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The Dreams of Presidents



Tomorrow is President’s Day, isn’t it?

When I was growing up we had a board game: The Presidents Game. And my brother and I loved it.

We learned all sorts of presidential trivia: Tippacanoe and Tyler Too, 54 -40 or fight!

We learned about which presidents were assassinated:Garfield could have survived if there had been a better understanding of sanitation. He died of infection.

We learned that Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote to New Yorker, Samuel Tilden.

I remember feeling angry then. It wasn’t fair! Little did I know….

We felt bad that we went to Harding Elementary School after learning about the Tea Pot Dome Scandal.

Does everyone know that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Died on the same day, and it wasn’t any old day July 4, 1876 – exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

I loved the story of Teddy Roosevelt camping in the High Sierras with John Muir.

Our favorite story to share with friends was about William Howard Taft… all 300 plus pounds of him, who got stuck in the White House bathtub.

James Buchanan was the only president who never married, which did seem pretty trivial. It was only as an adult that I learned he had a live-in partner of the male variety. So if anyone ever wonders about whether we will ever have an LGBTQ president, We can say, “We already have!”

But it wasn’t just the trivia I learned. The game enticed me to learn more about our presidents.

What interested me more was the vision of presidents, not just what their policies were what they said on the campaign trail, but to try to discern their hearts. What were their dreams?

What vision compelled them to want to be president?

Jefferson had a dream for America that extended across the continent: The Louisiana Purchase. The Corp of Discovery. Monticello – full of artifacts from all over America.

Lincoln dreamed of a reconciled America. I often wonder what would have been different if he had survived.

Teddy Roosevelt dreamed of a more progressive America. He confronted the Robber Barons. Lifted the condition of the poor and even provided National Parks for all.

Wilson dreamed of the League of Nations.

Johnson of the Great Society.

Jimmy Carter of peace in the Middle East.

There were nightmares too:

James K. Polk dreamed of expansion into Mexico and California. Manifest Destiny.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

My brother and I mutually decided that Andrew Johnson was the worst. The only president, at that time to have been impeached.

But it wasn’t only that Johnson was from Tennessee and he didn’t share Lincoln’s dream. He vetoed the Civil Acts Act of 1866 which would have given African Americans equal protection under the law.

He said the act would, “give a perfect equality of white and black races…. this is a country for white men and by God as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.”

There’s a nightmare for you.

The election of 1828 was about contrasting visions, between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

John Quincy Adams was a diplomat and an intellectual. He spoke 7 languages and he had a progressive vision to spend money on infrastructure, to create a national university, a central bank, even the first space observatory.

He was envisioning a bold future for America.

Andrew Jackson was a war hero, specifically of the Battle of New Orleans.

A fierce man of the frontier – known for his anger, he was involved in at least 3 duels, one in which he killed a man. He was considered a man of the people, unlike elitist Adams, who argued for states rights – more personal freedom – he was known to slaughter Native Peoples, and was also responsible for the Trail of Tears.

Two dreams for America…. Did we make the right choice?

As one might imagine another part of my exploration into the dreams of presidents is to wonder how they harmonize with the Dreams of God.

I have often talked about the Bible as the Story of God, but it is also the Dream of God. It tells what God has done, but also implicates God’s desire and intent.

That all people are created in the image of God, contrary to what Andrew Johnson said.

That the creation is good, and we have a covenant with the creation too.

That God is about love and grace. And caring for the “least of these.”

The Old Testament text from the lectionary for this Sunday comes from Leviticus. It is about caring for the poor.

Specifically that when owners harvest they should not harvest the whole field but leave the edges and gleanings for the poor. What might those gleanings be today? Food stamps? Healthcare? The Americans with Disabilities Act? Housing for the homeless?

The Gospel reading is well-known and is about non-violence— the exhortation not to retaliate.

But it must be said, that this is not an invitation to be passive. It doesn’t mean turn the other cheek in defeat.

It is about non-violent resistance. For Romans, one slapped an inferior with the back of his hand. If he used the palm of his hand it meant that person was equal.

To turn the other cheek was to claim equality. If was non-violent defiance.

The same is true of the extra cloak and mile. If one gave a second coat to the Roman soldier one was naked – thus embarrassing the soldier.

Roman soldiers were allowed to request people to carry their things one mile, but only one mile. If one carried it two miles the soldier would get in trouble.

Non-violent resistance to those in power is part of the Dream of God.

This text is from the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes.

