Sandy and the White House: A Report from New York

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Daniel Meeter writes today in place of Jason Lief. Thanks, Daniel.

On Tuesday, November 6, the people of the United States elected Barack Obama for a second term as President. For many of us this election had two stories — the election happened in the aftermath of Super-storm Sandy. Residents of New York and New Jersey and the surrounding region had to struggle to vote like in some undeveloped country. People were voting in tents set up with generators. People were voting in the backs of National Guard trucks. My wife and I live in Brooklyn, the largest and most populous borough of New York City, and it took us two hours to drive and walk the two miles to cast our vote. Most of us have been far more focused on living through the aftermath than on national politics. I spent the week after Election Day organizing volunteers to deliver food and flashlights and blankets to the victims of Sandy still without hydro or living in local shelters.

The two stories came together for the whole country with the visit of President Obama to New Jersey to survey the damage and destruction, not as a candidate, but the Head of State. His host was Governor Chris Christie, who had nominated Mitt Romney at the Republican convention. We watched the two of them, side by side, getting along, serving the afflicted and storm-tossed with power and compassion. Obama won a point for the federal government as a common good, and Christie did not deny it.

Romney lost and Christie won. I mean in terms of the Republican Party. Romney represented the GOP as a sort of Christian heritage party, with Mormons now included among the Christians. The Party’s platform was the public enforcement of personal moralities based on revealed religion, together with that unique American mythology of revolution, liberty, violence, race, and guns. But Christie represents the old pragmatic GOP, a progres­sive conservative party, anti-revolutionary, pro-federal government, and strong in favor of civil rights, the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisen­hower. The Republican Party will have to choose to be what Romney lost or rather what Christie won.

Romney lost, in great part, because of changing demographics. Romney appealed to the white male Christians whose majority is dwindling. Obama, though himself a converted, practicing, Trinitarian Christian, is a symbol of America’s increasing diversity of color and religion, for whom the sacred mythological heritage of America means little and for whom the US Constitution is not a sacred document (as it is for the Tea Party and the Mormons). They care more about the American future, and Obama represents that future.

It’s a fearful future. Super-storm Sandy symbolized climate change and global warming. More storms are coming. People fear there is no going back to normal, and what will the new normal be? Romney represented going back — even “taking back” America. What does that mean for the devastated Jersey Shore, and Atlantic City, and Coney Island? Building them back the way they were, or rebuilding them as “green”? Now, suddenly, new federal initiatives make sense, the kind Obama was talking about.

The United States is unlike most democracies in the way it combines the offices of the Head of State and the leader of the government into a single office, and directly chooses that office in a single national election. This election happens regularly every four years, so this quadrennial national referendum has become a huge ritual of national repentance, revival, judgment, damnation, renewal, and reconciliation. The American national character is so ideological that it’s virtually a secular religion. Canadians might “love” Canada, but Americans “believe in” America. The election was a test of American doctrines and a choice between two prophetic visions—one to repent and return, the other to revive and renew America.

The sacred mythology of America has two gospels in it: the original Gospel of the Revolution, of the War of Independence from Great Britain, and the later Gospel of the Immigration, of Ellis Island, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the sweatshops and the labor unions. These two represent the tensions of America, between the values of the patriot (individualism, the right to bear arms, hatred of the crown and distrust of government) and the values of the immigrant (community, hard work, the protection of the government against the rich tycoon). The tensions between freedom and equality and between liberty and justice are the tensions of democracy. Romney ran on one Gospel and Obama on the other.

In the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929, Americans chose for FDR, and they stayed with him during the War. In the Great Recession that followed the Wall Street debacle of 2008, Americans chose for the party of FDR and this November they stayed with it. They chose for the party that values compassion over righteousness, the commonwealth (emphasis on “common”) over the individual, the immigrants over the patriots, and the possible future over the Founding Fathers. It is a risky choice, but the electorate doubted there were any certainties anyway. Some Christians see the choice as a rejection of Christian values. Others see it as a return to the separation of church and state, for the good of both, and that the Kingdom of God is best served by a desacralized America.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Church of Brooklyn, New York and a dual citizen of the US and Canada. His most recent book is Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell) [an ebook available from Amazon].  This originally appeared in the Christian Couriera Reformed biweekly from Canada.

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