The last chapter of the race for the White House has been fascinating to watch. Twenty-three years ago, on election night, Sir John Major graciously said, “When the curtain falls, it’s time to get off the stage.” It seems the current incumbent doesn’t want to read from that script. There is little precedent in the modern era of a President erecting such transition hurdles for his successor. The stakes are especially high this year because the next President will take office amid a raging coronavirus pandemic, which will require a comprehensive government response. Assuming the U.S. Electoral College upholds convention and the Constitution the 46th. President of the United States will be sworn in at noon on 20th. January, 2021.
Famously, the Constitution opens with the words: “We the people…”. I wonder who the Founders had in mind when they used that phrase. In an odd sort of symmetry, 6th. November was the anniversary of the election of probably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, and it was this simple-but-problematic phrase that posed Lincoln his biggest challenge: does “the people” include black people and slaves? The next few years saw Civil War and the tearing apart of a country over precisely this question. It’s not a question that has since gone away. What was remarkable about Lincoln, though, was the way he treated his political opponents. As Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates in her exceptional book “A Team of Rivals”, Lincoln brought into his close cabinet the very people who had run against him for the presidency and who variously undermined him, fought against him and tried to compromise his leadership. He knew that a country for all the people included his opponents and not just his supporters. Lincoln summed up this approach when he said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” In another context he said of an opponent: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Some would say this is politically naive. But perhaps Lincoln understood something vital to a good society - that “the people” has to include all the people and not just the winners in an election.
In this understanding Lincoln drew from a biblical tradition that explored how societies are built from mutual obligations, common commitments and the privileges of belonging. In the Old Testament the liberated people of Israel take forty years in a desert learning not only the need for social order based on freedom and responsibility, but also for establishing common rituals that re-frame their story, remind them why people matter, and impose boundaries of value and behaviour within which their newly-found freedom can be enjoyed. Lincoln also draws on Jesus seeing His enemies as people to be loved and not rejected or despised. Naive - in a world that worships power and glory and glamour - maybe. Both Jesus and Lincoln paid a heavy price. But, whatever the ultimate outcome of the US election, Lincoln’s courage and integrity might have something to offer.
God bless “the people” of the United States of America with peace, stability, unity, reconciliation, democracy and progress.