The call to be salt of the earth. The admonition to love our enemies. To give alms. And not too worry. Not to judge others.

This is all about the Dream of God.

Amongst the presidents, who would we imagine shared the Dream of God?

I think Abraham Lincoln’s ripening conviction about the emancipation of slaves mirrored God’s dream. John Quincy Adams had a vision that included equality. Have we all seen the movie Amistad?

And frankly the president who may have been most guided by his faith is Jimmy Carter.

So what of our new president?

I am not confident that President Trump is guided by God’s dream.

His talks about “America First.” But he isn’t even the first person to use it. That honor goes to Pat Buchanan.

Sadly, I feel as though the dreams of Donald Trump are an extension of the dreams of himself.

The nightmare I am worried about comes from Steve Bannon. What is the ideology behind “America First?”

Bannon has a thought out, organized and theological vision. And it centers on what he calls “enlightened capitalism.” And the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

He believes that these specifically carry forth the will of God. That is to say that capitalism and European Christians are special. That for him…. They carry God’s dream.

Bannon believes in what he calls the 4 turnings in American history. It’s a lot to explain. Suffice it to say, that he believes that we are at the beginning of a 4th turning, and in that turning war is inevitable, in this case, with Islam.

It is an apocalyptic vision in which violence is expected. No turning the other cheek for Bannon. It’s hit ‘em in the gut!

Before Trump was a candidate he called in to Bannon’s radio show on Breitbart news and they were talking about immigration. Trump was advocating vetting immigrants even back then.

Bannon’s response was, why talk about vetting? Why let anyone in at all?

Bannon has problems not only with illegal immigration, but legal immigration as well.

He worries about too many CEOs of companies in Silicon Valley being Indian.

Bannon expects war with China in over China’s expansion into the South China Sea.

He believes that Islam is a religion of war.

He shares a belief with Trump that some people have better genes and Trump has been successful because of that.

He believes that America is a Christian nation for white people.

He even believes that only property owners should be allowed to vote.

That would leave me out – In spite of being white!

I recently viewed an Hispanic journalist interviewing a “Trump supporter” who kept using the words “our people.” By which he meant white Americans, saying that America belonged to “his people.”

Are we not all American people?

Bannon talks a lot of Judeo-Christian Tradition, but the problem is he forgot about Jesus!

I know another person who had a dream for America, and it is far closer to God’s dream.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; One day, right there in Alabama little black girls and black boys will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.   

This is God’s Dream.

Not Steve Bannon’s, who, by the way, before he jumped on Trump’s wagon wanted Jeff Sessions to be president.

There is an anniversary that needs to be observed today. It was 75 years ago today that President Franklin D. Roosevelt Instituted Executive Order 9066. Do we all know what that was? It was the removal of Americans of Japanese ancestry from coastal areas on the Pacific coast.

In retrospect, I think we all believe that this was an injustice.

But here we are, with proposals to register Muslims.

I have no doubt that if Bannon were senior advisor to President Roosevelt, he would have advised sending them all back to Japan.

And now Steve Bannon has been made a permanent member of the National Security Council – are you serious?! In place of the head of the joint chiefs of staff?

To make matters worse, President Trump now says he signed the order without knowing it!

Steve Bannon’s dream is not God’s dream. It is rather a nightmare!

(And this is where I miss George Brown…..)

Blessed are the meek and the pure of heart.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are those who hunger for justice rather than prosperity.

(Billionaires’ genes are not better than anyone else’s!)

Blessed are the poor.

Do not harvest it all.

(Take it all! Accumulate it all!)

But care for the poor.

Do not retaliate, but resist – non-violently.

Blessed are the merciful, the compassionate….

These sayings of Jesus are not simply descriptions of how things are, they are imperatives of how we are to live in God’s Dream.

And who’s going to say so? Is this really a time to be wishy-washy?

How can we not speak out?

There comes a time when we have to stop pussy footing around and preach the gospel again!

To claim God’s Dream.

To say NO to nightmares like Steve Bannon’s.

If there is some sort of historical turning going on as Bannon believes, let it not be to “Make America White Again!”

Not Andrew Johnson’s dream, but Abraham Lincoln’s dream.

Not Andrew Jackson’s dream – a trail of tears, but John Quincy Adams dream.

Not the robber barons dream, but the dream of Teddy Roosevelt.

Not the dream of America First, but God’s inclusive, loving vision where people are not judged for the color of their skin, but for the content of their character.

And all the people said….


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