First of all, I would like to thank the wonderful bloggers at JI for their recent flood of attention to female subjects of history, particularly sister missionaries. I hope to contribute to the discussion of gender soon.
And second, and more important, is the day at hand, the day that comes once every four years, the day of inauguration.
I am an unlikely one to take up the task I am assigning myself in writing this. I live in a world of political unreality, maintaining a steadfast distrust for those in power and those structures of power they work within and pining away for a world without pain or politics. In short, I long for Zion.
Yet, today I met a political ideal I could actually get behind, an ideal that is very Mormon (as well as American) at its root and that accords with an ideal I have held for a while. At the same time, I was forced to modify my previously held ideal for one that is more accurate.
For those of you who heard or watched President Obama’s inaugural address, I need not remind you of Obama’s diction or delivery. Both were impressive. Yet I was more impressed with the vision he laid out for America, one that made me desire to be an active citizen of this country for one of the few times in my adult life and to be a better Mormon.
Jon Pahl of Religion in American History, in speaking of President Obama’s inaugural speech, noted, “Obama’s chief theme was that religions provide people with spiritual strength to be responsible citizens; to work for the common good. . . . This was a speech about the spirituality of work.”
Mormons, past and present, have strongly believed in the spirituality of work. The ideal of Zion, although diffuse and somewhat attenuated, is about work, spiritual and physical. It is about struggle and setback and slow progress. But many contemporary Mormons have the sense of Zion as a dream deferred, and this attitude lends itself to an ethos of passive waiting and fear for the future. In its crude form the argument would be, “America is pretty much going to pot–signs of the times and all. We should hunker down in our bunker and wait things out.” I have held this attitude for similar reasons.
I have been disturbed by the materialism I see among the members American LDS church that allow inequality to exist between them and their brothers and sisters, a disturbance that increased as I studied the Shakers, akin to Mormons in their utopian striving. Because Mormons could not, in the forseeable future, re-create Zion and because there was no hope of America improving either, I lost hope. I forgot that even Zion requires work, some of it messy political work at that (see Mormon history). Mormons have always struggled with the given political institutions of their day. I retreated into my own (again typically Mormon) gloom and doom speculations.
But Obama’s speech today reminded me of my glorious and inescapable duty as a citizen of this country and as a Mormon. I am required to work in the world to create Zion, not only in a spiritual sense (becoming pure in heart and all that) but in a material sense as well. Wherever there is inequality of any kind, I must face it. I must choose Mormons’ “better history,” a living history that does not lie down and submit to cultural pressures but that meets them head on with an “alternative reading of reality” provided by scripture and revelation (Brueggemann, A Pathway of Interpretation, 4). (Obama gave his own alternative reading of reality with his political vision for the country, which is difficult to do, but he used the language of scripture admirably to do it.)
Our better history as Mormons, however, is yet to come. We need not fear; we need only the faith and the will to work to create that history. It will not happen on its own. Perhaps Obama’s presidency is a test, exactly of the kind Mormons such as myself will not cede to political institutions: Can we live up to our destiny, one that we will create, one that must be earned and not passively accepted? At the same time, I remain skeptical–skeptical of government and well-spoken politicians and most of all my own abilities. Can I live up to this call or will I remain afraid? Again, in the words of our president:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. . . .
This is the journey we continue today. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.