These words from President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, somewhat sadly, are still timely today, a century and a half after a civil war to end slavery destroyed massive amounts of life and property. As people salute our American flag, some are silently replacing the phrase “one nation indivisible” with “one nation deeply divided” and, likewise, the final five words of “liberty and justice for all” with “liberty and justice for some.” And some are even turning their backs on our flag.
The American flag represents both an idea and an ideal, the former structured to hopefully lead to the perfection of the latter. But no structure is perfect and those that operate it are imperfect people. Thus the ideal that “all men are created equal (and).. endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”—implying full civil and voting rights for women, people of color, and those of varying sexual orientation—has been a grinding process over several centuries.
The current divide—termed a new civil war by some—is along a cultural and political fault line not fully defined. And yet we all seem to know which side we are on. As Lincoln further observed, “both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Today’s secular movement may mean fewer people pray at all, but, regardless, each side feels morally correct within their own sphere of guidance. Thus we have great “firmness” in our beliefs, albeit with more malice and far less charity than Lincoln envisioned.
If there is a middle ground straddling today’s divide, it lies in the heart, soul, and conscience of America, a common ground also referenced by Lincoln in an inaugural address, his first. “We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained..our bonds of affection, it must not break (them)…(and will not) when every living heart…is touched by the better angels of our nature.”
I found an example of our better angels in the heartlands, in Hillsboro, Ohio.
The area’s Special Olympics athletes had formed a boys basketball team but needed
a cheerleading squad formed from their female athletes. The Hillsboro High School athletic director was contacted—and soon the varsity cheerleaders were training the Special Olympics girls. The AD, Dave Dietrick, then scheduled a game between his area’s Wildcats team and the Rebels, the Special Olympics team from nearby Chillicothe, Ohio. Jeff Gilliland, editor of the local paper, reported on the event.
“The school went the extra mile—it let the entire student body out of classes for the game so the Wildcats could play in front of a packed gym. The Hillsboro High pep band performed, the cheerleaders cheered, and the student body rooted the Wildcats on to a 24-23 overtime win. Dietrick called the atmosphere electric.” Handicapped athletes and cheerleaders performing in front of a packed house in place of the school’s varsity athletes. If that scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re not human.
I hope you feel a twinge of pride when singing the National Anthem and saluting the flag. I hope your better angels overcome malice, smugness, and any feeling of superiority in a situation where clarity is difficult and unity desperately needed—for the sake of the nation, for the sake of all classes, poor to rich, and of all colors—white, brown, black, yellow, and red. May we all cheer for the red, white, and blue, competing fairly and by the rules as the Wildcats and Rebels did that day in Hillsboro, Ohio. Before a packed gym. The atmosphere was electric.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.