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George McGovern Proven the Winner

His win was my loss.
When George McGovern was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1956, he asked Mr. Larson, my debate coach at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., to be his aide in Washington, D.C.

So for the remainder of the semester, we had substitute teachers filling in for the departed Mr. Larson.

We were not especially kind to those substitutes, most of whom had no clue about what a class in debate involved. So not much teaching – or learning – occurred.

One sub evidently had only professional experience teaching in kindergarten. So each day she insisted that the whole class of sophomore and junior high school students take a nap midway through the class period.

“Fold your arms on your desk, rest your head on your arms, and close your eyes,” she instructed.

On the third day, I had had enough. So at the end of the nap, I got out of my seat, turned to the class, and said something like, “OK, if we need daily naps in class, we must also do our daily exercises.”

I invited my classmates to join me in doing a complete set of calisthenics: jumping jacks, toe touching, hip rotations with arms extended, sit-ups, push-ups – the whole routine.

The class was totally out of the teacher’s control, as she first shouted at us and then wept.

Next thing I knew the assistant principal appeared, and then I found myself in his office, learning that I would be suspended from school for a week for my exercise in leadership.

I blamed my loss on Representative-Elect McGovern’s win.

But before long I realized his win was, in the longer run, my win too. In fact, I never stopped having that realization.

Although I grew up in a staunch Republican family, McGovern caused me to stake out new political territory. And the steps in his political career continued to help me grow in my own political development.

I’m sure it made a difference that McGovern, throughout his lifetime, related his politics to his Christian faith.

Yes, true enough, he was a Methodist and I was a Baptist. But I managed to overcome that chasm.

I appreciate the way he grounded his moral and political convictions in the Bible and the Christian tradition (for him, particularly in the heritage of John Wesley and the Social Gospel), as well as in the 18th-century European and American Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason and tolerance.

I took pride in the fact that McGovern came from my part of the country and my part of South Dakota, but even more that he came at public issues with a shared understanding of the way religious faith can provide a foundation for work on behalf of justice and compassion, of reconciliation and peace, domestically and globally.

His loss in the 1972 presidential race was, for me, heartbreaking.

But, as so many others have recognized over time, on the issues he proved to be the winner. He was proven, time after time, to have gotten it right all along.

And surely that has something to do with that matter of grounding his politics in his deep religious and moral convictions. As he wrote in “The Essential America:”

“Every one of the significant issues facing our nation today is at bottom a moral challenge – war and peace, foreign policy, politics, the physical environment, the economy, taxation, education, health care, alcoholism, and drug addiction [his daughter, Terry, had died from addiction]. No one of these concerns can be adequately addressed without a revival of the spirit and moral sense of the American people and our leaders.”

At age 90, McGovern passed away on Oct. 21 in my hometown of Sioux Falls.

Passed away? Yes, clearly that’s true in a physical sense.

And maybe in the decades and centuries to come his distinctive political legacy, grounded in faith, reason and ethics, will also pass away.

But my surmise is that his legacy will endure a lot longer, and undoubtedly in more noble standing, than many if not most of those who opposed and ridiculed him.

My guess is that this righteous but humble human being would not be troubled with the eventual passing away of his important but finite legacy.

My supposition is that’s because McGovern’s faith was centered in one who, at the end of his own earthly life, promised that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33).

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.