by Pam Durso
Election day is finally here after what seems like the longest and most contentious political season ever. Surely this has been a year like no other. Historians in 2120 will look back at 2020 and use descriptors like global crisis, continuous chaos, and unprecedented challenges. January began with our nation already consumed by deep division and partisan conflict and that was soon compounded by grief upon grief, a list of hardship that in November now seems unending.
For eight months, Americans have lived amid a global pandemic, dealing daily with the fear of infection and the stress of isolation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of citizens have died, and the huge disparity in access to health care for people of color has become undeniable. There has been a significant economic downturn that for many led to loss of jobs and savings and resulted in food insecurity. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers brought national unrest and protests, and a racial reckoning in this country is now rightly wrapped into the fabric of this chaotic year. Last week’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice for many communities brought great anxiety and fear of what is to come. In addition to all these layers of suffering in 2020, our country has also experienced devastating wildfires and hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
Earlier this year many historians and journalists looked back one hundred years and researched and wrote about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, identifying lessons to be learned. Spanish flu articles seemed to be in abundance in the spring and summer, and surely having knowledge of the worldwide spread and response to that pandemic has provided perspective in the challenging days of COVID.
But perhaps what we also need to be reading this year are books and articles about the acrimonious presidential race of 1796, the first contested election in American history and the first dominated by political parties: the Federalists led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Both parties relied on name-calling, personal attacks, and frightening predictions. Adams was accused of being a monarchist whose loyalty lay with England rather than the United States and whose intent was to create a family dynasty with his son succeeding him as president. Jefferson was said to be an atheist and a coward, whose election would result in national debauchery and a culture of murder, robbery, rape, incest, and adultery. Ron Chernow, in his book Alexander Hamilton, points to Hamilton as the author of newspaper essays published in October and November 1796 aimed at Jefferson that were “mocking, . . . bombastic, sometimes hairsplitting.” (511) After a hostile, divisive campaign, Adams was narrowly elected, defeating Jefferson by only three electoral votes.
As George Washington darkly forecasted in his Farewell Address published three months prior to the 1796 election:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
On this election day 2020, what lessons can we as people of faith learn from the election of 1796? I can think of several.
The first is the most obvious and seems almost simplistic, but I think it bears repeating. We must put our ultimate trust in God, not in politicians or pundits. Politicians of all parties and platforms will disappoint us. Pundits will spin information to the benefit of their side. Campaigns will not save us or protect us. God alone is our salvation. God alone can be trusted to love us unconditionally and to have our best interests in mind.
The second lesson from 1796 for me is that being a good neighbor is central to our identity as people of faith. In his list of the greatest commandments, Jesus offered these two: love God and love your neighbor. No matter our definition of neighbor it seems impossible to see neighborliness exhibited during that 1796 campaign. Instead, we see factions, revenge, and power grabbing that brought “disorders and miseries,” just as Washington predicted.
What then should neighborliness look like for us in 2020? In her recent book, Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work, Tania Israel, professor in the counseling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes about the current election season: “We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them, and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.” And she asks this question: “If we cannot survive outside of our bubbles, if we cannot tolerate listening to our friends and families and neighbors, if we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; if we view our fellow citizens as enemies, how can we sustain our relationships, our communities, our country?” In other words, are we being good neighbors? Israel’s research and our faith experience tell us that good neighbors are those willing to engage with others who hold different views. Good neighbors are willing to let go of their assumptions, recognizing that they cannot “know” who people are and what they value based solely on their political affiliation.
A final lesson from the 1796 election is that our hope for a healthier, more civil society requires something of us. It requires hard work, work that we cannot wait for someone else to step up and do. Fannie Lou Hamer, an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who campaigned to gain voting rights for blacks in Mississippi and who was arrested and beaten when she herself registered to vote in June 1963, once stood before a crowd and said, “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Prayer is important. We need to pray and pray fervently, but we need to take the next step and pick up the tasks of community building, neighbor loving, and justice doing. Ending this partisan division, diffusing the hostility and hatred, and creating healthy, welcoming spaces call us to the hard work of listening, hearing, and loving across differences.
On this election day, I will spend my time praying, listening deeply, speaking words of peace to my neighbors, and trusting in God. I invite you to join me.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the twentieth and final article in an opinion series entitled, “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.”
Pamela R. Durso, Ph.D., is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A Baptist historian, Pam began her tenure as president on June 1, 2020 after 11 years as executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry. She has written, edited, and contributed to several books, including “The Story of Baptists in the United States,” which she co-wrote in 2006 with her husband, Keith Durso, who has a Ph.D. from Baylor in ethics. They have two adult children.