Opinion by Robert M. Franklin
Updated: Wed, 20 Jan 2021 19:37:15 GMT
Editor's Note: Robert M. Franklin is the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. He is the author of "Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination." The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
For the past several years I have served as a pastor in Trump country. I have listened to the public and private fears, hopes and stories of those who feel unheard, ignored and scorned by America's elites in both political parties. While living in predominately White upstate New York and Western Pennsylvania, I commuted regularly to Atlanta, home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and an influential Back middle class, that is reshaping "the blackest city in America," as "Saturday Night Live" comedian Michael Che calls it. As senior pastor of the historic Chautauqua Institution and as former president of Morehouse College, I have been able to feel the pulse of these two Americas side by side. Let me share some of the home remedies I have tried and tested in recent years. Just in case it may help my neighbors -- all of them.
Let us encourage a new etiquette for civic life that is rooted in respect, restraint, humility and humor.
Let us remember that our ancestors are watching us. Since we are not yet ready or willing to heal our deepest wounds or repent the harshest damage done by our injustice, there are some things that patriotic Americans can undertake now to reduce the tension, volume and heartburn in the country. Ordinary people can do these things, but they will have greater impact if all of our leaders in politics, business, religion, education, healthcare and the arts join in to do likewise.
In fact, I am asking for more. Let our leaders behave like moral leaders. Moral leaders are people who invite us to become better, truer versions of ourselves, while holding us accountable for the fruits of our action.
So what can each of us do now, today?
1. Reset the national tone. In recent years, we have come to expect our national discourse to be loud, harsh and impatient. It's time to set a new, constructive and creative tone at the top. Even if we have little or no appetite for moral rhetoric right now, we can all help to improve our habits of communications. Leaders from different sectors report that among the things we need most now are true stories of diverse Americans working together.
2. Restore respect for facts, evidence and science. When you read or hear a statement, ask critical questions about its sources and their veracity and reliability. President John Adams, America's second president, said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
3. Affirm leaders who are courageous, competent and demonstrate integrity. We are a nation in desperate need of profiles in courage. Only integrity and public accountability can restore and inspire trust. Leaders who do the right thing have been badly treated of late. But the entire nation should be proud of people like Georgia's voting systems manager, Gabriel Sterling, who pleaded for sanity and peace while affirming the accuracy and trustworthiness of state election results and recounts. And, Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming's lone member of the House of Representatives, spoke out as one of a few Republicans who condemned President Donald Trump's irresponsible behavior on January 6. Let's make it safe for such leaders to tell the truth with a clear conscience and respect for common decency.
4. Restrain from taking cynical cheap shots at others who are honestly trying to improve our society. In the months ahead we will hear plenty of platitudes from every partisan angle. When you hear them holding forth, take a deep breath, and dare to whisper, "forgive them for they know not what they say." A cynic is a person "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," as Oscar Wilde noted. It's time to put the value of our country above the price of partisan power for its own sake.
5. Begin every difficult conversation with humility and humor. It may help to say something positive about your opponent before you dive into the honest debate to follow. Consider sharing something about yourself that releases a little hot air from the bright balloon of vanity. Great leaders like John F. Kennedy, Joseph Lowery, and others practiced the art of self-deprecation to good effect.
6. Be generous to strangers. As the speeches during Joe Biden's inauguration and remarks elsewhere begin to flow and voices rise, instead of dismissing them outright or pigeon-holing them as radical or reactionary, racist or elitist, socialist or fascist, cut them a little slack. Imagine how and why those views may ring true to their experience. They may be trying their best to find answers to problems we have not faced. Put on charity, urges the Apostle Paul. The ancient philosopher Philo advises, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great struggle."
7. Educate yourself about the experience of others who are different. There are a lot of great books out there to help with this. Create or join a book club to inform your intuitions and share your insights. Before calling names or cursing enemies, read a good book out there by or about a sister or brother from "another planet," a cultural conservative or liberal, a voice raised from the Black Lives Matter movement or from an evangelical pulpit.
Trying out these simple practices may foster the manners and morals of a civic life rooted in mutual respect and restraint. Living in two very different communities taught me patience, empathy and respect for the good and decent people in both places.
Many of my neighbors in Trump country were striving and struggling to live up to the dreams of their parents, grandparents and ancestors. Some may judge that no cause for a sense of entitlement or grievance, anger or despair. But, in fact, the real wages of non-college hourly wage workers have not matched the cost of living for decades, growing at a slow speed. They are falling behind, and they feel the loss of broken dreams and the bite of personal failure as well as the pinch of economic hardship. Many voted for former President Barack Obama, then Trump. Now they hope and pray that government, no matter who is president, will provide good jobs and living wages for all Americans.
My neighbors in Atlanta, or what many have called "Stacey Abrams country," were offended by the duplicity and hypocrisy in the policing we saw on Capitol Hill compared to Black Lives Matter rallies. These parents want their kids who exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and lawful assembly in peaceful protest to return home no less safely than Capitol Hill protesters who refrained from riot or assault. Many echo the frustration captured in the 1988 rap classic album by Public Enemy, "It takes a nation of millions to hold us back." They hope we can all come to recognize their patriotism and love of country, and to heed their voices and vision, not only to give them a fair shake under the law and a fair slice of the economic pie.
According to "Hidden Tribes," a 2018 report on political polarization in America, some 77% of Americans "believe that our differences aren't so great that we can't come together." Our fellow citizens on the far left and right may never come together, but I know that most people across this land do not want to hate each other. My neighbors in Atlanta and in Chautauqua share lots of common ground. They can come together. I want them to know that. I hope that Mr. Biden and a new Congress will keep this aim in mind and lead us to keep our promise to form a more perfect union. The future of American democracy depends on it.