An Open Letter to President Obama
Dear Mr. President:
Surely this will be but one of many thousands of letters and notes you will receive upon the joyous occasion of your Inauguration as our new President. This open letter to you will be presented in the form of a sermon to my congregation, the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, NY, founded in 1833 where I currently serve as Senior Minister. It is the proud tradition of this congregation to grant its ministers a free pulpit in all matters, but I hasten to add that I speak this morning for myself as a citizen, not for the whole congregation.
I’m proud to say I voted for you, Sir. I voted for you because I have been concerned and disturbed by policies and directions of the past eight years, policies and directions that are contrary to the America where I grew up, the America where my own working-class parents immigrated in search of a better future for their children and grandchildren. I voted for you because I love my country, and I believe my country desperately needs to change direction and regain its moral footing again.
I wish first and foremost to add my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to you as you take up the work which history, destiny, and the American people now lay upon your strong shoulders. You’ve already demonstrated through this long and exhaustive election process that you are physically, intellectually, and spiritually able to assume this arduous office and its burdens. Rest assured that people of goodwill and good faith the world over hold you and your family in our thoughts and prayers as your Presidential term begins.
To say that your election alone is a symbol of immense pride and hope for America is an understatement, of course. For the older generation of Americans, for those of us of an age to remember the struggles of the Civil Rights era—for those of us whose whole lives were forever impacted and inspired by the echoes of Martin Luther King’s voice ringing down the steps of the Lincoln memorial—for those who have carried in the corners of their hearts the images of fearless Freedom Riders, for those who in body or spirit sat beside Rosa Parks on the buses, or sang arm-in-arm with Jesse Jackson and John Lewis on the picket-lines of protest – for all people of Color and their children—for the immigrants who still come to America with dreams of a better life to be had for their children – for all of us who remember and revere an American ideal of equal opportunity for all, your election, Sir, is both a vindication of hope and an amazing journey of accomplishment. We all owe you and your family a debt of gratitude for the spirit and grace with which you have embodied this legacy.
I am sure that it must feel wonderful and at the same time overwhelming to carry such hope and aspiration for so many people wherever you go. Your achievement is not simply your own, it is ours as a society. It lifts all of us as a people.
That said, no one needs to remind you that you come to your office at a time when it seems that virtually every aspect of our national and international agenda needs immediate uplift, emergency repair, or intensive new direction. We have problems as a country, the likes of which we have not seen or dealt with since the Depression years, and which the world has not experienced since the end of World War II. Our economy, our financial system, our unemployment rate, our housing market, the state of American industrials and American retail, and our national deficit all stand at near-crisis levels. Our carbon-dependent-based energy system continues to wreak disaster on our ecology even as it disempowers the United States from any moral leadership position in addressing global ecological ruin. Our health care system, to our national shame, has for years left more than 40 million poor Americans, more than half of them children, without coverage.
Two ill-considered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their attendant morally-bankrupt policies of pre-emptive attack and prisoner interrogation policies that ignore Geneva accords (something we have never done before) have completely undercut our standing as a righteous and honorable nation. In the days following the outrageous attacks of 9/11, our country had the compassion and support of the entire Free World. We squandered that goodwill and support when the Bush Administration, in fear and vengefulness, chose policies that violated Civil Rights in the name of security, justified wide-spread wire-tapping domestically and internationally, with an Attorney General and a Vice President who even as newsphotos of Abu Graeb were being flashed around the world found time to explain how “waterboarding” was not, technically-speaking, actually torture; and how rendition of prisoners to nations where we knew they would be tortured in far worse manner was legal and justified.
Whenever and wherever did it occur that America lost its sense of moral outrage over such actions by its own government? Mr. Obama, Sir, we turn to you now, in trust and in faith, that you will immediately and finally restore our standing among nations by seeing that such practices are forever banned by all agencies of American government and its armed services. Further, I urge you, Sir, in all appointments to the Justice Department, the Supreme Court and other federal benches, to appoint only people capable of distinguishing torture whenever it appears, recognizing abuses of civil liberties whenever they are suggested, and demanding humane treatment of prisoners just as we would claim for Americans imprisoned abroad.
