Today is Presidents Day. I hope you will join me in viewing this holiday as much more than simply an extra day off. Today should be used to reflect upon what has made American presidents great. Often, it’s courage under fire, steadfast leadership in times of controversy or crisis, or uniting the country across many of our deepest divisions.
However, an often-overlooked element behind what makes many of our presidents great is the pivotal role that social movements have played in creating the political space for great leadership. For instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement helped to transform President Lyndon Johnson into a tireless and pragmatic champion of that movement. Frederick Douglass, Christian leaders like Charles Finney, and the abolitionist movement played an integral role in shaping and inspiring Abraham Lincoln’s eventual signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
We can also cite more contemporary examples. The Jubilee 2000 campaign, a broad-based network of churches and humanitarian agencies, helped to elevate the cause of debt cancellation for developing nations to the top of the political agenda, convincing both President Clinton and President Bush to support 100-percent debt cancellation for many impoverished nations. In 2002, a diverse movement of churches, student groups, people living with HIV, physicians, and others influenced and inspired President Bush to announce the groundbreaking President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. This has already helped prevent millions of new infections and saved the lives of 3 million people through treatment.
Yes, in the trajectory of great presidential leadership, there is often a pivotal and sometimes under-acknowledged role for citizen action. That is where you come in.
In my first book, “Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation,” I focus on a quote from Dr. King that highlights the importance of Christian engagement in the most pressing crises of our time. In one sermon, King preached that “the saving of our world from pending doom will come not through the complacent adjustment of a conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” The current political debate surrounding America’s alarming fiscal deficit calls for such “creative maladjustment.” How President Obama and members of Congress grapple with these trade-offs represents a test of a nation’s character and priorities.
While we may legitimately disagree on which parts of the budget should be sacrificed the most, good economic stewardship requires taking this crisis very seriously, and our faith mandates that we prioritize the cause of the weak and vulnerable in the midst of tough choices. The challenge is that the weak and vulnerable — particularly children — are often the most disenfranchised and voiceless in our political system. Thus, the church is called to stand in the gap, advocating on behalf of God’s concern for the poor.
Unfortunately, the current debate in Congress should be cause for alarm and immediate action. Drastic and disproportionate cuts to humanitarian and development assistance programs have been proposed by leadership in the House of Representatives. These proposed cuts contradict a commitment to protect the poor and reverse a precedent of broad bipartisan support behind life-saving, cost-effective humanitarian programs. Trying to balance the budget on the back of these programs is also short-sighted and imprudent, given the very small size of these programs relative to the entire federal budget. Yet without robust and vocal support from voters, these programs are easily viewed by Congress as being expendable with minimal political cost.
We have an opportunity — and, I would argue, a Christian responsibility — to demonstrate that there is deep and broad support behind cost-effective programs that are already saving and protecting lives around the world, whether it’s through vaccinations for children, emergency food aid, AIDS treatment, or bed nets that prevent the spread of deadly malaria.
On this Presidents Day, I ask you to join me in honoring the legacy of great presidents by calling on Congress and President Obama to preserve and protect the best of America’s values in the 2011 and 2012 federal budget.