In his first address to the nation as president, following the resignation of Richard Nixon, who had been forced out of office by the Watergate scandal just ahead of likely impeachment, Gerald Ford opened with these words: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
I was a twenty-four-year-old fundamentalist pastor at the time, and like everybody I knew, I had voted for Nixon when he was elected to a second term in 1972. I had followed the Watergate hearings on TV, sort of, and I knew that all the “chattering class”—politicians and news analysts especially—regarded the matter as a constitutional crisis with the potential to destabilize our government, weaken our economy, and jeopardize our international influence. It would be years, however—after I managed to disentangle myself from that intellectually restrictive thought system—before I would understand just how serious the crisis really was and how much of a national nightmare it had really been.
Watergate and its aftermath were even more consequential since they came on the heels, so to speak, of the socially and culturally tumultuous 1960s, which had seen a presidential assassination, widespread and often-violent protests against our ever-enlarging involvement in the disastrous Vietnam War, and, in 1968, the murder of two prominent public figures—presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and the man whose life we celebrate today, the great civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on a sweltering afternoon in the summer of 1963, Dr. King delivered one of his most acclaimed speeches, now known simply as “I Have A Dream.” In it, he told the hundreds of thousands standing shoulder to shoulder on the National Mall in the oppressive August heat,
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (people) are created equal.” …I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”…
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…
And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Truth be told, the fulfillment of that dream seems farther away this year than it has on this day in recent years. Dr. King’s dream focused primarily on the need for justice and equality toward blacks, whom he called, in the parlance of the era, “the Negro.” Were he to give that speech today, I’m sure he would broaden the categories of people for whom he nurtured the dream of freedom and equality to include immigrants, LGBTQs, and all those living under the yoke of poverty and hopelessness, irrespective of their race, gender, or national origin. And if he delivered it today, I think he might lament the fact that its realization is, in many respects, as far off as it was in 1963.
For many of us, the event looming at the end of this week—the inauguration of the forty-fifth president of the United States—is anything but the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. In some ways, two generations after President Ford’s hopeful declaration concerning the end of our national nightmare, some of us fear that another (possibly long) national nightmare has just begun. Still, even if that is true, we must not allow Dr. King’s dream of liberty and justice for all Americans to die unfulfilled.
I have written much about the new president’s lack of character and qualifications. I’ve written much about how his crude language and insensitive behavior are contributing to a general coarsening of our culture and a decline in civility in our public (and private) conversation. His administration seems likely to be fraught with scandal, conflict of interest charges, and litigation. It is all but certain that this whole sad and sordid chapter of our national narrative will end badly for all of us. The good news is, however, that it will end. And in that I take some hope.
In the recent presidential election, the Republican candidate won because he played on people’s fears and insecurities, he was fortunate to be running against a candidate almost as unpopular as he, and he was the beneficiary of the antiquated Electoral College law.
But consider this. Of the 134 million Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election, only 62 million voted for the Republican. 65 million voted for the Democrat and another 7 million for other candidates. A strong majority of voters (54%) cast their ballots for somebody other than the Republican, and his favorable rating has fallen further since the election. He has no mandate. The Republicans lost two seats in the Senate and seven in the House. Younger voters tend to be more progressive, so the demographics for the future look promising. 2016 was a hiccup, an anomaly, albeit a sad and painful one, and one that could have been avoided. But it is the reality for the moment.
Those of us who identify with Dr. King’s dream have a lot of work to do. Old ways die hard. But the trend is clear. The future, after the storm just ahead, will be brighter than the past. Please don’t lose hope. Don’t give up on the dream. For so many of our fellow-citizens whose liberty and equality and other rights—including the right to reside in this country—are at risk, the stakes are simply too high for us to quit.