We as a country survived the Great Depression because the values of community, cooperation, prudence, and sacrifice were in full bloom. The American people united to defeat a common foe. American historian Robert McElvaine says that these virtues were almost completely submerged in the serious economic depression of the 1980s by acquisitive individualism. In a moment of historical irony, we were saved by our vices, especially greed.
Today, unearthing the values of community, cooperation, prudence, sacrifice, and unity is like looking for a computer bug embedded in indecipherable code. We face the challenge of a pandemic, and our greed will not save us. Our vices of individualism, false patriotism, pride, disdain for truth, insistence on “rights,” and dependence on comforting lies will not save us. A nation that is known for its ability to rise above the circumstances of any crisis finds itself captured by a division no one seems capable of healing. No matter how often politicians cry “unity” out of one side of their mouths, the other side erupts with curses, condemnations, and demonizing.
The wellspring of American ability to rise above a crisis may be as dry today as the American West. The metaphorical wildfires fanned by lies, especially those of the hot-air producer of the ages, Donald Trump, show no sign of abating. When the wind dies, he lights another match with another rally. When our nation needs a message of strength, a message that will unite us in one cause against the pandemic, we are a Tower of Babel. Trump is an agent of demolition. He doesn’t know how to operate except as a destructive force. The great builder turns out to be the great destroyer.
As our politicians scurry around like rats to pin the blame for the pandemic on the other side, people keep dying. This is not the America that rose above WWWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. We are now faced with a large segment of the population that is determined to burn down the house unless they get their own way.
Last week, American Airlines had a passenger removed because she would not wear her mask on the flight. The flight attendant asked her to put on her mask but she refused. Security personnel asked her to put on her mask but she refused. She would not leave her seat. As security picked her up and took her off the plane, she started screaming and didn’t stop for ten minutes. She may now be the unfortunate representative of a country drunk on the idea of “individual rights.”
This passenger wished to be gifted a freedom denied to every other person onboard. She sought an ultimate freedom — freedom from corporate responsibility, freedom from caring about others. Her demand for individual freedom not only endangered her fellow passengers in the moment but embodies a political philosophy dangerous to our very existence as a democracy.
This screaming passenger should not be the face of our nation. Donald Trump’s demagoguery should not be the poster child for winning politicians. People who are unwilling to be bound by anything, not even truth itself, are a danger to us all. Nietzsche saw this coming as part of what he termed “nihilism.” Wittgenstein also saw the danger when people can no longer take for granted the deep agreement in judgments that hold us together. It’s absurd that we are honoring and electing people who are determined to demolish our deeper than deep agreements that transcend being conservative or liberal. But we live in absurd, dark times.
We are walking into the ongoing destruction and death of our entire planet if we keep denying and opposing science, discouraging vaccines, and disparaging environmentalists and climate scientists. Climate change deniers are on the verge of creating a literal “hell on earth.” And many of us are walking calmly into the gates of that hell. It is absurd that the most powerful man in the once-proud Republican Party is a demolition expert, a propaganda aficionado, a climate-denier, a racist, and a serial liar — and yet he is all this and more.
But we are not as different from him as we pretend to be. My own vitriol against him suggests that I am denying my own involvement in this refusal to face reality, this clown and circus show, that drives up the ratings of television news and satiates the sick desires of a public hungry for more conflict. We are not facing reality, and in that respect, we are not actually producing unity.
Does America have what it takes to survive? Do we have a patriotism that rises above petty differences, that respects a diversity of opinions, and works for the common good? Do we have what it takes? If we rediscover the values of community, cooperation, prudence, and sacrifice, then the answer can be yes.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is forthcoming in the next few months from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).