In 1940 journalist Edward R. Murrow stood in a church in England while the country endured German bombers night after night. Inside the church was a crudely written sign which read, “If your knees knock, kneel on them.”
I don’t know about you, but my knees have been knocking a lot over the last several months. Within the last year, the atmosphere of the country has become thick with the stench of corruption, hypocrisy, rage, and hate speech. The last two are the most unsettling.
Last summer’s angry town hall meetings along with declining poll numbers of Congress confirm that people are fed up with a Washington consumed more by the business of politics and self-interest than the business of the people. However, between the party-centric bickering and the blustering pundits, Americans have allowed cynicism to replace hope and fear to overtake reason. If ever we need those two qualities – hope and reason – it is now. If ever we need to believe in the best we can be, it is now.
The spirit of America, expressed in its people and its principles, has carried us through everything from our first American crisis to a Great Depression, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. During those times, Americans have worked to overcome whatever challenges they faced.
I believe in hope, but we need something more.
We need a new model of citizenship, one that not only recognizes a shared purpose, but also a shared responsibility. America’s moral leadership may rest with the office of the presidency, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, but its moral responsibility rests with the American people themselves.
“We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity,” Roosevelt told an anxious nation in 1933, “with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values….”
Americans need to return to those values in a way where individuals come to the table respecting another’s right to their point of view, even if they disagree with that view; we need to come together with a responsibility to share the burdens of tough times as well as the fruit of the good.
We can debate how we get there, but without the infrastructure of honesty, fairness, responsibility, and above all, respect, we can never achieve our long term goal of being the best that we can be. This isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; this is a fundamental, ethical issue.
We have only to recall the times during the past year – as when one Senator openly boasted of wanting the President to fail, and a Representative called him a liar during a presidential address – to recognize the fear and rancor propagated even by those who govern.
In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned that we “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”
Three decades later, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke, not only, of his own failings but reminded his audience that, “Individual faults and fragilities are no excuse to give in, and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too….”
These may be the times that try our souls, as Thomas Paine so eloquently affirmed during that first American Crisis, but we’ve gone from fear to faith countless times, and we can return to that faith again if we remember who we are and what we stand for. Integrity, trust and confidence: that’s what Americans want. That’s what we need, and that’s what we can achieve again.