Sober reflections on a night of change

By  Scott Kline, Catholic Register Special
  • November 13, 2008
{mosimage}It was just after 10:15 p.m. on Nov. 4 when I began walking with my wife and brother-in-law along Michigan Avenue toward Grant Park in downtown Chicago. For much of the evening, we had been at the Hyatt Regency waiting for U.S. election results to come in. We passed the time watching members of the media position themselves for a possible interview with Sen. Barack Obama, who was reportedly in a suite with his family waiting for a concession phone call from Sen. John McCain.

When we left the hotel, which was shortly after Sen. McCain had begun his concession speech, only the staked-out reporters, who missed their scoop, seemed to be unhappy by the news that Sen. Obama had been declared the next president of the United States and that he was already on his way to Grant Park to address a jubilant crowd of some 250,000 people.
At first, the walk toward the Obama Rally was eerily quiet, with only an occasional distant roar. The 70,000 Obama supporters who had received tickets online were already within the fences at Grant Park and watching the events unfold on jumbo screens. As we hit Michigan Avenue, a few hundred people were walking on the sidewalks and dutifully obeying pedestrian laws. But within minutes, as the crowd began to swell, we found ourselves in the middle of the street, amidst a parade of people singing, praying and dancing their way to the rally.

Then we heard the park come alive with the introduction of the Obama family on stage. En masse, we ran to the open field to position ourselves to see one of the jumbo screens. As he began to speak, the crowd went silent.

Shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, I listened to President-elect Obama talk about the civic responsibilities of patriotism, the strength of the common good and the shared belief that America’s future is brighter than the past. As he told the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old black woman from Atlanta who voted for the first black president of the United States, people around me began to weep. The weeping became louder when he said, “She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Yes we can.” When the speech was over, there was little movement or conversation — people were simply trying to compose themselves.

Sobered by the truly monumental change that we saw take place that evening, the crowd spilled back onto Michigan Avenue, where chants of “Yes we can,” “O-bam-a,” “Si se puede” rejuvenated us. It then struck me how diverse the crowd was. Parents were carrying their tired children. Mothers were holding the hands of their daughters. Young, heavily tattooed black men were crying as they sang “God Bless America.” Older black women were carrying signs “Mammas for Obama” and thanking God for allowing them to see this day. Even I, a child of rural Missouri, confessed to my wife “I never thought I would live to see a black president of the United States.” Indeed, the past is prologue.

In spite of the spirit of “hope” and “yes we can” that defined this night in Grant Park, the realities of a global economic recession, a mismanaged “war on terror” and the threat of job losses across the country are just some of the sober reminders that America’s future cannot be rooted in utopian dreams of American triumphalism, the glitz of media spectacle or political slogans.

Instead, the time has come for American leaders to develop a type of critical realism that will enable them to engage Americans in a conversation over serious issues. There are precedents in American history. In the 1960s, with the support of Protestant theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Catholic theologians such as John Courtney Murray, the John F. Kennedy administration led the country into divisive debates over racism, the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, a military intervention in Vietnam and religious freedom, to name just a few issues.

Today, American Catholics do, in fact, have a civic responsibility to participate in debates over stem-cell research, abortion and the definition of marriage. But there’s more to Catholic political involvement than that. Catholics also have a responsibility participate in debates over immigration, health care reform, child poverty, banking regulation, job creation, public education, crime reduction and U.S. foreign policy. In times such as those facing America, it would seem to me that voices rooted in the Catholic social tradition could provide some much needed wisdom and moral grounding. (Scott Kline is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.)

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