Restore to us, Sir, our long-held and long-deserved reputation as a nation that is generous in aiding others, a nation that does not torture, a nation that does not pre-emptively attack others. Remind us, Sir, that our nation is still the nation that welcomes the world’s tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free. By your policies and by the conduct of your Administration, Sir, restore the patina of Hope to our Statue of Liberty and make it meaningful once again. Make us proud once again to mean it when we sing, “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”
As you have had occasion to remind us over these past weeks, Mr. Obama, we only have one President at a time in this democracy of ours. Well, as of next week, Sir, the only President we have is you. You will never have more of a mandate than you have now. I urge you to use it well, use it with vigor, and use it immediately to begin a new era for our nation and for the Free World to follow. Challenge us, and I think you will find a nation hungry and happy to work for the Change you so grandly spoke of during your election campaign. You’ve already assembled leaders of impressive abilities and character to be part of your Cabinet team. We have good people ready to focus on the work that needs to be done.
I do not write today to offer another “to do” list of priority items to be addressed. Rather, my wishes for you at the beginning of your Presidency have more to do with the spirit that will need to empower that work if it is to succeed. The pragmatic and practical policies and decisions will reveal themselves quickly enough. I suggest to you that our national spirit will be as much affected by how your leadership is exhibited as by where you attempt to lead us.
So, I wish for you, first, the old fashioned Scriptural blessing of Fortitude, both intellectual and intestinal. By which I mean may you never lack for courage, wit, or humility in your leadership. May you understand the difference between Resolve and mere Stubbornness, a difference I do not believe your immediate predecessor was ever able to distinguish. When did it become anathema for an American President ever to admit to fallibility in all things human? When did American prestige in the world depend on stubborn and ungracious refusal to admit error, for fear that we might be seen as a lesser nation for apologizing? This ability, utterly lacking in our last President, to apologize either to our own people for policy errors, or to other nations for American mistakes that injured or insulted other cultures, only made us appear insufferably arrogant in the eyes of friends and foes alike.
As our leader, Sir, may you have the spiritual sturdiness to stay your course when the course is correct; and may you never fear to correct the course when it proves necessary.
Second, no less important, we would wish for you the true leader’s gift of Vision: that is, not the kind of pedestrian vision that confines itself mainly to the limitations of the purely practical or the carefully calculated. Rather, we wish for you the kind of inspired leadership vision that challenges us as a people and as a society to see beyond just our own generation and beyond just our own borders.
All our best Presidents at their best moments were blessed with vision that evoked that which is deepest and most profound in American character. May you, Sir, be blessed with their same gift for calling our country to higher ground than where we have foundered these past eight years.
May you learn from Lincoln’s consistent and unfailingly eloquent invocation of our better angels as a people, his rejection of vengefulness even in the midst of war, his compassion, his inclusiveness in building his Team of Rivals, his love of his own family. His strength and foresight and fortitude.
May you learn from FDR’s example of bold innovation and confidence moving forward when the way is darkest. May you have John Kennedy’s shining love of learning and culture, his ability to call forth American determination to go to the moon or to inspire a Peace Corps. May you have Harry Truman’s grit and Jimmy Carter’s compassion and decency; LBJ’s ability to legislate Civil Rights, and Bill Clinton’s talent for balancing a budget and creating jobs.
Finally, Sir, I urge you above all else to keep faith with the American people. We have elected you to a position that is larger and more demanding than any one person can reasonably be expected to carry. We do not ask that you be perfect, only that you be faithful and honest with us; that to the best of your ability you lead us in directions of peace and prosperity, in ways that will build a safer, greener, more just, more livable world. Please see to it that American power is once again a force respected as much for its leadership and restraint and for its defense of justice as for its muscle. Please remember as you lead us through perilous times that peace is only the product of justice in world affairs, that a society that trades away its liberties in the name of security ends up with neither liberty nor security.
Please, Sir, take utmost care of yourself. Stay close every day to your family; the hugs of those two sweet daughters will remind you how important is your work for us all. May God bless you and your wife for all that you do and bring you every success.
Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill, Senior Minister
First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, NY
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