By Benjamin Cole
The election of 2008 was historic, and now it is history. A tough-fought campaign has ended with a number of firsts for the country, the most notable of which is the highest number of votes — and the election — going to an African American. Among the other firsts is the Republican Party’s nomination of a woman to share a place on the national ticket. Also, as of Nov. 6, it looks like a convicted felon has been elected to the United States Senate for the first time.
Obviously, some noteworthy firsts are better than others.
The streets of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington were wild on election night with celebration over the election of Barack Obama to serve as the 44th president of the United States. Across from the White House, cheering, singing, crying and shouting pierced the unseasonably mild November night.
For most of the final weeks of the campaign, I was working day and night in a battleground state to help re-elect a vulnerable incumbent senator. On election night, the room where I sat with friends and fellow campaign workers was starkly different from the celebrations we watched on the flat screens. There were tears, confusion, dismay and, at times, a sense of relief.
Nevertheless, I had to reflect on the fact that the man elected to lead the nation was the first Illinois politician since Abraham Lincoln elevated to the presidency. I thought about how divided the nation was in 1860, and how painful the process of healing was. I thought about the division of North and South, and of Red and Blue.
Then, as now, the president needed wisdom, courage, and calm. The record reflects the leadership of Lincoln, and the nation is watching to see whether Obama will transform soaring rhetoric into successful policy.
Throughout election night and into the next day, my e-mail inbox was filled with woeful warnings about what America will look like with Barack Obama in the White House. Some of the messages were silly, like the one that questioned whether or not President-elect Obama would appoint the notorious William Ayers — a former domestic radical whose association with Obama became the subject of Republican attack ads -– to serve as education secretary. Some of the e-mails were downright offensive, like the one that resurrected old images of sharecroppers and slave-traders.
The silliest and most offensive of them, I should add, came from Baptist pastors.
At Baylor University, the largest Baptist school in the world and my alma mater, campus police had to break up a heated argument between white and black students. According to reports, a noose was suspended from a tree on the Waco, Texas campus. Baylor’s interim president, Dr. David Garland, has rightly condemned those actions and has made it clear that the university will countenance no form of racial intolerance.
And while Barack Obama has professed a Christian faith, many of my Baptist friends have rumored about a hidden Muslim faith. That a man’s faith would matter to Baptists seems to me an odd twist for a people who fought to eliminate any religious test for office from the nation’s founding documents.
Old biases, however, never die easily, as evidenced by the aforementioned e-mails I received. That these biases remain strongest among those Americans who consider themselves Christian is both troubling and contemptible. But the fact remains that many Baptists still have some lessons to learn about tolerance. It should unsettle us that a people once known for their commitment to tolerance would continue to struggle with practicing consistently what our earliest forbears so faithfully preached.
During the course of the past year, I too have been forced to wrestle with my own prejudices. At times, I’ve joined the bigoted banter and helped to scratch the old wounds of racism. Yet on a quick flight back to Washington Nov. 5, I was able to get past my own persuasion about the political consequence of Barack Obama’s election and be thankful that America has become a place where a man with dark skin and an African surname can become president.
The Democratic Party now holds both houses of Congress by substantial margins, and on January 20, 2009, it will hold the White House. While vote totals are not yet certain in Minnesota, Georgia, and Alaska, it is clear that the Democrats have their first chance since the 103rd Congress to promote an agenda unimpeded by counter-balancing Republican majorities. I’m reminded of the old story about the dog that caught the car he was chasing and wasn’t sure what to do with it when he got it. These are no easy days to govern the country and lead the world, and I almost pity those who are entrusted with the task.
The Democrats will have to show that they can rein in federal spending, and Republicans will have to show that they value the need for regulations and oversight within a free market. Barack Obama is going to have to demonstrate that he can be decisive as well as reflective, and John McCain is going to have to work more closely with his party rather than run against it. All Americans are going to have to learn the virtues of patience and frugality.
And Baptists are going to have to reacquaint themselves with the virtues of religious and racial tolerance if, indeed, this government of the people, by the people, and for the people is not to perish from the earth.