By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Ninety years ago, President Calvin Coolidge addressed many of the problems we face today, from widespread fear and intolerance to the threats against free speech, freedom of the press and equal protection under the law.
For a man whose nickname was “Silent Cal,” he wrote volumes about our great Nation and how best to live in it with dignity, honor and service.
Coolidge, an intellectual Republican leader, was a champion of smaller government and laissez-faire economics. He foresaw the consequences of radical disunion and the intolerance that so easily leaves countries in tatters.
He believed that equal rights, religious liberty and tolerance were the “very spirit of the American Constitution.” Coolidge also felt every American should put these principles “enshrined in our Constitution” to work in their personal dealings and attitudes toward others different than ourselves.
In a speech entitled “Ways to Peace” given at Arlington National Cemetery May 31, 1926, Coolidge contrasted the citizens of other great nations to ours noting that they were comprised mostly of “a homogeneous population, close kindred in race and blood and speech, and commonly little divided in religious beliefs.”
Of the United States, he said, “Our great Nation is made up of the strong and virile pioneering stock of nearly all the countries of the world,” and therefore face challenges and opportunities that require we see the worth in our fellow citizens and show tolerance to their differences.
He also warned, “in time of stress and public agitation we have too great a tendency to disregard this policy and indulge in race hatred, religious intolerance and disregard of equal rights.”
Today, we live in a time of stress and public agitation. Our country, is a divided nation, but this is nothing new. We may have forged a new nation but we are not one people, in the same way, Germany or Sweden is a country of people with the same heritage and ancestry.
Our republic has always been, to varying degrees, divided across racial, ethnic, economic and social lines. Each election cycle, whether local, state or national, brings out a certain amount of friction and ugly rhetoric. This presidential election is vulgar and repugnant for its pig wallow (pronounced waller) debates and mudslinging stump speeches.
This latest ugly conflict of “us versus them” is being played out in real time across multiple media platforms, far more diverse than we have ever seen. Twitter wars, Facebook flames and a 24-hour news cycle that stirs a seething fire of hatred, which has long past 451 degrees Fahrenheit is what is making this race to the bottom by both candidates such an unfathomable spectacle.
Some of us see this as an example of our decaying political culture playing out in stunning fashion right before our eyes.
Once we fought for liberty, now our people too often demand a license to do as they please while screaming because their neighbor acts differently as the level of mutual intolerance rises.
Coolidge also cautioned against this as well saying, “Such sentiments are bound to react upon those who harbor them. Instead of being a benefit they are a positive injury.”
Intolerance is an injury to those who lack tolerance, as well as those who are subject to it.
“We do not have to examine history very far before we see whole countries that have been blighted, whole civilizations that have been shattered by a spirit of intolerance,” Coolidge said.
As he finished his speech, looking out over the rows of honored dead, he reminded those present, “As these old soldiers, the living descendants of the spirit of Washington that made our country, go down toward the setting sun, representing the spirit of Lincoln, who saved our country, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are leaving behind them the same spirit, still undaunted, still ready to maintain in the future a more abiding peace and a more abounding prosperity, under which America can continue to work for the salvation of the world.”
For the sake of all of us, I pray that we will all remember who we are and what we stand for, together as a Nation devoted to the spirit of our Constitution.