“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”
James Baldwin’s words from a 1971 conversation with Margaret Mead hit home for me with particular poignancy as we come to the last days of the 2016 campaign for the Presidency. Many have voted already and many more have made up their mind for whom or even whether to cast a vote for President. I have also cast my vote and can in no way hold myself out as unbiased or equally receptive to either of the two likely outcomes. Still, my hope is that not a single person who reads this piece will feel influenced in any way regarding November 8th. What I take from Baldwin’s words is a powerful call for what we do on November 9th and the days after that. How do we recognize that as contentious and legitimately momentous the decision we each make is, the course of our nation and our collective wellbeing will be most affected by how we choose to relate to each other?
Politics, like religion, can touch the deepest core of our identity, of our hopes and of our fears. And here is the thing. While we all know rationally that there is no issue on which we all agree, it is another matter to take seriously those differences and respect those who hold diverse positions. One reason of course is that we don’t always want to. After all, this isn’t a friendly rivalry with little riding on the outcome. In a democracy we are invested with the power to make choices in which the stakes could not be higher. If someone not only supports another candidate, but thinks that your way of understanding things is deluded, corrupt, callous or just plain stupid… it is hard to be charitable, to even give them the benefit of the doubt.
It may seem that the only choice I have is taking a stand cutting off the other side, or adopting the idea that everyone has the right to have their own positions respected. Honestly, neither of these choices are satisfying. Why should I give blanket approval for worldviews and policy positions that run counter to everything I believe in? On the other hand, how can I allow my world of friends and conversation partners to dwindle just to the people that I know will agree with me?
Whoever wins the White House, there will be a significant number of people who feel betrayed, alienated, and angry. There will be many who feel disenfranchised from the political system that is supposed to represent our interests. Whether over a regulatory bureaucracy that seems ridiculously excessive if not corrupt, an economic system that favors the most wealthy, a persistence of racial injustice that can be especially fatal to black lives, a brutal and relentless threat of terrorism from perpetrators who profess to follow Islam, the backlash and general prejudice against the Muslims that make up part of the private and public religious mosaic of our country, the potential for devastating changes in climate and extinction of species that could change the face of the earth, sweeping changes in attitudes and policy that counter what some Christians hold dear, toxic xenophobia, or our country losing the security of its borders. An exhausting, but not exhaustive list that runs the gamut from what is traditionally seen as the left to the right of the political spectrum. No wonder there is such a sense of polarization and a resistance to even explore the perspective of the other side.
So what will happen next? How can we find our better angels?
While many religious traditions provide their own paths to answer this question, I choose to turn to a different sacred text more suited for the discussion at hand. James Madison (despite not being the star of a brilliant musical) is often given credit for being the Father of the Constitution and under the name Publius, shared with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, authored many of what became the Federalist Papers, brilliant essays teaching the ideas at the core of our Union.
In Federalist 10 Madison argues that any large nation must face the reality that if its participants have liberty they will seek to join together to fulfill particular desires, often at the expense of others’ liberty, property, and wellbeing. But short of stripping away liberty, there is nothing that can be done to curb the existence of what these factions whose cause is “sown in Human Nature.” Madison’s was not the only voice, of course,s and great figures such as Jefferson and Hamilton placed the emphasis differently. But Madison shows that democracy’s greatest purpose is also its greatest challenge: Only democracy allows for the liberty that is at the heart of human dignity, and yet liberty fans the flame of factions that can ultimately threaten the well-being of the nation. And this is the argument for the Constitution.
The Constitution, as Madison put it elsewhere, recognized that “government itself” is the “greatest of all reflections on human nature,” because “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” and “if angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But, as the story of the Flood teaches, we are not angels. And so we mustn’t have either a tyranny of the government nor a tyranny of the people’s will, but what Madison would call a democratic republic.
The United States of America was and continues to be an experiment in Republican Democracy, a nation instituted and authorized by the will of the people but governed by representatives counted on to think broadly enough to counter the narrowness of one perspective.
Madison and the Founding Framers sought to find a way that we could coexist with both our own liberty and responsibility for each other’s well-being. They knew before the modern failures of Communism and Fascism that the only way to do this was to commit to our more perfect Union. And this brings us back to James Baldwin’s urgent words “we are still each other’s only hope”
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.