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Obama's Dream at the Lincoln Memorial

Frank Brennan meets Brett SolomonThe night after Barak Obama's election, I took a stroll to the Lincoln Memorial. I was contemplating that on 20 January 2009 Obama would probably be standing in the snow on the steps of the US Capitol down the east end of the Mall at his inauguration. I was kicking up the autumn leaves on my way to that marble step in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is etched with the inscription:

AUGUST 28, 1963

Marvelling at the Washington Monument shimmering in the Reflecting Pool and the lit Capitol in the distance, I made my way down the stairs. There I was surprised to meet Brett Solomon (pictured) who had done so much with the Get Up organisation in Australia raising public awareness about issues such as climate change, reconciliation, and the plight of boat people held in detention. Each of us wondered what the other was doing inside the Beltway at such an historic moment. Brett is now working out of New York with Avaaz, an organisation which describes itself as 'a community of global citizens who take action on the major issues facing the world today'. There in front of me was Brett's latest imaginative handiwork — a wooden, prefabricated wall in front of the Reflecting Pool. It carried a banner headline that echoed the refrain from Grant Park Chicago the previous night: 'Yes we can'.

Congratulations President Obama. Change Won't be Easy but…
Together, As One World, Yes We Can

The wall had been up for a few hours only. Thousands of people had already signed it, attaching photos and messages. Now that night had fallen, Brett was on standby lest the police come and remove it. The central message on the wall read:

As citizens across the world, we congratulate you on your election, and celebrate your campaign commitments to sign a strong new global treaty on climate change, close Guantanamo prison and end torture, withdraw carefully from Iraq, and double aid to fight poverty. No one country or leader can meet the world's most pressing challenges alone, but working together as one world in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, yes we can bring real and lasting change.

Washington Post Next morning the spec built wall was the front page photo in the Washington Post (pictured).

The Obama rhetorical message of hope and change has been infectious these days, crossing national borders as well as the boundaries of race and creed. On election night, there were two gracious speeches from the candidates. Most Americans I have met this last week admit to having shed a tear that night. One African American woman told me that she had long lamented her mother bringing her to DC when she was a little girl during the civil rights riots: 'Now we are free. The Civil War is over. But we must remain humble.'

Another had taken a group of elderly African American women from a retirement home to the local church to vote: 'They walked into that Church as if the waters were parting. They were free at last.'

There is now a brief inter-regnum when people can relish the election of the first African American president who has pledged to govern for all Americans. Then the demands of the economic crisis and climate change as well as the challenges of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea will impact.

The weekend before the election, I went as an observer to the old Republican stronghold of Virginia. I joined friends who were canvassing households for Obama. We worked our way through the streets of a neighbourhood whose residents were drawn from India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Columbia. I met only two white Anglo-Saxon families. The majority had not yet finally decided how to vote. Those who were undecided were 2 to 1 for Obama. The nation of immigrants has seen this man with a white mother, Kenyan father and Indonesian step-father as one of them, and they have trusted him as the one best equipped to deal with the economic crisis.

Some Catholics and Evangelical Christians viewed the election as a re-run of earlier campaigns. They gave priority to the issues of abortion, stem cell research and same sex marriage. Three states including California carried referenda banning same sex marriage. But the three state referenda aimed at restricting or regulating abortion all failed. Some bishops remained adamant that no Catholic could vote for a candidate opposed to the criminalising of abortion. Obama was definitely such a candidate. But he attracted 7 per cent more of the Catholic vote than did the Catholic John Kerry in the 2004 election. Catholics backed Obama 52-45.

Peter Steinfels, the respected religion reporter for the New York Times, observed: 'Hispanic Catholics, a group the bishops often hail as representing the future of the church in the United States, led the way. Latinos voted 67 per cent for Mr. Obama, 16 percentage points more than their vote for Mr. Kerry. Latino Catholics, usually more Democratic than Protestant Latinos, almost certainly voted for the Democratic nominee at an even higher rate.' Gone are the days of bishops telling Catholics which candidate they cannot vote for in a two-horse race, or even telling them which issues are to be given priority in the voting calculus.

The great orator Obama is yet to put real shape on his message of change and hope. Should he harness the good will he has evoked across traditional boundaries and be granted a second term, he will be able to mount those steps at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and proclaim to the world, 'Yes we can, because we have a dream.'

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and Professorial Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of NSW. He is presently teaching at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington DC.




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Existing comments

yes we can is truly moving

sue msnicol | 11 November 2008  

When he asserts 'gone are the days of bishops telling Catholics'---etc,is Father Brennan saying Catholics can vote for proponents of the de-criminalisation of abortion with a clear conscience?
Surely not?

Bill Barry | 11 November 2008  

If the old men in the ridiculous pointy hats remain in largely defensive, self-righteous, head-in-the-sand, reality-denying, patronising, problems-are-all-yours mode, then just possibly 'gone are the days of bishops'. But not the end of the Church, just some of the baggage acquired along the way! We know what judicious pruning of dead wood can do! Bring it on!

Richard Flynn | 11 November 2008  

Great reporting. Thank God US Catholics have decided to think for themselves and can separate personal conviction from what's best for society.

Jo e Edmonds | 11 November 2008  

Thanks for this, especially for information about Avaaz. I have been signing their petitions for Burma and other pressing causes for a while now so it's good to know that they exist in real time and space. They have such great researchers and good ideas so well done, Frank.

Cecily McNeill | 12 November 2008  

Separating "personal conviction from what's best for society" is the voters' responsibility. Joe E Edmonds puts this belief simply and clearly....In 1934 when Hitler came to power democratically, would the German Catholic bishops have been wrong in directing Catholics not to vote for his Nazi party? Hitler's driving belief that the Germanic people were superior to other races, especially Jews, was widely known in 1933. The truth is that Hitler as "fuhrer" was seen as what was "best for society". The little matter of Hitler's anti-semitism was seen as the trivial and inconsequential aberration of an otherwise "great leader".

Claude Rigney | 12 November 2008  

I agree that in these times people think for themselves and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church do not have the influence and pressure over Catholics they once did. Surely we all have to be personally responsible for the choices we make when we answer to God?
There will never be a perfect human leader and we may not agree with all of their policies, however, I am so glad Americans have embraced someone because of true self and not ignored or punished Obama for the colour of his skin.

Cate Miller | 13 November 2008  

Great article, thanks. I am currently in Boston and can see that Obama's victory has injected hope into so many in this community. The guy collecting tickets on the train yesterday still wears his Obama button with pride and people talk of change as though it can actually happen. Some mending of women's status in the political realm is needed though as the Palin backlash has been damaging. Yes, we women can too but let's hope that future female Presidential candidates serve us better in a more balanced inclusive manner!

Carol Kiernan | 14 November 2008  

I admit as a one-time catholic, i didn't expect Frank Brennan to support the statement 'Gone are the days of bishops telling their flock who to vote for etcetera'. Amen to that.

marie gordon | 15 November 2008  

But Frank, it was a wonderful win, a brilliant speech on the night and I still pinch myself to see if it's true that the brilliant young man won against all of the odds.

Marilyn | 21 November 2008  

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