On Friday I attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump with the hundreds of thousands of others fortunate enough to witness the peaceful transfer of unimaginable power. It was an inspirational and patriotic experience. The inaugural concert was especially moving and I thought Trump’s inaugural address was punchy and to the point. The very next day I stood on a street corner across the street from the White House and witnessed hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating against his presidency at the Women’s March. An endless river of humanity swept past me.
Welcome to schizophrenic America where in the space of just 48 hours America’s capital city can change from blue to red to blue again.
Are these opposing stripes now destined to forever remain parallel lines that never meet? Are we the generation to have witnessed the last of a united America? In asking whether America can be brought together again in our lifetimes, let me be clear that in and of itself there is nothing tragically wrong with deep political divisions in our nation, so long as no side suppresses or disrespects the rights of the other. To be sure, America is much stronger unified. We are all better off harmonized. And yet the very essence of democracy is opposing factions that need not always cohere. When people say that America is more divided than ever before they forget the 20,000 who died in a single day at Antietam, the more than 50,000 who died at Gettysburg, or even the four students murdered at Kent State. So long as we’re only demonstrating against one another – non-violently – we’re still ok.
But, as President Trump said in his inaugural address, quoting from the Bible, there is sublime beauty when people dwell together.
As a child of divorce who found healing in the thought of disparate streams of people who became one nation under one flag, I am personally wounded by the deep divisions in our country, which manifest in increasingly bitter exchanges at our Shabbat table on Friday nights. Most weeks we host significant numbers of people from the Left and Right, liberals and conservatives, and have been doing so for more than a quarter- century. Yes, people still get along, and leave them breaking bread for a few hours and they often become friends. But these days I find myself increasingly in the position of having to police the exchanges lest they drift in an instant into friction, acrimony and discord.
Given that America today is more prone to political extremes, what, pray tell, can possibly unite us? Is it religion? No. Not just yet.
I would venture that a large percentage of the Trump supporters who came to DC are more identifiably religious than the arguably more secular crowd that participated at the Women’s March. In that sense religion may be dividing rather than unifying America.
Is it perhaps patriotism, then? No, because the two sides have very different definitions of what patriotic loyalty consists of. The Right glorifies the military, as was plain from Toby Keith at the inaugural concert, while the Left puts greater emphasis on patriotism as expressed in social justice.
We are left then with only one solution. Values.
The American Right and Left must be united through common values. A shared dedication to the infinite dignity of the human person, to protecting the innocence of children, respect for the sanctity of love and relationships, a shared belief in generosity and charity, a commitment to the blessing of education and knowledge, a respect for women as the equals of men, a commitment to a common humanity that walks humbly without flaunting blessings in the face of the less fortunate, are the very stuff of American values.
Cap this off with unbridled dedication to the integrity of the will of the people as expressed in the democratic process and we still might be one nation, under God.
The women who marched in DC might not be great fans of Trump. But they sure looked like they enjoyed marching together. And we must emphasize to them that a sisterhood of shared belief in affirming their values as opposed to a hatred of Republicans and Donald Trump is what should as the glue that binds them.
Likewise, those who gathered on the steps of the Capitol to salute America’s 45th president should affirm the new president’s belief in never again forgetting the forgotten man rather than finding unity in despising the Left.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, once said that a bird requires two wings pushing in opposite directions in order to fly. Without antithetical lift there would be no propulsion. There has to be a right wing and a left wing for the bird to take flight.
Can we not see the political Right and Left in the same light? Would America be blessed if it were a one-party state like Russia, or China? As we long as we grant voice to those with whom we differ, need we feel undermined by the fact that they think differently? I read many of the thousands of signs that passed me by at the Women’s March. Those that affirmed the dignity and equality of women touched my heart.
I am, after all, the father of six daughters. But those that vilified Trump, dropped the F-bomb, or displayed lewd depictions of the female anatomy (and you’d be amazed at how many there were) left me cold.
Conversely, President Trump’s calls for unity during his inaugural were the most moving parts of his address. But those in the crowd who booed Chuck Schumer, even as his speech seemed unnecessarily laden with political calculation, undermined the dignity of the inaugural.
In the final analysis Americans need to ask themselves a simple question: will it take tragedy to bring us together? Or will we reach out to one another in full recognition that a nation as fortunate as America must see as its greatest blessing not just the diversity of ethnicity and color, but especially the diversity of opinion, creed and thought.
My God, how utterly boring and monolithic it would otherwise be.The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published The Israel Warrior: Standing Up for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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