2008 – Retrospective – Breaking Down Barriers

To celebrate the New Year in Italy, it is tradition to throw old things out of one’s window. This is practiced perhaps more literally than foreigners might suspect – it behooves passersby to heed falling objects.

We in the United States could do worse than to adopt this strategy, at least in the figurative sense. As 2008 comes to a close, we should take time to reflect on that which makes us a great country, be thankful for what we have and think hard about what to do in 2009 to make ourselves a more perfect union. Some things need to be thrown out with the trash to make room for the new.

One of the great things about our country is the separation between church and state. The separation is unfortunately a bit more theoretical than actual. Bigotry rooted in religious bias reared its ugly head in our recent (and lengthy) Presidential campaign. Consider the following excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal. That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe – a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group.”

Kennedy had to prove he was worthy of the highest office in this land in spite of his particular faith – why did we revisit this notion forty eight years later? Former Governor Mitt Romney felt compelled to make a similar speech during his campaign. A candidate should not have to defend his or her religious beliefs in order to sate the public’s thirst for legitimacy. Our nation was founded in large part by those seeking the freedom to worship in their own way. That a candidate for President is a member of a minority faith should be a validation of our political framework, not an impetus for intellectual inquisition.

The breakdown of this noteworthy separation was also present in Barack Obama’s candidacy, though in a more subtle and troubling way. As recently as this spring the USA Today reported a poll that found 19% of rural Americans believed Obama was a Muslim. This misperception persisted despite the countless occurrences of Obama telling his tale of finding (Christian) faith and joining his church. What is more troubling than this ignorance of fact is the unspoken implication that if he were a Muslim, that would be a bad thing (or at least damaging to his candidacy). Pardon my adjustment of a much more worthy ideal, but I have a dream that in future elections a candidate will neither have to reassure the public that he believes in God nor explicate the manner in which he prays.

Another thing that makes the United States great is its founding belief that all men are created equal. As with the separation of church and state, this ideal has been more of an aspiration than a realization for many Americans throughout our history. The recent election of an African American to the Presidency is a wonderful, unequivocal assertion by the electorate that the time for discrimination is over. Obama was not elected because of his skin color, but it is certainly worth noting that he wasn’t held back for his skin color, either.

Yet discrimination persists. Millions of Americans are denied the right to marriage; the American gay and lesbian community should be the next focus of equal rights. The only possible objection to granting homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples lies in religious based intolerance, but we have already established that there is (or should be) a separation between church and state. Why did Californians recently take one step forward and two steps back with Proposition 8? Perhaps the religious contingent did a better job of “getting out the vote” than did the progressive sect. In one of the most liberal states in our union, intolerance still prevails.

In the pages of this paper recently, a military veteran reminded us all of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – a relic of the Clinton administration. In order to break down social barriers, this policy needs to go. Requiring a person to masquerade as a heterosexual to serve their country in uniform deprives them of their dignity and makes a mockery of our commitment to equality.

Seven years have elapsed since 9/11 brought our country into war in Afghanistan. In the interim the war in Iraq has come to play the central role on the national stage. Our country has a long and distinguished history of fighting and winning wars – often to ensure freedom for people of other nations. The courage, tenacity and patriotism of all servicemen and women are of the highest caliber – and their actions in these latest wars are commendable. Violence in Iraq is down in recent months, elected officials are gaining traction – a remarkable feat given the history of the region. Yet the debate of whether or not the war in Iraq should have been started and when the troops should leave is unresolved.

Victory will come in Iraq when our troops come home – that is the metric by which we need to judge further actions. The White House has followed the premise that our troops should come home after victory is secured – an obfuscation of logic that is not surprising given the feckless original justifications for going to war. Recent developments in this arena: that Obama wants combat troops gone in 16 months and that the Iraqi government wants all US troops out by 2011 give hope that the end is near. It is important to remember that the end of war in Iraq will not mean the end of war for the United States. Rather, a renewed emphasis on operations in Afghanistan will take its rightful place on center stage.

The New Year affords the opportunity to strive for better things. In order to prepare ourselves for change we must start by throwing away the shackles that inhibit our best selves. I’ll leave you to make your own personal checklist, but here’s my shortlist for the nation: embrace diversity of color, creed and religion; be tolerant in word and in action and bring our troops home. These three things will make for a great 2009.