Patriotism’s Shape When A President Goes Rogue

It’s time we pause and look at our children and grandchildren as they sleep. Imagine them in twenty years, sweltering through never-ending heat waves while feeding their babies. They ask between mouthfuls, “What did you do to stop America from mutating into a pariah state while the oceans rose?”

What will we answer?

Surely that question hovers over NASA, NOAA, Defense and State Department employees, especially after President Donald Trump trashed their advice, alienated allies, and snubbed the 2015 Paris climate agreement. They’re torn. Their spreadsheet stats point to desert landscapes, flooded cities, and huddled refugees. But they’ve also got car payments and mortgages and thankless nieces and nephews demanding birthday presents. It’s an I-owe-I-owe-so-it’s-off-to-work-I-go world, with newly-appointed bosses muddling their jobs with gag orders and slash-and-burn budget proposals – not to mention Sally’s new braces and her tiresome but-Mom looks – all under the approval of that clone of the John Birch Society, otherwise known as the 21st-century Republican Party.

The NASA and NOAA staffers know climate change is no “hoax.” It’s here. It’s now. State Department teams feel the thinly-veiled rage beneath the deferential diplomatic speak of our European friends, with whom they toiled to hammer-out the landmark accord. DOD professionals did overtime on PowerPoint presentations revealing climate change’s security risks. Maybe they quietly applauded the protesting CEOs of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Box, Uber, and a host of other companies. Maybe they’re hailing Tesla’s Elion Musk and Disney’s Bob Iger, who resigned from presidential advisory councils, and the newly-formed US Climate Alliance, forged by the governors of California, New York, and Washington and joined by Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Vermont, and Connecticut. They, along with 180 US mayors representing 51 million Americans, have pledged to uphold the Paris agreement.

Behold the unfolding rebellion. It’s ethical. It’s legal. It’s the patriotic thing to do, as American as apple pie and dumping tea in Boston’s harbor.

The Challenge

But what about you, careerists? Do you return to your Monday routines, still quarantined in your I-owe-I-owe prison? Again, imagine those kids in twenty years, worried about super-storms and terrorist threats and mounting calls for a draft and refugees from islands now swallowed by the sea (it’s happening already) – all served up in a cutthroat scene where insurance is granted only to the healthy and wealthy. The United States stands proud as humankind’s most powerful Third World nation.

You know such a dystopian vision is no longer a Mad Max nightmare. We’re sleep-walking our way into it right now.

So how will you answer that fateful question? Replies like “I paid the bills” or “I didn’t rock the boat” or “I kept us comfy and safe” pale when matched with great-grandpa’s narrative, the one featuring a young man who joined the US Navy a day after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Compare and contrast his caution-to-the-wind stories with mumbles about hunkering down and playing the game.

I’m afraid the I-owe-I-owe mantra no longer dovetails with “responsibility.” That word, often used as excuse for innovation-quashing inertia, now bears an edgy nuance. It’s time to peel a page from India’s 1920-1921 playbook, when Mohandas Gandhi led the Noncooperation Movement after troops under General Reginald Dyer massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in Amristar. Indian civil servants resigned their positions and the populace boycotted government institutions.

True responsibility now comes with risks and an unpredictable future: Jobs are imperiled; our suburban homes are in jeopardy in a historic moment of stark choices. Usually, civil servants validly claim they serve a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but we’re no longer there. Remember, the American plurality opted decisively for Trump’s unpopular opponent. He now scowls in the oval office because of a Constitutional spawn implanted by southern plantation owners eager to guard their right to own humans. It’s called the Electoral College. America’s era of shame, once again, reached into the present and strangled the will of the people. This administration has been imposed on the people, by alt-right hate mongers, for Vladimir Putin fans.

Whom do you ultimately serve, oh civil servants? Look at those kids once more. It’s time to go Gandiesque. The risks of losing a job and a manicured yard pale when compared with the risks of irresponsible complacency. Such is the nature of things in imperiled, potentially pariah semi-democracies.

No one gets off

And what about the rest of us? Clearly, it’s time we swallow our distaste for politics and volunteer to fill empty slots on town committees – especially on local energy commissions. Run for local office (often, you’ll face no opposition); raise your voice at the Democratic or Republican town committees (will moderate Republicans and pro-life Democrats please emerge from their caves?); volunteer as a state convention delegate. Tear yourself free from the video games’ hypnotic trance. Your country calls in its hour of need.

I think of my own religious tribe and that elusive creature known as “the moderate evangelical.” It shivers like a frightened fawn in the woods, forever hoping the shrill political partisans will fade away so they can study their Bibles in peace. They’ve counseled patience, love, and understanding ever since Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson hogged the microphone in the 1980s. They’re always smoothing ruffled feathers and silencing any meaningful response to the partisanship in the name of preserving “unity” and “peace.” The result: The zealots interpreted the silence as a weakness. They exploited it. They branded anyone who disagreed as “liberals” (perish the thought), and imposed a political orthodoxy over Christianity’s time-honored creeds. Billy Graham wouldn’t recognize many of the self-identified “white evangelicals” in those 81-19 2016 election exit polls. Huge percentages embrace sex outside marriage and believe Christ was a created being. I guess doctrinal heresy is fine as long as you’re alt-right.

The “evangelicals” of 2017 need to be evangelized.

It’s comeuppance day for the so-called “moderate” evangelical. Stop hiding behind your fawn-like spots. Stop passing off your timidity as maturity and conflict avoidance as peace-making – and stop imposing your inertia over your bolder brothers and sisters who object to evangelicalism’s perversion. It’s time you confess your passivity for what it is, then risk a little ostracism by insisting on a platform at church meetings. Your a-political paradise became a far-off dream when the dogmatists anointed Ronald Reagan, who didn’t attend church, over fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter as God’s candidate.

Walking the walk

I’m not preaching anything I haven’t lived. I discovered I was pastoring a politically sectarian church when many of its members endorsed the racist Republican venom in the 2008 election. I cautioned against unloving advocacy. The blow-back was deafening – and it got worse after I saw a television special on climate change. Fact: The polar ice caps are melting. Fact: The glaciers are shriveling. Fact: The seas are rising. There are no alternatives to those facts.

I looked at my teenaged son and thought, “Oh … my … God.”

It was no longer an option: I would remain a moderate evangelical, firmly rooted in the theological consensus blending the best of Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Pietists, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley and open to fellowship with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, but I couldn’t remain silent.

The controversy at that church metastasized and, eventually, I resigned to prevent a split and my own firing with nary job prospect in sight. I volunteered for town committees and state-wide environmental groups and found employment before the bankers foreclosed — which made for a scary time, but I was breathing the fresh air that comes when we no longer sell our souls to maintain a manicured lawn.

Today, I’m looking at another child with bittersweet joy. I’ve cradled my grandson (my boy grew up and got married). Unfortunately, my incurable cancer may consign me to the gramps-in-the-photos role, the one in which no memory lingers save for a vague, sickly image of an emaciated figure with no hair. Frankly, that makes me sad. But I console myself with this: My son and daughter-in-law can tell stories about the old man who stood up to potential tyranny. They can even display my articles as proof.

That’s worth far more than a secure job and a nice garden — or even a long life filled with regrets.

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