Yesterday in Philadelphia, former President Barak Obama gave a speech in support of his former Vice-President, Joe Biden. I have no doubt that potential GOP voters dismissed the speech without listening to it or reading it. I have little doubt that potential Democratic voters accepted it in glowing terms, even if they also did not listen to it or read it. And I have no doubt that some now reading this post will think, “I knew it, he is a ______” (please fill in the blank as you see fit; for the record I am unaffiliated and quite independent). But, one might wonder why I posted this. The reason is simple and has come out in many homilies over the years. “The thoughts we have become the words we speak. The word we speak shape the actions we take. The actions we take form the habits we develop. The habits we develop reveal the character we possess. The character we possess shapes our destiny.” We Christians are asked to take all that and ask, “Do the thoughts, words, actions, habits and character we display reflect the image of God, the likeness of Christ to others?”
In his stump speech, in reference to President Trump’s use of Twitter and (implied) the character revealed by it, Obama said:
[In a Biden presidency] It just won’t be so exhausting. You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument. You’ll be able to go about your lives knowing that the president is not going to retweet conspiracy theories about secret cabals running the world or that maybe seals didn’t actually kill bin Laden. Think about that. The president of the United States retweeted that. Imagine. What? What? We’re not going to have a president that goes out of his way to insult anybody who doesn’t support him or threaten them with jail. That’s not normal presidential behavior.
That’s not normal presidential behavior. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a high school principal. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a coach. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a co-worker. We wouldn’t tolerate it in our family, except for maybe crazy uncle somewhere. I mean, why would we expect and accept this from the President of the United States? And why are folks making excuses for that? “Oh, well, that’s just him.” No. There are consequences to these actions. They embolden other people to be cruel and divisive and racist, and it frays the fabric of our society, and it affects how our children see things. And it affects the ways that our families get along. It affects how the world looks at America. That behavior matters. Character matters.
Is it true that “well, this is just politics….?” Really? If candidates believe character matters then this 2020 ad becomes possible.
President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could not have been more different in their ideological views. Reagan compared O’Neill to Pac-Man — “a round thing that gobbles up money.” O’Neill famously said: “I’ve known personally every president since Jack Kennedy and I can honestly say that Ronald Reagan was the worst. But, he’d have made a hell of a king.” Not what we think of as the basis of a fast friendship. And yet they were. The President was the keynote speaker at the major fund raiser for the O’Neill Library at Boston College. O’Neill prayed at the bedside of the President after he had been shot. They lived out kindnesses toward each other – what friends do. What people of character do.
O’Neill’s son said about the basis of their ability to forge uneasy compromise from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: “What both men deplored more than the other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward.”
Sound familiar? “…a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward.” What is different in the last 40 years that fell between the Reagan and Trump administrations? According to sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning our culture has shifted from a “dignity culture” (where aggrieved parties tended to let more minor slights go because it was assumed that all people have a central dignity that they don’t need to earn) back to an “honor culture” that we last experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries – where slights had to be avenged; when we had duels. These pistols and swords have been replaced by tweets, posts, and vitriolic.
Part of Christian character is to possess the thoughts-words-actions-habits-character that see the central dignity of the other, a dignity conferred upon them by God. By day the sound bites will be offered, but when day is done, are you surrounded by people of character? Do you have friends from across the aisle? Or do you sit alone at night fuming, plotting ways to recover honor and be avenged from those who have “wronged or slighted” you.