by James P. Wind

The past four months have left most of us yearning for relief from the waves of resentment, vitriol, fear, and misrepresentation that flooded across our country as Americans conducted the ritual we call mid-term elections. Before we turn the page on 2010, I want to retrieve a moment in the acrimony and probe its significance for religious leaders.

In late August, the media reported that President Obama got a new rug for his office. Even that everyday act drew criticism during America’s autumn of discontent. First came the arbiters of interior design with their criticisms of the President’s color selections. Too beige, too bland, they said.

But soon, a deeper criticism followed. On September 4, 2010, on the editorial page of the Washington Post, Jamie Stiehm pointed out a problem with the rug’s border of quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems that one of the President’s favorite quotes (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”), was attributed to the wrong source. There can be no question that Dr. King spoke the words numerous times. But, the great civil rights leader, it turns out, was influenced by a 19th century preacher, who first turned the key phrase. Back in 1853, the Rev. Theodore Parker said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one….But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Predictably, the President’s critics pounced on the White House for not doing appropriate fact checking. Some ventured to judge the President as not quite the intellectual that many believe him to be. Others delighted in the new White House Quandary: what do you do with an inaccurate rug in the Oval Office?

Then the media and America’s limited attention span moved on. But wait a minute. Ponder what the rug is telling us. First, this President thought certain ideas mattered enough to weave them into the rug that he and leaders of the world walk across every day—putting reminders of precious American beliefs right beneath their feet. Second, although four of the quotations came from famous presidents, one came from a troubling clergyman. Believe it or not, prophets are heard in the corridors of power. Third, perhaps without the President’s intention, the rug tells us something about the way religion works in this country.

The fact that Dr. King borrowed this idea from Rev. Parker—and that he publicly acknowledged his indebtedness to him—reminds us that we often stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. In King’s case, under his feet were the shoulders of a great, although mostly forgotten, clergyman, who in his day was as outspoken a critic of church and state as King was a century later.

Consider Parker for a moment. A Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker (1810-1860) started his ministerial career as pastor of a small (60 members) West Roxbury, Massachusetts church. A great preacher, Parker moved to start a new congregation (28th Congregational Society) in Boston that often counted thousands—one source says 7000—in its audience. Parker was in fact the pastor of a megachurch a century before the term was coined. But he was more than a great orator. Parker was an intellectual and drank deeply from the wells of German scholarship and New England Transcendentalism. He became a champion of biblical criticism and led the debate about the character of Christianity that roiled Boston’s ecclesial waters in antebellum times. His criticisms of traditional interpretations of miracles and supernaturalism led to his being banned from many congregations in his own city and denomination. More than a scholar, Parker was a prophetic critic of the American way of life. He championed temperance, women’s suffrage, and public education. Above all, he inveighed against the evils of slavery, opposing the political compromises of his day, supporting the ill fated revolt of John Brown, and hiding fugitive slaves—sometimes in his own house.

Now only an amnesiac wisp in America’s flabby memory, Parker numbered notables like Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton among his congregation members and joined them in shaping the reforming messages that changed the nation. Master of many more than one phrase, he spoke words in 1850 (“A democracy—that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people”) that would find their way into Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1865 and then into the President’s rug in 2010.

I like the messiness of this story because it rings true to so much of religious history. The saying on the carpet reminds us that we have a longer, more complicated past than we acknowledge—and that we are in debt to strangers we have never heard of and people of commitment who made their contemporaries very uncomfortable. Some, like Parker, are giants who roamed the land and then faded from our view. Others are more ordinary people, now lost entirely to our memory. But the ground we stand on has been shaped by their influence and effort. People like Parker, King, and Lincoln can remind President Obama—and the rest of us—that there is much more underfoot in our national and religious stories than we will ever know, that acrimony is nothing new, and that words spoken to a congregation can have amazing and long lives of their own.

Congregations, 2010-10-01
Fall 2010, Number 4