August 5, 2022
At Sutherland Institute’s 2022 Congressional Series events this week with Rep. Chris Stewart and Rep. John Curtis, the two members of Utah’s federal delegation struck significantly different notes. Curtis detailed policies to address climate change that he described as doable. By contrast, Stewart addressed serious challenges to the nation’s security and future.
Despite the differences, both endorsed an optimistic outlook on political divisions in the nation.
The source of optimism for both congressmen was similar – an outlook based on history.
Stewart’s hero, President Abraham Lincoln, faced the most obvious breakdown in unity this nation has ever experienced. In his first inaugural address, despite a looming violent conflict, Lincoln took a long view:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Similarly, despite increasing partisan attacks and even scandals in his administration, President George Washington’s farewell address promised Americans that he would continually pray:
That your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
These quotes from two of America’s most influential presidents feature an optimistic hope that seems embedded in the American worldview. It is a feature of American political history and culture so powerful that it can be found even in the words of those offering the perspective of an oppressed American minority. In the wake of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass said:
There was a time when even brave men might look fearfully upon the destiny of the Republic; when our country was involved in a tangled network of contradictions; when vast and irreconcilable social forces fiercely disputed for ascendency and control; when a heavy curse rested upon our very soil, defying alike the wisdom and the virtue of the people to remove it; when our professions were loudly mocked by our practice, and our name was a reproach and a byword to a mocking; when our good ship of state, freighted with the best hopes of the oppressed of all nations, was furiously hurled against the hard and flinty rocks of derision, and every cord, bolt, beam and bend in her body quivered beneath the shock, there was some apology for doubt and despair. But that day has happily passed away. The storm has been weathered, and the portents are nearly all in our favor.
There are clouds, wind, smoke and dust and noise, over head and around, and there always will be; but no genuine thunder, with destructive bolt, menaces from any quarter of the sky.
This hope would be sorely tested in future decades of racism and violence, and Douglass’ prediction that there would always be “clouds, wind, smoke and dust and noise” has certainly proven true. But these statesmen remind us that the long view can provide a powerful antidote to pessimism.
Stewart and Curtis both noted positive developments that show the possibility of policymakers working together despite differences, such as legislation to support mental health programs approved by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote earlier this summer.
Another example, chronicled often on this blog, is the resurgence of legal protections for religious freedom. For decades, advocates of religious freedom felt stymied by a 1990 Supreme Court precedent that seemed to preclude robust protection of religious freedom by the court. In the last few years, however, the court has advanced religious freedom, handing down a series of decisions – most unanimous or near unanimous – laying out a protective standard for people of faith whose religious practice was infringed.
None of this optimism is meant to minimize the sobering realities many Americans face or downplay important disagreements that still need to be addressed. But America’s history gives reason for hope – the hope motivating America’s constitutional aspiration to build “a more perfect union.” That perspective should not be forgotten.
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