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Sermons: “Dear Mr. President

NOTE: Every four years, since 1985, I have written a letter to the candidate elected (or re-elected) as President of the United States. The letter is actually sent. This is the 2009 version, and probably the most important one (to me) that I’ve ever written.

I.

Dear Mr. President: Barak Obama,

Like almost everyone I know, since November I’ve been wondering if it was all a dream. In my lifetime, we have gone from segregation of restaurants, restrooms, and water fountains to an election that places an African American family in the White House.

Like many others I know, my pride in my country has been re-born. The clichés we grew up learning about America’s freedoms—the clichés that too often turn to cynicism when you grow up discover the gulf between American ideals and American reality—those clichés have new life now.

Mr. President, this Sunday is reserved every year at All Souls Unitarian Church as a time to honor and celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is hard to imagine any greater honor to his memory than what this country will witness on Tuesday in your inauguration.

In many ways I don’t envy your task. I doubt that any President ever entered office with expectations as high as most Americans have for you. Overall, we are expecting that…

  • You are going to solve our economic crisis and bring prosperity to America once again!
  • You are going to bring an end to the unnecessary war in Iraq, and bring to justice from Afghanistan those responsible for the terror of September 11, 2001.
  • You will restore to us our reputation in the world as a citadel of justice and human rights, a friend on whom other countries can rely.
  • You are going to lead America, finally, to live up to the promise of its founding, that all people are created equal, and endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Americans will be become finally unified in purpose and no longer factionalized by race or politics, religion or social status.
  • The disasters awaiting future generations that have for so long been ignored will finally be addressed and resolved: global warming will be reversed, future Americans will be offered affordable health care, and the next generations won’t have to pay off our debts. Energy dependence on oil will end, and alternatives will be found that are so cheap that we won’t need to measure energy consumption. In short, under your Administration, America will become a land flowing with “milk and honey,” the streets will become paved with gold, winters will be reduced to one week a year, good will triumph over evil, and lawns will mow
  • themselves!

I say all this, of course, with tongue in cheek. We all have high expectations, and I fear your greatest challenge is not the problems we face, but the expectations we have of you that no person can possibly fulfill.

Few presidents have ever entered office with a stronger popular hope for success, anticipating that America stands in a position now to regain its vision. Few presidents enter office with so much confidence about the future from the American people. Even those who don’t share your political values, those who didn’t and probably never would vote for you, acknowledge that your election fulfills a great promise and turns a page in the American story to a refreshing new chapter.

While few presidents have come to office with such hopeful confidence from the American people, it is also true that, with the possible exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, few presidents have come to office to face so many and such far-reaching challenges.

We are entangled in two wars, neither of which has a successful end in sight. Our economy has taken a nose-dive more disastrous than since the depression. Along with the economy, key parts of our national policy infrastructure are threatened, such as social security and the national debt. Our health care system, which is the most expensive on earth, is, overall, among the least effective, failing to serve millions of people at all, including millions of children, and driving millions more into personal bankruptcy.

Our respect from around the world is at what seems like an all-time low, and along with a loss of respect comes a loss of credibility, influence, and leadership. American confidence in our own government is also at an all-time low; government is perceived as in the control of lobbyists, and elected officials are seen primarily as influence-salesmen. Long established protections of civil liberties, such as government needing a court warrant to spy on citizens, and prohibitions against torture, and respect for international treaties, seems to be crumbling before our eyes.

I’m sure I don’t need to continue this list of challenges—I expect you visit them every day, if not every night in your sleep. My point is a cautionary one. You come into office with the highest popular set of expectations for success, and you are expected to tackle problems that may be the most demanding and intractable ever to face a new president.

What can I say other than “Good Luck” with that, and “God-speed”!

Well, there are a few things I can say, not so much advice—I know you have advisers far more insightful than I am—so I offer not advice, but aspiration. Wish.

