I write this on the morning of January 7, 2021, after a 24 hours that tried American democracy in ways not seen for a while. Our electoral system has survived a challenge. Once an unruly mob was finally cleared from the U.S. Capitol, both houses of the U.S. Congress debated and then certified the electoral victory of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to become the 46th President of the United States. However, challenges remain. Amid a global pandemic, social problems abound. The reputation of the U.S.A. as a beacon of democracy has been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.
I was born into a United States of America reeling from World War II plus the dawn of the nuclear age. My childhood was spent in the shadow of possible thermonuclear war. Our family lived close to Washington D.C. A nuclear attack on the U.S. capital city would lead to our deaths—from the blast itself or more slowly from radiation poisoning. Nuclear danger from our postwar rival, the communist Soviet Union (USSR), was real but hard to gauge.
Postwar tensions had helped change the make-up of the U.S. Congress. During the early 1950’s, a first-term Senator from Wisconsin made headlines about the alleged presence of “Communist infiltrators” in American government and media. Joseph R. McCarthy’s initial list of possible infiltrators and spies grew, leading to the blacklisting of many left-leaning writers, artists and civil libertarians. In early 1954, hearings about McCarthy’s attempted meddling in the U.S. Army were broadcast on television, a TV first. The senator was shown, per multiple sources, as “bullying, reckless, and dishonest.” (See partial transcript, including Army Special Counsel Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency?” quote at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6444/). In retrospect, we realize that the distortions introduced by McCarthy made it more difficult to distinguish actual threats from malicious character assassination and misinformation. Later in 1954, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate. Although he remained in office, his influence waned. He died of liver failure in 1957.
One of McCarthy’s chief advisors, Roy Cohn, went on to mentor real estate developer and 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, a master at social media. We still live with McCarthy’s ghost. Late yesterday, two prominent social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, belatedly and temporarily deactivated Mr. Trump’s accounts. His posts had helped incite what became a full-blown riot and assault on the United States Capitol. He continued to spread false allegations about the election’s outcome.
Our country’s Declaration of Independence proclaims as self-evident that “all (men) are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We are taught from an early age to revere this founding document. What we are not taught, or taught only much later, is that about a third of the signers of the Declaration, including coauthor Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders.
We still live with slavery’s ghosts. The inherent contradiction between professed equality and the myth of white supremacy poisons our civic life. This past summer, widespread multiracial demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice highlighted flaws in our criminal justice system. Since the outbreak of covid-19 related illnesses in the U.S., disparities in their impacts on communities of color have spotlighted lingering health and economic imbalances. Our education system’s attempts to adapt to remote learning further implicates the divides we’ve created in information access.
I was brought up in a mainline Protestant congregation, taught the importance of loving our neighbors and ourselves. During the 1950’s at our small stone church, I was also exposed to lots of MAGA-style American exceptionalism and triumphalism. We frequently sang a hymn that I grew to dislike as I became a young woman, though its ghosts persist. It seemed sexist and militaristic and badly out of date:
Lead on, O King Eternal,
the day of march has come;
henceforth in fields of conquest,
thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
thy faith has made us strong;
and now, O King eternal,
we lift our battle song.
(In my initial interpretation, the third verse, about crowns and conquest and a mighty God, seemed also to revert to militaristic themes.)
What I much preferred was the second verse:
Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
This morning I delved into the origins and evolution of this hymn. The lyric was composed as part of a seminary graduation ceremony, a rousing send-off for newly minted ministers. Ernest W. Shurtleff, its author, was among the graduates from Andover Theological Seminary in 1887. He served several American congregations before moving to Europe in 1905. From 1906 until the start of World War I, he was director of student activities at a Paris school. He then did war relief work in France until his death in Paris in 1917. Subsequent variations of the hymn’s lyric have adopted more inclusive language, such as one referring to the Biblical story of the exodus and “O Cloud of Presence.” More recent interpretations make clearer that the “battles” Shurtleff envisioned were spiritual rather than temporal. (See a longer explanation in https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-lead-on-o-king-eternal.)
The inscription on Shurtleff’s tombstone ends with this summation:
The path of the just is
as the shining light.
May we follow this light through whatever darkness lies ahead. May we react to yesterday’s travesties with outrage, yes, but also with deeds of love and mercy toward our neighbors and ourselves.