How To Mark This Presidents’ Day: Not Every Child Will Grow Up To Be President But We Can Raise Legions Worthy Of The Task

There are many of our fellow citizens who ask themselves today, how can or should we celebrate Presidents’ Day under a presidency which, to say the least, has the highest disapproval rating of any new president ever polled?[1] Below I offer a brief reflective response but I do so with the caveat that, reflective of what the current administration has thrown at the American public, I find myself too exhausted to enter into the details of what some suggest and which I, too, perceive as violent threats posed by this administration to the security of our democracy, our physical persons, our social structures, our public goods, and, indeed, to the safety of daily life in the U.S. I speak in general terms because I’d rather say something somewhat well than all or nothing. I know I am not alone in my feelings.

 

About a week before the historic 2016 election, on Halloween, I stepped outside to see the annual neighborhood children’s parade that passes in front of my apartment building. I’ve always enjoy seeing my youngest neighbors, accompanied by their parents, march in costume. In the past decade, I’ve watched them grow with a distant pride. In presidential election years, it’s not uncommon to see little boys and girls dressed up as candidates, but I was rather pleasantly surprised this year to see my upstairs neighbor, a scrappy fifth grade boy whom I never see without his soccer ball, dressed as Hillary Clinton. Sure, Secretary Clinton has long been a role model for young girls, but I was especially moved to have this personal evidence that the first female presidential candidate in our nation’s history is as much a role model for young boys as she is for girls. Indeed, in the fall’s annual mock election for elementary through high school students sponsored by children’s publisher Scholastic, Clinton won in a landslide (52% to her opponent’s 35%).[2] Kids overwhelmingly recognized her opponent for the bully he was in the campaign. They know that bullies are not meant to be the heroes of history as schoolchildren imagine—and indeed are taught—their presidents ought to be. Part of the beauty of being a child born in this country is a stake in the promise that, in theory, anyone can grow up to be President. Specifically, children understand inhabiting that office means not wielding great power, but of being worthy of the responsibility of the Presidency. At this time of year more than any other, good teachers everywhere take the opportunity to remind children that any of them is worthy of greatness. That’s what Presidents’ Day can be about.

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The morning after the election, I asked after my young neighbor when I ran into his stepmom in the stairwell. There were a lot of tears, she said, and his teacher spent time that day assisting her students in processing the election results, discussing how the presidency is not the most important job to have in government, and redirecting them to other Americans who made a difference without being president. My own undergraduate students echoed those sentiments. While it breaks my heart to hear young people say the American presidency isn’t so important an office, what is heartening is seeing young people’s desire to contribute to their country begin to spread out across society, starting from the ground up, and starting today.

 

The observation of Presidents’ Day today coincides with the one-month anniversary of an administration that has the nation deeply polarized. Fear, anger, violence, and protest are only some of the public and private responses to the new political establishment. Fake news—both real and purported—cloud the search for truth. Without oversimplifying the complex political fabric of the country, we can acknowledge that many interpret the current political climate across a range of responses from hailing that new administration as a welcome change to politics as usual to vigilant activism that repeatedly cautions “this is not normal,” encouraging citizens to actively resist normalizing the administration’s decidedly unusual behavior. Taken together, most can agree that this is a difficult and unprecedented epoch in the story of the American experiment and how we choose to mark today matters, especially for the youngest among us who need signs of hope. Reading the signs of the times and the frustrations of many across the political spectrum, there are few resources from the Christian tradition that stand out to me as instructive for these uncertain times as nonviolent resistance.

 

Certainly, there is no want for talk of resistance if you look for it. In some circles, and at times, that volume of that language can hit a fever pitch. In the weeks since the inauguration, Americans have marched and contacted their representatives in record numbers. What is needed is not just an overwhelming quantity of resistance to the injustices threatened and promulgated by the current administration, but resistance of the highest caliber. To my mind, that resistance—some of the best and most successful political resistance–is nonviolent resistance in the vein of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The King Center in Atlanta, dedicated to preserving and promoting the life and work of Dr. King, provides online resources that offer a primer into the insight of the famous public theologian and servant.[3] Whether it is King’s development of Josiah Royce’s Beloved Community or the principles of nonviolent resistance, King’s work is just some of what is needed in the days and weeks ahead. As tired as I am by the political maelstrom that has become our day-to-day, I am not so tired as to enter into the praxis of resistance devoid of hope and dignity for those who champion, sometimes gleefully, sometimes maliciously, the work of the current administration. These times, through taxing and precarious, give me a renewed and previously unexpected hope for the future of the country because, for what seems like the first time in a half-century or more, in the face of mounting resistance, young Americans seem poised to throw themselves en masse into the hard work of citizenship. American youth especially know and have seen paths forward. As in the civil rights movement, we can draw on the energy, the strength, and the hopeful vision of our country’s youth to carry the work for justice forward.[4]

 

So this Presidents’ Day I give thanks especially for examples of some of the greatest public servants ever to serve as President, for the legacy and sacrifice of Dr. King, and for all the young people in our lives who have now been blessed with a unique clarity that could only be granted by the circumstances in which we now find ourselves: to know the scale of the struggle, the good to be won, and possessing the passion to prove themselves worthy of every opportunity the current administration wants to deny them. We may not all grow up to be President, but we can raise legions worthy of the task.

the-problem-we-all-face

“The Problem We All Face” [Norman Rockwell, 1964].

[1] http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/317845-trump-has-lowest-approval-ratings-of-any-new-president-ever

[2] http://election.scholastic.com/vote/

[3] http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy

[4] See Rufus Burrows, Jr. A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King, Young People, and the Movement. Fortress Press, 2014. http://fortresspress.com/product/child-shall-lead-them-martin-luther-king-jr-young-people-and-movement

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