Monday, February 15, 2016

Dear Senator McConnell

February 15, 2016

Dear Senator McConnell,

As you and others weigh important choices in the days to ahead, I offer a few thoughts on leadership and what yours might mean to the country in this critical and contested period.

Many will reflect on Constitutional obligations and arguments will be made.  These are obviously essential to the moment and must be engaged carefully and wisely.

Justices Scalia and Ginsburg
But I want to suggest, on another level, that your leadership bears profoundly on the country's immediate and distant future.  How you comport yourselves, how you speak about ideological foes, and how you fulfill your own responsibilities--these things will shape local communities, political energies and larger democratic institutions.  I dare say that your responsibilities are enormous.  And I'd ask you to consider them generously, bravely and even boldly.  Not simply as Republicans, but as Americans.

Watching the Republican Presidential Debate on Saturday evening, with my fourteen-year-old daughter, I was terribly disappointed in the tone of the party's major candidates for the highest office in the land.  Again and again, they sneered at the President's leadership these past eight years.  Again and again, they invoked his name with scorn and bitterness.  They even spoke to one another, and of one another, with vicious contempt.  I'd go so far as to say that racism hovered, maliciously, in the air of that hall as the candidates barked at one another and bitterly denounced the President's motives.  It was, I have to say, rather chilling.

Is this so different from other political campaigns?  I guess you'd be a better judge of that.  But what I hear in this campaign is a kind of contempt that can only incite mean and violent spirits in certain parts of the electorate.  You must recognize this too.  Frankly, Senator McConnell, I have to worry (and I know I'm not alone) that rhetoric like this creates a climate of such disdain that the President's life is profoundly endangered.  Can this be OK?  Will Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders also be imperiled?  Is this simply the price we pay for robust debate?  I can't imagine anyone would say so.

On the matter of a Supreme Court nomination, I suggest that you and your senior colleagues have an extraordinary opportunity to change the tone.  I suggest that you and your Republican colleagues in the Senate can demonstrate a mature commitment to Constitutional democracy.  By accepting the President's obligation to nominate and identify a worthy justice to the court, and by speedily doing what Senators are obligated to do in confirming the President's thoughtful choice, you will be signaling to the country (the whole country) that our system of government transcends political differences and reaches for a more enduring (and nonviolent) way.  This would be a huge service to the country, at a time in history that calls for service and courage.

If you do not, if you and your colleagues insist on demeaning a distinguished President, if you and your colleagues insist on sneering his name and calling his integrity into question, I fear you will be setting yourselves up in a sadder place in America's history.  How divisive this could be!  How chilling!  While you can question the President's politics and various initiatives, there is simply no doubt that he has performed his remarkably difficult job with dignity and grace, at a moment when politicians were known for neither.  He has restored the hope of many that American politics can again be noble, decent and resilient.  And he has done all of this as many of his political opponents have behaved somewhat shamefully.

If leaders in the Senate insist on denying this President his rightful role in nominating a justice to the Supreme Court, it will no doubt stir more of the meanness and simple-minded cruelty on display at Saturday night's debate in South Carolina.  This does not and will never serve our United States of America.  In addition to throwing the Constitution's meaning up for grabs, it will test the unity of our people, perhaps along party lines, perhaps along racial and ethnic lines, perhaps in other ways as well.  Again, this can only be divisive.  And it serves neither the Constitution nor the amazing possibilities and promise of the American people themselves.

So, leadership.

I urge you, Senator McConnell, to consider the moment, to consider the opportunity, to consider the much larger context within which you and others find yourselves.  Yours is an opportunity to lay claim to the full power and promise of the Constitution.  Yours is an opportunity to manifest the most precious and enduring American values of restraint, unity in diversity, and compromise.  In such a year as this, your leadership, even in partnership with the President on this nomination, could well point the way to a political renaissance.  And we need this.  The people of Kentucky need this.  The people of California need this.  The people of America need this.

What would happen, tomorrow, next week, if you appeared in the Rose Garden with President Barack Obama and announced to the nation (to the world!) that you and others in the Senate look forward to his nominating a candidate for the court?  And that you and others in the Senate are eager to confirm the right person for such a consequential role?  I imagine this would cause joy in the streets, in the hearts, in the institutions that matter most.  And the rest of the world, too, would take notice.

I urge you, Senator, to do the right thing.

Yours in citizenship and hope,

The Rev. David C. Grishaw-Jones
Senior Pastor
Peace United Church of Christ 
Santa Cruz, California