Dear Mr. President:
Today, you are visiting New Hampshire, crossing earth once occupied by Native Americans, by the Abenakis of the Algonquin peoples. You are visiting Portsmouth, a town that thrived as part of the infamous Triangle Trade, and which was built in small part on the labor of enslaved Africans.
Today, you arrive on land once settled by visionaries, seekers of freedom and opportunity. Liberated by blood, built up through sweat and toil, and sustained by generations of Americans committed to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, you arrive in a state that is teetering between supporters of your vision of hope and opportunity for all, and the competing vision of powerful, privileged plutocrats and their supporters who are nostalgic for a black-and-white “Ozzie and Harriet” America.
In June, I wrote a column inviting you to dinner. In that letter, I quoted Dietrich Bonhoffer who, when he was at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, said of America in the 1930s: “Black and white hear the Word and receive the sacrament in separation. They have no common worship.”
Bonhoffer’s truth stands today.
I wrote, “Today, sadly, it is not just the persistence of the separate worship of black and white. It is the separate worship of haves and have-nots. The separate worship of privilege versus The Other.”
I asked you to speak to the American soul, to engage America’s sense of fairness. I asked you to speak to us as citizens of conscience. I believe that what troubles America today is not about jobs. It’s about character. About common worship.
You’re not allowed to be angry. Let me be angry for you. Let me be angry with those who want to raise taxes on the middle class and poor while reducing taxes on the rich. Let me be angry with those who exploit our resources and despoil the beauty of God’s gifts. Let me be angry with those who speak in code. Let me be angry with those who want to deny women sovereignty over their bodies, deny the franchise to minorities and the poor, fear The Other, and who try to determine who can marry whom and who can offer to die for their country.
It’s about fairness. About character.
Locally, much has been made of the fact that you are the second president to visit Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke. In 1789, George Washington entered in his diary:
“We proceeded and arrived before 3 O clock at Portsmouth, where we were received with every token of respect and appearance of Cordiallity under a discharge of Artillery. The Streets — doors and windows were Crouded here, as at all the other Places — and, alighting at the Town House, odes were Sung & played in honor of the President.”
I hope you’re greeted with similar cordiality and respect.
Also, let’s remember that in 1796 Ona Judge Staines, a slave in George Washington’s household, escaped his Philadelphia home and ended up in Portsmouth. Upon learning that Ona was in Portsmouth, President Washington asked for her arrest and repatriation, but was defied by Portsmouth Collector of Customs Joseph Whipple, who chose not to return her to Washington, allowing her to live free in New Hampshire. Ona Staines wasn’t returned to bondage because emancipation was the right thing to do.
It’s about character.
“Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards [one’s] fellow-men; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; [and] He exhorts you (repeatedly) so that you might bear (all this) in mind.” Qur’an, 16:90 (Asad).
It may sound like heresy, Mr. President, but I have faith that the American economy will recover regardless of who becomes president. It always has. The issue for me is about rescuing our character.
Yes, there is bigotry, greed and ignorance. Yes, there is creativity, goodness and generosity. Yes, we are many souls. We are a complex people: We are atheists, monotheists, and polytheists, but we are one people, striving to be mindful each of the other. In the spaces between those attributes and failings, in the gaps between our genius and our weaknesses, there is an American soul.
I believe we Americans are endowed with instincts of fairness, equity and justice. Even when we occasionally drift astray, we intuitively know what the right path should be. We know “the crooked places will be made straight.” I believe and trust in that.
Mr. President. We are your sisters. Your brothers. Trust in that.
When Michelle addressed us from Charlotte, she said, “I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.”
When we voted for you, we who supported you, who stood with you, who drove to Washington to honor your inauguration because it was our inauguration as well, it was because of your character and conviction.
It is that shared belief in the American soul, in the American dream, that anything and everything is possible, that sustains us, just as it sustained Ona Staines in her flight for freedom.
Challenge the American conscience: Speak from the heart and join us together in common worship.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald