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How Diverse Electorate is Good for Everyone

I grew up at a time when the “large stones” were firmly in place (the biblical reference here is Jesus and his crew leaving the temple and the disciples being awed by what they saw around them; see Mark 13:1).
Although born in the year the United States entered World War II, my first memories were generally post-war.

And those memories were almost all good: a loving family, a pleasant neighborhood, a strong public school, a caring church, a growing small city in the heartland of America.

And that America that I was initiated into, that I experienced, that I was taught about and that I internalized, was seen as good: victorious in a war against evil, a moral voice across the globe, an expanding economy with new homes and cars and products, expanding forms of media for news and entertainment, a form of government that was the envy of the world, an established set of values for everyone to live by.

Sure, there were challenges – the Korean “peace action” (as President Truman called it), the threat of “atheistic communism” at home and abroad, the menace of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands, the occasional bumps in the economy, the distractions of moral and social perverts.

But on the whole, everything was good – very good – for a white, Protestant, male kid in middle America.

I wouldn’t have put it this way – I couldn’t have because I didn’t have the critical distance or the historical experience – but all the “large stones” and all the strong mortar holding those huge rocks in place were there for me.

They together provided, for me, a social and cultural matrix, a cultivated framework, a religiously informed system that offered, both consciously and unconsciously, order for and meaning to my life.

For me, and for those like me.

Only gradually, with education, travel and wider experience did I begin to realize, first, how relative that matrix, that framework, that system of “large stones” was in space and time, but then also how the power and prevalence of its normativity could be oppressive to those who were not like me, be it in my religious and political convictions, my racial and ethnic identity, my national and civilizational perspective, my gender and sexual orientation, and my economic and social class.

The realization helped me appreciate and, to some degree, participate in the freedom movements of those with different “large stones” in their own matrixes, their own frameworks, their own systems of ordering and giving meaning to their lives.

But I slowly and painfully recognized, and still do insufficiently, the continuing influence and, yes, dominance – even oppressive dominance – of the “large stones” in the mental and psychic matrix, the framework of understanding and meaning, the system of values and priorities, in my own life and in those like me – and on the lives of those who are different than me and my kind.

Now, however, I’m wondering if something has changed – for me and for others, whether those others are like or are different than me – with the elections across the nation this month.

Now I’m wondering whether the change I sensed in the elections might even be redemptive for all of us.

In the presidential election, it turns out, the determining factor for the victor was attracting the votes of a genuinely diverse electorate – citizens with diverse sets of “large stones.”

That hasn’t been the case before. As Charles M. Blow noted in the New York Times, President Obama could have won 2008 with a much smaller coalition (with only the white and Hispanic vote), but not this time.

This time the margin of victory came only by widening the coalition made up of voters with different matrixes of “large stones.”

The losing candidate lost because he could not achieve that kind of broad coalition with different sets of normative frameworks.

To be sure, there were large segments of the country that reflected the continuing influence of the earlier dominant culture, although even in many of those states there was an increase in the participation of citizens representing non-dominant cultures.

Moreover, the ballot initiatives that passed in many states represented, again, a wider coalition of diverse cultures – of different matrixes of “large stones.”

This isn’t, of course, an endorsement of the winning candidates or initiatives. The results of the voting may turn out to be good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate, constructive or destructive.

The point is that our political process is the most evident indicator of changes occurring in the country (although not necessarily the most refined, detailed or deep indicator of the changes).

The recent election reveals that, indeed, major changes are occurring – a shift, a rearrangement, a new configuration of the “large stones” of the nation itself.

It is that change, I want to propose, that might be redemptive, not in some ultimate sense but in a significant sense nonetheless.

When Jesus and his crew left the temple and the disciples stood in awe of the large stones and big buildings around them, Jesus warned them that these rock-ribbed structures were not permanent.

Neither are the old matrixes or the new configurations.

Jesus taught that every one of them, every stone and every structure, will certainly crumble over against the normative matrix of God’s coming reign.

But until then our task may be to do our best to keep trying to configure our own “large stones” according to that divine design, while never presuming that we’ve got our constructs perfectly built.

A vital democracy, with lots of matrixes of “large stones” in the mix, ought to help us keep on track in the important but finite task.

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.