November 24, 2016
Four years ago I was invited to give the Baccalaureate Address for my daughter’s graduating class at Washington and Lee. I opened with a story about a Washington and Lee alumnus, Dr. Thomas More. He is fictional—“my favorite man in fiction” as I told the graduates. I’ve told you about him. He is the one who said:
I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all.i
Dr. More appears in two of Percy’s novels, the full title of the first one is: Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End. Written in the tumult of the 1960’s, it imagined a not too distant future in which things for our country had gotten much worse.
Here is some of what I told the graduates.
Dr. More’s lovely, late ex-wife was a Virginian and they had met here at Washington and Lee. The marriage had been mostly happy until their daughter died, and in that heartbreak they lost connection. That was also when love of God and neighbor slipped down his list of personal priorities. Reading between the lines, one suspects that booze had crept up the list higher than third place. At any time of day, a reader might find him pulling on a flask or bottle. All of this had happened by the time the novel opens.
Before he wrote the novel, Walker Percy previewed it for his good friend Shelby Foote:
“I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S.; the country rent almost hopelessly between the rural Knothead right and the godless alienated left, worse than the Civil War. Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass at the usual silo-and barn, the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys (the good white maple and plastic balls), coming home of an evening, with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky, having four drinks of good sourmash and assaulting one’s wife in the armchair etc. What we Catholics call the sacramental life.”ii
In the novel, Dr. More addresses readers from that not very distant future with bad news. He is sorry to inform us that in the United States “the center did not hold.”iii
Our beloved old U.S.A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other, race against race, right against left, believer against heathen.iv
The American experiment was failing! He wonders why.
The U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? That the thing always had a flaw in it . . . a place where it would shear?”v
It could be. From our founding, this has been a persistent worry. But Dr. More’s is not a counsel of despair.
“Don’t give up,” he says to us.
Don’t give up. It is not too late. You are still the last hope. There is no one else. Bad as we are, there is no one else.vi
“You tested us,” he says to God.
You tested us because bad as we were there was no one else, and everybody knew it, even our enemies, and that is why they curse us. Who curses the Chinese? Whoever imagined the Chinese were blessed by God and asked to save the world?vii
Granted, Dr. More is half-drunk. Granted, the view he is espousing, called “American Exceptionalism,” is controversial even among Americans, considered by some to be delusional and dangerous. Granted that in some of its expressions it surely is.
Then we remember Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Were it not for Lincoln’s insistence on American Exceptionalism, this morning we would be gathered under a different flag. Had King not preached the promise of America as his beacon for a peaceful revolution, then outwardly and inwardly we would be a very different group of people.
I agree with Thomas More. This American faith that we have been blessed and called to great things has been a well-spring of national resilience and renewal. And when we forsake this faith, as our southern forebears, God forgive them, did one hundred and fifty years ago, then our nation reduces down to nothing more than an ingenious design for managing competing interests. We have aspired to more. We are more. Don’t give that up.
I said all of that four years ago last spring.
As we all know, our Thanksgiving holiday began with Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. It was first made official in 1789 by George Washington, who announced that Thursday, November 26 of that year, would be a day for public thanksgiving to “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be . . . for His kind care and protection of the people of this country.” Thus, our first president called all Americans to unite in prayer that Thursday.
Washington's proclamation was just for the one day in 1789. Thereafter, several states on various days continued the observance. In the 1800’s, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady Book began a campaign to have it made an annual national holiday event. For years, presidents ignored her. Then Abraham Lincoln listened. In 1863, President Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as an annual, national “day of thanksgiving and praise.”
With victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, 1863 had seen the war turn in the union's favor, so that was reason for the White House to be thankful. But Lincoln also counted other blessings that he attributed to God’s guidance and protection—that England and France had held back from intervention in the war; that in the cities civil order still prevailed; that on farms the harvest still came in; that at the western frontier land was being cleared and the country continued its expansion; that outside the terrible theater of battle—which Lincoln saw as divine chastisement for the sin of slavery—life peacefully went on. The president said:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
So Thanksgiving is a feast day both for state and church. It is an open window in our country’s mighty wall between them, a time when presidents and governors may preach a bit. These last two Thanksgivings, we’ve had two Governors of Arkansas do that here. Governor Beebe offered an insightful meditation about love and power: love is not the renunciation of power, rather its divine expression. Governor Hutchinson told a personal story about the hidden providence of God: a series of misfortunes that at the time seemed awful and chaotic, had turned out to thwart the plans of a group that was going to try to kill him.
Now let’s notice something. In the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln, and the sermons of Governors Hutchinson and Beebe, Christian faith is evident, but constrained in expression. God is named but Jesus isn't. Faith in providence is shared; the doctrine of redemption isn’t. Respect is paid to those who do not share our faith in all of its particulars. From the state side of the wall, four government officials lean through the open window, have a look around and say an important word or two. Out of respect for the breadth of American religious conviction, not everything a president or governor believes is said. It is a window in the wall of separation, not a door.
Americans appreciate similar restraint from clergy. From the church side, a preacher pokes a head through the window and says a word or two about some doings on the other side. That was me doing that four years ago at Washington and Lee. Out of respect for the breadth of Christian political conviction, not everything the preacher may believe or think is said.
That’s our country’s unique church-state arrangement. It has served us well in my opinion. That open-windowed wall is part of what makes America so livable.
On this election night, I went to bed late surprised at the result, and worried by it. One big worry was that the result would generate an escalating cycle of backlash and recrimination, that the center wouldn’t hold and we would find ourselves in Walker Percy’s nightmare.
The next day, Mrs. Clinton and President Obama both showed us how to take a loss in a democracy. “He’s going to be our president,” she said of Mr. Trump, and “we owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” The president called the election an intramural struggle. He said that in the big picture we are all on the same team. That is political maturity. On leaving office, both Presidents Bush had shown the same. It is the American tradition. It is how the center holds.
I have other thoughts of course, but that is the main one. Like Dr. More I believe in Democracy, the Declaration, the Constitution, American Exceptionalism, the whole bit. Also like him, I have my own quirks. In order, I love my family first, music and Karl Barth second; the Hogs third; and so forth. I don’t put God on lists like that. Does the egg say to the goose, “To me you are not all that important?”
Back at Washington and Lee, this is I ended that moment of baccalaureate political reflection:
"Concerning your future, I’ll say this:
For our society to have raised up giants like King and Lincoln, there have had to be thousands, tens of thousands, of people like them whom none of us has heard of. They were the glory of their times. Let that be you.
Let that be you through the three score years or so to which you may now look forward, years for pursuing and I pray finding the merriness of living more or less anonymously in cities, suburbs, towns; for drinking well, but less I trust than you did here; for attending church I hope—or synagogue or mosque—as here most of you probably did not; for discovering the goodness of a bowling alley, the hard plastic ball gathering momentum down the good white maple floor; for the unscripted moment of armchair marital communion, etc.: the sacramental life."
Four score, three score, two, or one: let that be them. Let that be us.
[i] Ibid, 125.
[ii] Jay Tolson, ed.,The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy(New York: Doubleday, 1997), 129.
[iii] Percy,Love in the Ruins, 320.
[iv]Love in the Ruins, 303.
[v]Love in the Ruins, 990.
[vi]Love in the Ruins, 1010.
[vii]Love in the Ruins, 1005.