Roaming the Milky Way

From when I was a kid, boredom was something I feared. It’s still there now, the fear.

So whenever I travel I take a book, usually a serious book that will maintain my concentration.

The tome I have taken along for the last couple trips has been the biography of John Adams by David McCullough. I read through the second half on a recent trip to Greece.

While so much in the book is relevant to the politics of today, two powerful impressions emerge from the biography. Adams was a diehard revolutionary, an adamant, unflagging advocate for representative democracy. And alongside that political will, religion was a solace and a companion, central to his study, contemplation and writing.

One point made by McCullough toward the end of the book, as death approached Adams, was how the man was able to forgive his friends for all their political attacks and trespasses. I interpreted that as consistent with the deep Christianity of our second president who at the same time pushed for religious tolerance and freedom.

His appreciation of his close friends washed away all the anger past. It enveloped Thomas Jefferson, who had worked to undermine Adam’s presidency and helped cut it short, such that Jefferson replaced him as president of the young nation after Adams’ first term.

As the two men approached their final day, they corresponded frequently and warmly. After a great number of letters back and forth, they died within hours of each other on Independence Day, 1826.

So that was the final, essential impression of Adams I took from 651 pages of biography, a lion for political rights, a lamb with his family and friends.

The reading at last finished, I was watching CNN last week as two conservatives discussed whether the 45th president is a true champion of religious voters.

Author Charlie Sykes said that from the religious perspective, the question should not be whether Donald Trump was better than any Democratic alternative, the question should be, “What would Jesus have done.”

I recognized that standard because it is how political behavior is measured in swaths of my extended family on my dad’s side, the descendants of preachers and farmers.

A common theme in their line of interpretation is a concern for the welfare of the poor. A second theme, especially felt in my father, was a kind of permanent awe of the miracle of the earth, and the conviction that its beauty is a manifestation of some overarching spirit bound up with the universe.

Judging by those two big lines of thought, the current president is walking a nihilistic path.

And along the way, he is starting to do some real damage. Having thrashed around for the better part of a year, he has, as is recently apparent, started to learn the levers of his vast temporal power.

His decision to cut health care subsidies is an effective and hard-falling blow to the poor and the weak, and, hearing the rhythm in my grandfather’s sermons, he earns a velvet seat in Mammon’s chariot when he pushes tax changes that favor those of great wealth.

The hacking at the social contract, as much as it further divides our nation into haves and have nots, is not set in stone. Heaven, because it does not seem to be within the ability of the Democrats, help us, it could be fixed.

But his sawing away at the sustaining weave of the environment has consequences that seem eternal.

The hilltops razed, the public lands drilled, the chemicals inserted and left in the earth will remain for the ages. And his succor of those who are heating up the planet will summon forth a dark angel of destruction to hover over the scarring and desecration of the land.

It is a mind bender to set the second president against the 45th, creating a clashing dissonance that comes from trying to put both men in the same frame of thought and discussion.

But in his letters almost 200 years ago, Adams sounded a lot like the way my father thought and lived, and quietly believed.

“I find my imagination roaming the Milky Way,” wrote Adams, “among the nebulae, and stupendous orbits of suns, planets, satellites, and comets, which compose the incomprehensible universe, and I feel an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees, in adoration of the power that moves, the wisdom that directs, and the benevolence that sanctifies this wonderful whole.”

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