Pope Francis, addressing a joint session of Congress in late September, received a warm -- at times joyous -- reception. His message, interrupted by frequent applause, pleaded for welcoming the immigrant, helping the poor, healing the planet and protecting life in all its forms and at all its stages. Seated behind him were Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and Vice-President, Joe Biden, both Catholics and in direct line of succession to the presidency in a nation where, just over half a century ago, the idea of a Catholic president frightened many.
The next day, Speaker Boehner announced his resignation, driven from office by the fractious nature of politics in his own party. The news of his retirement from Congress was met by raucous cheers and a standing ovation when announced at the Values Voter Summit of the Family Research Council, whose mission is to "advance faith, family and freedom" from "a Christian worldview." That such a response to the act of a weary public servant, who had cried when hearing the Pope the day before, hardly seemed Christian appears to have escaped the staunchly conservative audience.
These recent events highlight two Americas in conflict with each other, and as Lincoln warned, borrowing directly from the Gospel according to Mark, "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
One is the America of hope. In that America, the future lays as a bright dawn ahead of us, awaiting the inventiveness and industry of our joint labors. In that America, unity is, as Washington said in his Farewell Address, the palladium of our individual and collective happiness. In that America, the values of integrity, compassion, responsibility, fairness and forgiveness guide the process and product of problem resolution. In that America, differences and arguments do not disappear, but are civilly negotiated, weaving a social fabric over time into a garment that can withstand the inevitable strains of history.
The other America is one of fear. In that America, the future is a dark nightmare filled with dangers, people, and institutions that must be stopped. In that America, as Washington also said, the factious spirit prevails, and:
[T]he alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge . . . gradually incline[s] the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction . . . turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
In that America, moral values are subordinated to lying, retribution, irresponsibility, selfishness, and blaming -- all rationalized as essential for combating evil. In that America, compromise is anathema; victory is the only worthy goal.
In every stage of our history, we have confronted both Americas. They are the yin and yang of nationhood. In every stage, we have had to choose. Such a choice point faces us now. The fears and forces of division seem ascendant. One political party fosters a spirit of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-government and anti-gay hostility. It is the party that pines for an America that was less diverse -- more white, more Christian, more traditional. It is an America we will not see again. The other political party fosters a worldview that is anti-business and anti-wealth, seeing class divisions if not class warfare as in inescapable reality. It is a party that pines for a government safety net that can be paid for out of a seemingly endless prosperity that requires no need for personal sacrifice -- also an America we will not see again. Candidates for president, most especially on the right, demonstrate a meanness of spirit, a disrespect for propriety, and a preference for polarizing invective that poisons the social cohesion so essential to progress.
But the other America is there, waiting to be called forth. It is the America that acknowledges that realizing dreams requires real sacrifice, that finds ways to build bridges across dimensions of social, demographic, ethnic, racial, religious, and political diversity. It is the America that accepts half a loaf instead of demanding it all. It is the America that learns to build institutions, invest them with moral capital, provide them with sufficient resources, and thus enable them to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is the America that believes in other Americans, in the promise of becoming American, and helps people who are different, even it does not like how they look, pray, talk, or whom they love.
John Boehner and Joe Biden grew up in small towns, the descendants of immigrants. Boehner's parents struggled; he shared one bathroom with eleven siblings in a two-bedroom house. Biden's parents also struggled to make a living. As they sat behind the Pope, the Argentinean son of an Italian immigrant, who at one time worked as a janitor and bar bouncer, they cannot have missed the symbolism of his presence, the enlightening message not just of his words but of his life story. Thought not an American, he reminded us of the America of hope. He articulated that we have a choice of which America we choose to be. We should be grateful that he did. But it is time that we hear this from Americans as well.