First of all, I hope you will not hesitate to call on us, even “rally” us—the American people—to join in the effort to resolve these issues. We are at a time in history, I think, when most people are willing to do something, to give something of themselves, to insure a better future. I was born after the Second World War, so I don’t personally remember, though I’ve heard plenty of stories, about how this country pulled together to reach a common goal. This was true even if the efforts were mostly symbolic, like victory gardens, or only somewhat sacrificial, like rationing. It’s time to trade in the spirit of “every one for themselves,” for a renewed sense of “we’re all in this together.”

It is that sense of common cause that may be what is missing in the current set of crises. After September 11, the American people as a whole hungered to find ways to come together and unite our efforts to ensure a safe future. But very little was asked of us. We were told it was important to return to our normal activities, and well, keep shopping. There were men and women who were of age who harnessed their wish to help by enlisting in the military. Unfortunately, most of them were sent to a war that had nothing to do with protecting our country from terrorism. For the rest of us, the battle against terrorism was little more than a television miniseries, which ended when we turned the TV off.

Our various crises of today, I think, rise to a level that calls out for national unity. It is in that sense that I hope you won’t be afraid to call on us to join efforts together. I know you’ve been part of a conversation about a program of national volunteer service. I can’t help but feel that may head us down a right path, even though any program with the word “compulsory” attached to it is bound to stick in my Unitarian craw.

I have been a minister for 25 years now. I expect all ministers of all denominations share in this observation: that the more people give to their church through volunteer time or financial contribution or leadership, the greater the personal benefit they receive from their church membership.

I don’t know if it works the same way with citizenship, but I do know that right now being an American carries with it too much feel of helplessness. I don’t know what the answer is, but I have confidence that our country will be healthier when we citizens feel we are doing something to help solve problems, and not just spectators who hand the problems over to politicians. I hope you can sprinkle a little JFK into your efforts, recalling his most remembered words from his 1961 inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

II.

It is almost paralyzing to reflect on the enormity of the problems we face. And yet, I’ve read just a bit about organizational development, especially as it relates to churches, but also with broader application. We are told it is often best to build on our strengths rather than focus on our weaknesses. You come to office with an abundance of personal strengths, and I am confident those will serve you well.

On the top of the list of strengths, something that seems all too rare among politicians, is your sense of humility. I’ve often felt that humility is too often overlooked as one of the great human virtues. You, above all people, appear amazed by your extraordinary rise in politics, and you seem as astonished as anyone else by its improbable and unexpected success.

You seem to understand that success comes not entirely from your own talents and achievements, but from the people who place their confidence in your judgment and leadership. In that sense, your success is earned not so much by what brought you to office, but more by what people expect from your leadership after January 20. This is surely a humbling realization.

Fortunately, this is helped by another personal strength you bring to office. Healthy humility brings with it an eagerness to seek counsel from those well experienced on complex issues. So far, this appears to be something characteristic to your style. Most analysis suggests that you have chosen advisors well, and those who know you seem to report with unanimity your willingness to listen to others with open mind.

One aspiration that we Americans have been hungering for is to come together in unity as a society. For too long we have felt ourselves a nation unnecessarily divided in itself. With your election, we see an opportunity to turn that around. In your words that launched your political career in 2004,

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”

Few of us are naïve enough to think such sense of unity can happen overnight—or in four years, or eight years, or twenty-eight years. Or maybe even ever. Your election does not bring national unity, but what it has brought, for the first time in my memory, is the daring thought, the audacious hope, that unity is possible. That is something that was previously outside the reach of anyone’s dreams.

I appreciate that it is not just rhetoric. On Tuesday, you bring to your inauguration ceremonies the prayers of Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop of in the American Episcopal Church, a man whose election has caused self-reflective distress throughout the Anglican Communion. You also bring the prayers of evangelical leader Rick Warren, whose stand against gay marriage in California was at odds with your views, but who is willing to support your pledge for national unity. Your inauguration will also bring the prayers of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a hero of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and a life-long defender of human rights for all.

