Sep 17, 2015

September 17, 2015: To Lead is To Teach, Preparing the Ground, Reason to be Proud

In the spring of 1968, appearing before a group composed largely of medical students at Indiana State University Robert Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency, gave an impassioned speech about the need to make this a better country.  Citing statistics concerning urban and rural poverty, the need to expand the food stamp program, and especially the need for a national health care, Kennedy knew that this largely white middle class audience was not his natural constituency.  The poor had, by this time, largely come to be seen by white America as a ‘black’ problem. The majority of the poor had always been white in America, but in the minds of most white Americans, especially those in suburban and rural America, when they saw in their minds the face of poverty, it didn’t look anything like what they saw in the mirror.

Kennedy spoke from conviction on that bright spring day.  When he finished speaking one of the students raised his hand.  When asked to speak the young man asked the Senator “Whose going to pay for all this?”

“You are”, replied Kennedy, who then went about explaining the responsibility that those who are blessed have to the less fortunate.  By most accounts, the message was not received with the enthusiasm of the usual campaign event, but that was not the Senator’s purpose.  There is more to campaigning for the presidency that rallying support. 

To lead is to teach, and campaigning for the nation’s highest office presents an excellent opportunity to teach the nation lessons it may not want to confront.  It presents an opportunity to jog people out of their false sense of security and their deeply ingrained certitudes.  It presents an opportunity to begin a dialogue with those with whom one does not necessarily agree and create the conditions for the long and arduous process of breaking down social barriers and creating a common ground upon which all parties can reach a workable compromise. 

It is a function of a university in a republic to bring together those of opposing views providing a place for the civil advocacy and exchange of ideas. Indiana State University, in the heart of conservative Hoosier country, knew that inviting the junior Senator from New York would serve the purpose of stretching the horizons of many of those in attendance.  And Kennedy, addressing an audience that at the time was not old enough to vote and from which he probably wouldn’t recruit a great many campaign workers, nevertheless took the opportunity to appear before the assembled students; for here was a chance to talk to the next generation; here was a chance to teach; here was a chance to make perhaps the campaigns most significant and lasting impact.

This week found Bernie Sanders standing before a large and attentive audience in Lynchburg, Virginia at perhaps America’s most conservative fundamentalist institution of higher learning.  Before an audience of perhaps ten thousand or more in the field house at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Sanders began his remarks by acknowledging that much of what he represents would find little favor here.  “We are different”, he began.  But, he continued, there is much more common ground than one might think between this white Jewish liberal Senator from a northeast state and the convictions taught at one of evangelism’s most celebrated universities.  Calling inequality ‘immoral’ and the moral imperative of meeting the needs of the least among us, Sanders spoke at length about the common ground upon which they could perhaps reach consensus.

By most observers, the reception given the Senator was polite, respectful and reserved.  Still, in post-event interviews with those in attendance the audience was not entirely dismissive with some expressing agreement with the senator on several issues.

Reporters asked the respondents if they were likely to vote for the Senator or join the campaign.  The response was tepid, only a few expressing outright support.

But this is not the issue.  By taking his campaign and his message into the precincts where the pundits would least expect him to go, Sanders is not only working to create a truly national movement, but more importantly is beginning the dialogue necessary to prepare the ground upon which the future can be built.

 The story isn’t, as the press would have it, that Sander’s is here exhibiting the courage of Daniel by going into the proverbial Lion’s Den. Nor is the story that he had failed in his effort to convert the assembled to liberalism.   It is that in the context of today’s bitterly partisan political climate Liberty University provided a much needed public service by hosting a forum in which a reasoned, civil discussion of our agreements as well as our disagreements can take place.   Jerry Falwell would have every reason to be proud; and so should the nation.





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