled with creeping normality in recent decades.
This moment thus necessitates moral clarity and courage concerning the trajectory of this nation. Too many have followed the path of cynicism and opportunism away from any shared commitment to a common good. We need political leaders to express a full-throated endorsement that moral character and ethical commitments matter.
Fortunately, the rich religious and ethical traditions that constitute American society are replete with instructive insights and examples. First, we must renew a commitment to what our Jewish siblings refer to as "Tikkun Olam," healing or repairing the world. Based on the fundamental theological commitment that God created the world and all things therein, it calls us to humility. Nothing we have belongs to us. Thus we are called to be generous stewards of God's resources. Healing the world begins with caring for God's people. As we work to heal the wounds of poverty, racism, homophobia, and sexual and gender-based violence, we repair the world that God has entrusted to us.
Second, we must remember what Jesus taught to be the greatest commandment. "You shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. And then you shall love your neighbor as yourself." This sort of love that Jesus proffers is an ethic to see oneself—with all one's beauty and imperfections—in the eyes of another toward developing an ethical capacity to empathize and identify with even a presumed enemy. Martin Luther King, Jr was probably the most excellent moral exemplar in American history. And in today's highly polarized environment, we must remember King's admonition never to demonize nor seek to defeat an opponent. Domination and humiliation only lead to increased animosity. An ethic of love calls us to defeat injustice while pursuing better understanding and reconciliation toward fostering the beloved community.
Finally, we must align our concern for the most vulnerable by demonstrating moral clarity, consistency, and courage. A robust democracy is only as healthy as the most susceptible. Thus, in addition to protecting the poor in America, we must forge ecumenical alliances against demonic systems of hatred. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-black violence have the same logic as homophobia and gender-based discrimination. Each is inspired by and fosters cultural hubris. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his classic text Moral Man and Immoral Society, "certain privileges make liars out of all men." So if we are going to strengthen this fragile experiment of democracy in the United States, each of us ought to recognize the biases and bigotries to which we so tightly cling. By doing so, we might be able to lend a helping hand to the cause of freedom, justice, and democracy for all.
Jonthan Lee Walton is the dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an author, ethicist, and religious scholar.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.