I mentioned earlier the importance of humility. You seem to have the rare ability to combine that asset with a talent for instilling confidence in others. That was evident in your campaign motto “Yes, We Can!,” and while I understand that such a motto is a useful political tool—even, one might say, a political gimmick—it succeeded in inspiring confidence in millions of people who have felt not only disenfranchised but helpless. Over the years, Americans in general seem to have succumbed to a kind of fatalism that says we can’t do anything to stem the downward economic spiral. We can’t seem to make the world like and respect us no matter what we do. We can’t even get along well with each other, being plagued by divisions of race, religion and ideologies.

But when you said “Yes, We Can,” even the cynical entertain the possibility that we can shape the future.

True confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. A sense of confidence instills a sense of power. A feeling of having power is a prerequisite to exercising power. To the extent you can continue to pass that confidence on, we may regain our moral strength and character as a nation. Your electoral victory makes “Yes, We Can” much more than an empty campaign slogan. It happened.

Like most candidates, you made many promises in the campaign, some of which I am sure will be too challenging or even impossible to keep. But on this Sunday which celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King, the greatest and seemingly most impossible challenge of all has been accomplished. When you and your family go to your home in the White House on Tuesday night, one significant piece of Dr. King’s “dream” will be realized.

Mr. President, every four years since 1985, I have written these open sermon/letters to the newly elected President. More often than not, I spent a great deal of those letters listing concerns I have for his handling the job over the next four years. This letter is different, in some ways easier to write and in some ways more difficult. It is easier to write because of the extraordinary circumstances of this election. It is more difficult to write because it isn’t easy to get beyond those extraordinary circumstances and focus on the next four years.

There will be mistakes that are made in your leadership. You, and those who advise you, are human. You know that. We are fortunate, as I mentioned earlier, to have a leader with some humility.

And yet, in some ways the burden of leadership will rest heavier on your shoulders than any of your predecessors, with the possible exception of Lincoln’s second election. Your election symbolizes the victory of American ideals, and reflects positively on the diverse makeup of our society. My biggest concern, I guess—my biggest fear, even—is that when you make mistakes, as you will, it will reflect on that diversity. My biggest fear is that people will hold you responsible for the destiny of all minorities in America. Were that to happen, the American experiment will have failed.

So I close my comments with this hope. Your election represents the triumph of an American vision of human equality and justice. That seems to be, for good reason, the theme of this inaugural week. Your race matters to the extent that this American vision has been achieved. But my deepest hope is that in four years, your race won’t matter, won’t be an issue, won’t even be noticed. In four years, I hope that you won’t be thought of as “our first African American President,” but you will become, instead, simply “our President.” Your successes or failures will be attributable to your own political values, your advisors, and your policies. The successes or mistakes of your Administration will be your successes or mistakes.

Your race is profoundly important this week. In large part because of your race, your inauguration is a monumental milestone in American history. But my hope is that, beginning on Wednesday, the day after the inauguration, in the minds of the American people, you are no longer our “African American President.” You are our President. Period. Your race is important in defining who you are as a person. That can’t be denied. But it should never again be a defining aspect of your job or any person’s job.

I admire you, but I don’t envy you. You carry into office the highest popular expectations, you will face among the most serious policy challenges, and you carry weight all the aspirations of minorities in this country. The most hopeful part, however, is that you take with you, I believe, the best wishes the whole country, including those who voted against you.

In a previous open sermon/letter I wrote over a decade ago to one of your newly elected predecessors, I pleaded with the new President that I wanted him to be my President, too. Not President to just those who voted for him. In a way that no other President could, you, President Obama, have the opportunity to serve as everyone’s President. Your early decisions in planning for your administration indicate that is precisely what you want to be.

And you take with you all the best wishes of the American people. More extensive best wishes than any previous President I think. THAT’S the Good News. . . .

And let’s just stop with the good news. There is no bad news this week.

Congratulations. Good luck. And God-speed.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Bruce Clear, minister
All Souls Unitarian Church
Indianapolis, Indiana

P.S. By the way, President Obama, yesterday a water pipe in our crawl space at home froze and burst. I was just wondering if maybe you might have a phone number for Joe the Plumber that you could pass on.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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