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Even so, the notion of divine justice — that there is some kind of rough balance between culpability and retribution, enforced by some mysterious dynamic in the universe — has a long echo in American history. Trump’s bad month, and America’s bad year, is giving these old themes new relevance.
One of the most notorious quotes of the 1960s was Malcolm X’s assertion that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” because of the way the United States tolerates a culture of violence.
More recently, during the 2008 presidential campaign, many people from across the political spectrum were shocked to learn that Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-former minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had invoked the Malcolm X phrase shortly after 9/11. The terror attacks, he said, might also be evidence “American’s chickens are coming home to roost” in response to what he called the moral failings of U.S. foreign policy from Hiroshima onward.
Even more startling was a sermon a couple years later, which likewise surfaced in 2008, in which Wright told parishioners: “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme.”
I was among those whose breath was taken away by these words when I first heard them. Obama himself — after learning of more bombastic comments, including some that were criticized as anti-Semitic — understandably pushed Wright from his circle.
Yet however raucous the minister’s rhetoric was, the notion of divine punishment for moral failings is far from un-American. This was precisely the theme of the most revered American president, Abraham Lincoln, in what many people believe to be his most profound speech, the second inaugural address in 1865. It was delivered in the closing weeks of what remains the country’s most deadly war. Taking note of “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” Lincoln expressly raised the possibility that a terrible war was God’s punishment for slavery, and that, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
The current passage of history, for all its pain, is not nearly so terrible as the 1860s, and doesn’t even match the tumult of the 1960s. But it is bad, even so.
When it comes to Trump personally, and his coronavirus, there is no reason to mince words: This is a vivid case of chickens coming home to roost.
This is true in the rational sense: He engaged willfully in behavior, like foreswearing masks and holding rallies at which people did not practice social distancing, that increases the odds of catching the virus.
It is also true in the more mystical, karmic sense. He mocked Biden for wearing a mask. Recall also his ridicule of Hillary Rodham Clinton, complete with an imitation of her stumbling precariously, when she fell ill on the campaign trail four years ago. “Here’s a woman, she’s supposed to fight all of these different things, and she can’t make it 15 feet to her car. Give me a break. Give me a break.”
Let’s hope Trump continues his recovery. Voters deserve at least one more debate, if not two, and they deserve a choice between two physically healthy candidates. But this doesn’t obscure the reality that Trump was practically taunting the cosmos to give him a case of Covid-19. A prominent Republican, Sen. John Cornyn, said Trump’s illness “is a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline.”
If the question of whether Trump has it coming is comparatively easy, the question of whether America had it coming is harder. The unrest in America’s cities does indeed represent neglected business in the march toward equality. The wildfires are a reminder of urgent new business to avert environmental catastrophe. But most people, I’m among them, could never understand or embrace a political or religious leader who says “God damn, America.”
The answer to this contradiction is not to turn away American exceptionalism. Even the sharpest critics of U.S. policies typically don’t believe, as President George H.W. Bush taunted of Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, that America is just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.”
The answer is to embrace a different tradition of American exceptionalism, one that doesn’t depend on a belief in divine intercession. As originally understood, American exceptionalism didn’t flow principally from religious revelation. It flowed from America’s unique history as the world’s first democracy, and as a new country resting on a foundation of ideas, not on an old foundation of feudalism and monarchy. American exceptionalism based on divine franchise implies unconquerable destiny, and invites arrogance and feelings of special entitlement. American exceptionalism based on history forged by frail mortals implies experiment and fragility, and invites humility and feelings of special responsibility.
The latter is more appealing, by my lights, because it doesn’t require speculating, as Trump did in his hospital video, about God’s intentions. In that same inaugural address, Lincoln noted that people fighting for both North and South read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully: The Almighty has His own purposes.”