On Friday, I attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump, with hundreds of thousands of other fortunate witnesses to the peaceful transfer of unimaginable power. It was an inspirational and patriotic experience. The inaugural concert was especially moving, and I thought that Trump’s address was punchy and to the point.
The very next day I stood on a street corner across from the White House and witnessed hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating against his presidency at the Women’s March. An endless river of humanity swept passed me.
Welcome to schizophrenic America, where, in the space of just 48 hours, the capital city can change from blue to red to blue again.
Are these opposing stripes now destined to forever remain parallel lines that never meet? Are we the generation to have witnessed the last of a united America?
In asking whether America can be brought together again in our lifetimes, let me be clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with deep political divisions in our nation — as long as no side suppresses or disrespects the rights of the other. To be sure, America is much stronger unified. And yet, the very essence of democracy is the existence of opposing factions that need not always cohere. When people say that America is more divided than ever before, they forget the 20,000 who died in a single day at Antietam, the more than 50,000 who died at Gettysburg or the four students murdered at Kent State.
But, as President Trump said in his inaugural address — quoting from the Bible — there is sublime beauty when people dwell together.
I am personally wounded by the deep divisions in our country, which manifest themselves in increasingly bitter exchanges that I witness at our Sabbath table on Friday nights. Most weeks we host significant numbers of people from the Left and Right, liberals and conservatives. But these days, I find myself increasingly in the position of having to police the exchanges, lest they drift in an instant into friction, acrimony and discord.
Given that America today is more prone to political extremes, what can possibly unite us?
Is it religion?
No. Not just yet.
I would venture that a large percentage of the Trump supporters who came to DC are more identifiably religious than the arguably more secular crowd that participated at the Women’s March. In that sense, religion may be dividing rather than unifying America.
Is it, perhaps, patriotism, then? No, because the two sides have very different definitions of what constitutes patriotic loyalty. The Right glorifies the military — as was plain from Toby Keith’s message at the inaugural concert — while the Left puts greater emphasis on patriotism expressed in social justice.
We are left then with only one solution: values.
The American Right and Left must be united through common values: a shared dedication to the infinite dignity of the human person, to protecting the innocence of children, respect for the sanctity of love and relationships, a shared belief in generosity and charity, a commitment to the blessing of education and knowledge, a respect for women as the equals of men — a commitment to a common humanity. Cap this off with unbridled dedication to the integrity of the will of the people as expressed in the democratic process and we still might be one nation, under God.
The women who marched in DC might not be great fans of Donald Trump. But they sure looked like they enjoyed marching together. And we must emphasize to them that the glue that binds them as a sisterhood is a shared belief in affirming their values, rather than a hatred of Trump. Likewise, those who gathered on the steps of the Capitol to salute America’s 45th President should affirm the idea of unity, rather than despising the Left.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad system in Judaism, once said that a bird requires two wings pushing in opposite directions in order to fly.
Can we not see the political Right and Left in the same light?
Would America be blessed if we were a one-party state like China or Putin’s Russia?
I read many of the thousands of signs that passed me by at the Women’s March. Those that affirmed the dignity and equality of women touched my heart. I am, after all, the father of six daughters. But those that vilified Trump, dropped the F-bomb or displayed lewd depictions of the female anatomy (and you’d be amazed at how many there were) left me cold.
Conversely, President Trump’s calls for unity during his inaugural were the most moving parts of his address. But those in the crowd who booed Chuck Schumer, even as his speech seemed unnecessarily laden with political calculation, undermined the dignity of the inaugural.
In the final analysis, Americans need to ask themselves a simple question: Will it take tragedy to bring us together, as it did at 9/11? Or will we reach out to one another in full recognition that a nation as fortunate as America must see as its greatest blessing not just diversity of ethnicity and color, but especially the diversity of opinion, creed and thought.
How utterly boring and monolithic it would be otherwise.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published “The Israel Warrior: Standing Up for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.