On the day after President Obama was reelected president of the United States, I woke up in Indianapolis where we are spending a few days visiting family members. Hardly had I stumbled out of bed, when my mind flashed back to November 9, 1960, the morning after the presidential election in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by a nation-wide margin of only 100,000 votes.
Kennedy was the first Catholic to serve in that office, the first president born in the twentieth century, and the youngest person to be elected to the high office. The vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket was Lyndon B. Johnson, long-time leader of the Senate.
Richard Nixon had served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, and his running mate was a senior Republican figure, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Together, they represented traditional Republican patterns of thought and political action, while the Kennedy-Johnson ticket represented the probability of significant changes in the direction that the United States would be traveling.
In 1960, I was halfway through my doctoral studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. On election day, the campus was alive with eager anticipation that Kennedy would win, and the day after was rife with palpable joy all over the Bay Area.
I spent the day flying to Indianapolis where I was to be interviewed for a position on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary. On the morning of the interview, the air was clear, the leaves beautifully colored, and puddles along Sunset Road were covered with crustings of thin ice.
In sharp contrast to the beauty outside, however, the seminary campus was marked by apocalyptic gloom. Students, staff, and faculty seemed united in their despondency because of the Kennedy-Johnson victory despite the fact that Johnson had grown up in a Texas congregation of the same Christian Church movement with which the seminary was and is affiliated.
I am not well versed in the literature that discusses the tendency of Protestant church leaders of that era to favor the values espoused by the Republican Party of their time. I had picked it up as part of my preparations to be a minister in my church, which is probably the reason why I had cast my first vote after turning twenty-one for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Although it took me a decade or more to change my registration, I found myself voting increasingly for Democratic candidates across the full electoral range. On that post-election day 52 years ago, I felt right at home in Berkeley’s ecstasy and was bemused by the despairing mood in Indianapolis.
During the next few years, as the CTS faculty was remade with new hires of young professors, the political mood on campus changed, and the seminary’s personnel became increasingly identified with liberal politics despite the fact that Indianapolis and much of the Mid-West continued to favor classic Republicanism.
Long since retired, I have returned to the Portland-Vancouver locale of my early years, to a section of the country that consistently favors progressive values and policies, a region that this week helped boost Obama into his second term.
We arrived for our Indianapolis visit shortly after midnight on election day. Later in the day, after a few hours of sleep, I spent several hours on the campus of my beloved seminary (now relocated and housed in a building of our time). Although my purpose was to do research on a writing project, I found that political talk was in the air.
Someone reported that the seminary’s new president and his wife had done door-to-door calling for Obama. And friends on faculty and staff, with whom I had served prior to my retirement in 1995, were anxiously awaiting results, cautiously hopeful that Obama would triumph across the nation even though it was a foregone conclusion that Romney would easily win Indiana’s vote.
In these post-election days, I have been thinking about this change of political alignment, wondering why it has come about. One answer is that the seminary’s primary constituency, the ecumenical Protestant churches, continue to represent the push for new patterns in American life.
Our churches have challenged the old orthodoxies that supported discrimination and unjust treatment based on gender, race, and class. While we have advocated a new kind of America, a wide range of newly potent versions of evangelical Protestantism have continued to support the old ways, and until lately they have constituted the majority of the nation.
This election, however, has decisively demonstrated that the old domination by white people, and especially by white males, has ended. A new America is emerging.
I am grateful that during this half-century of cultural change I and my seminary have and continue to be part of the progressive branch of the Protestant tradition. Long may this new tradition live!