Nothing will change

Here’s my November column for my hometown newspaper, the award-winning @HollandSentinel…

I hate to write this, but nothing is going to change.

A week ago, I checked in with the editor of the Holland Sentinel, Sarah Leach, and asked about my deadline. I wanted to be able to turn in my column after the election, not before, but even then I knew that the outcome of the election didn’t matter.

Well, it matters a little. We’re apparently going to get a new president on January 20. But in the bigger picture our country hasn’t changed much in the last week. Citizens managed to get worked up enough to vote in larger than usual numbers, and that’s good. But the underlying causes of our anger and discontent as a nation are the same today as they were before the polls closed on Tuesday.

We’ve got work to do, and I’m not optimistic. Hopeful, maybe, but – as I’ve written previously in these pages – not at all optimistic. Having hope, after all, is a matter of courage. Being optimistic is always looking for the silver lining.

“Elections have consequences,” Barack Obama famously said in 2010. (Those words, which sounded too much like gloating, came back to haunt him when his party lost decisively in the mid-terms.) But the consequences Obama had in mind, and the consequences we have right now, might not be as big as we imagine them to be.

My men’s book discussion group recently read and discussed The Accidental President by A.J. Baime, an account of Harry Truman first four months in office, and I reported to them this week that I had tears in my eyes more than once as I read that book. When Truman addressed a joint session of Congress, for example, three days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, he received a thunderous ovation. And then, after being introduced by the speaker of the House, he received another, even longer, thunderous ovation.

At that moment the country seemed to be pulling together, with Republicans and Democrats standing and cheering – for themselves and for the country, as much as for Truman. In the middle of a war, with an almost unimaginable loss of life, on two terrible fronts, and with the death of a popular three-term president, the country had somehow found a way to stand united behind a former men’s clothing store owner from Independence, Missouri.

The unity did not last long. It lasted longer than I expected, to be honest, but Truman nearly lost the next election to Thomas Dewey. Truman’s soaring approval ratings gave way, rather quickly, to partisanship and bickering. He left office as a relatively unpopular president, though in recent years he has enjoyed something of a comeback and an appreciation for his service to our country.

I want a coming together this week as much as anyone. I would be thrilled with the four (or so) months of national unity that Truman enjoyed. But I’m not optimistic.

Historians will argue about how the country came to be this way, but the divisions among us did not begin when Donald Trump was elected president. His presidency was a symptom (and a beneficiary), not a cause, of our division. With no foreign enemy to fight – with Germany and Japan as our allies, astonishingly enough – we have managed to find an enemy on our own soil. I’m thinking, of course, of the other side, either the fascist Republicans or the socialist Democrats, depending on your point of view: They must be stopped at any cost! They will destroy our country and life as we know it!

Our way out of this mess rests in the way we look at the world. I was raised by Dutch Calvinists in West Michigan who were clear-eyed about the human predicament. No one I knew ever said, “The question is not why God allows evil to exist in the world, but why human beings do.” That would have been faith based in optimism, the belief that together we can find the solution to any problem. The people who raised me had no such illusions about human beings. They knew we were rotten to the core – utterly incapable of helping ourselves.

The solution was never to condemn the world, though sometimes we couldn’t help ourselves, but instead to acknowledge that we cannot save the world (or even ourselves), to trust God’s mysterious providence, and to face our fallen world with humility and integrity.

We need a few more people in our community – let’s not look to our politicians to point the way – who believe this and live as though it’s true.

Photo: While trying to avoid looking at yard signs in my neighborhood this week, I came upon this … thing, which is clever and novel and more fun than the political displays which I found disheartening, even though political scientists say they’re good for democracy.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.
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