The death of John F. Kennedy came three months and nine days before my own birth. And yet I’ve always felt an odd kinship with a man who I never shared the planet with, never shared a political party with.
Ronald Reagan was elected President during my junior year in high school. Like many young people of today — including those who felt “the Bern” or those who are now “with her” — I was swept away by Reagan’s vision of an America that was truly a shining “city on a hill.”
Except that it wasn’t Reagan’s vision.
Kennedy and Reagan both used the image in speeches before, during and after (in the case of Reagan) their Presidencies. It was unique to neither man.
No, this phrase entered the American sphere as early as 1630 — a full 146 years before our nation was founded. And it was uttered by Puritan John Winthrop, who likely was borrowing it from the parable of Salt and Light from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Winthrop wasn’t Republican or Democrat. Reagan, at one time or another in his political life, was both. And Jesus? Well, I think you could safely posit that Jesus would not have been comfortable aligning himself to the far left or to the extreme right — more likely instead choosing to implore us all to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.” (Matthew 5:16)
So where are we today as a nation? And where are we headed?
After the party conventions of the past two weeks, it might appear as if we’re headed toward one of the most divided periods in our land since the days of the Civil War. At the very least — one might be led to believe — America is in the midst of a period of unrest unrivaled since the turbulence of the late 1960s.
America CAN once again be that shining city on a hill, but only once those elected to political office step away from opposite sides of that hill and meet somewhere in the middle. Like maybe at the top?
I’ll use myself — warts and all, seemingly contradictory beliefs defining who I am and who I’m becoming — as an illustration of where we might go as a nation if we only give ourselves the chance to get there…of how we might make that hill a beacon of light once more.
I was born into a a core family unit of fiscally conservative Republicans. My dad worked extremely hard through the years to provide for our family, and my mom eventually left the home and worked as well — providing wonderful examples of getting “ahead” through one’s own initiative.
We were — and four of the “core” five family members remain — Catholics, believing in the dignity of the human person, protection of human rights, and heeding the call for an active participation in our society.
But it was all with a degree of nuance that is too often absent in today’s “hyper left” or “crazy right” American political landscape.
My mom and I, for example, differed from my dad in our belief in the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother. Dad chose to take the more hard-line, traditional Catholic stance of abortion as being unacceptable in all circumstances.
Yet we were — and are — able to live together as a family unit, marked by love and respect for one another. And the Catholic church hasn’t tracked down mom and I, ready to “mark” us for removal from the church family.
We’ve also been joined in loving relationships from outside of our core group of five — but very much upon the strongest branches of our family tree — by those both gay and straight, welfare recipients and those who would consider welfare to be an abhorrent idea, and more died-in-the-wool, card-carrying liberal Democrats than I could ever hope to fit under one roof.
And, shockingly, we’ve SURVIVED! No, we’ve THRIVED.
How have we done it? How have we continued to stand by our beliefs, yet love and respect others for — not despite — theirs?
We’ve listened. We’ve learned. We’ve worked together. We’ve grown.
We’ve chosen, simply, to not allow ourselves to be defined by labels — other than those that mean the most: Mother. Father. Sister. Brother. Friend. American.
Heck, I even heard my dad say the other day that he’d consider voting for the Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, if he thought it was the right thing to do for our country.
That’s where I am right now as well.
I’m a fiscal conservative at my core. The brief period of my life where I drew unemployment checks on two separate occasions after job separation was one that I fought like hell to end as quickly as possible. I believe much more strongly in the idea of working for everything and being given nothing that you haven’t earned.
Heck, even former President Bill Clinton himself — a strong Democrat if there ever was one — worked to reform welfare in his administration, urging those who were in tough spots to think of such assistance as a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.”
I’m all for the idea of giving someone a helping hand when he/she needs it. But I also think that the person getting that helping hand needs to take that assistance and eventually run with it on his/her own.
My hard work — in the high school and college classrooms and outside of them — paid for my college education, with the help of the hard work of my parents. Thus, I think I appreciate it even more than I might have otherwise.
Thus, the idea of a totally “free” college education is one that’s foreign to me.
But it’s not an idea that I’m adverse to at least exploring.
Unfortunately, there’s so little desire on the part of those in control of both parties to “meet in the middle” that it’s going to be hard to come to an agreement as to how we might assist those who really want a college education in achieving that education in a way that is fiscally responsible, affordable, and that means something in the end to the person achieving the degree.
And that’s just one issue!
I’m unlike a lot of my “red state,” Republican-to-the-bone-marrow friends in that I’m a proponent of sitting down and having intelligent dialogue on guns and gun legislation. And with a seemingly growing number of family members and friends who are members of the LGBT community, I’m also a firm proponent of the idea that love is love.
I told you I was full of seemingly-contradictory beliefs.
And yet I’d like to believe that I’m a lot more like a majority of Americans than a minority. And I’d like to believe that those of us here, in the middle, minus a label (Republican or Democrat) can roll up our sleeves and begin the important work of healing the divides and once again making our nation that shining city on the hill.
How do we do it?
First of all, we take the time to do the things we should have been doing all along: thinking, listening, discussing, compromising…leading.
We also work at restoring the family unit — however you want to define family — as the core of our American society. That’s not a Democratic or a Republican stance. It’s an American ideal.
And we quit, once and for all, the political posturing and injurious name-calling that has become increasingly poisonous with the advent of social media and a 24-hour “news” cycle.
Yes, my friends, we have our work cut out for us.
But like I’ve told anyone who would listen as of late, it’s never to late to do good work. It’s never to late to work on “something small” that could in turn spark meaningful change — not just in the immediate future, but in the future we leave for the children of our children.
That, my friends, is the real American ideal. And it’s not one that comes with the label of “Democrat” or “Republican.”
It comes with only one idea, one goal in mind. And it was a goal shared by Kennedy and Reagan, but first articulated by Jesus himself.
Shining city on a hill?
It’s out there, ready to be our “middle ground” once more.