Taft, Tip and How We Heal

Healing our divisions after a long and excruciating election.

There’s a story at the end of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful biography of Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft, The Bully Pulpit that I’ve never forgotten. Some backstory: Taft had served as Roosevelt’s running mate and Vice President before running and winning the Presidency himself. But Roosevelt turned on Taft and ran against him for the GOP nomination, seeking to deny Taft a second term. When he lost that effort, he ran as a third-party candidate and effectively split the vote, denying Taft another term and giving us Woodrow Wilson as President. The election was bitter and mean-spirited and left these two former friends as enemies.

But toward the end of their lives, Taft and Roosevelt were able to heal their differences. By chance, they were in the same town for speaking events and staying in the same hotel. They found time to bury the hatchet. But the most poignant scene is at Roosevelt’s funeral. Former President Taft, now the Supreme Court Chief Justice, was seated near the middle of the auditorium when one of Teddy Roosevelt’s relatives urged him to come up and sit by the family - a gesture of healing and reconciliation. Observers record that at the graveside service for Roosevelt, when everyone else had walked away, Howard Taft stood staring at the grave of Teddy Roosevelt, tears streaming down his face. I love that scene.

There’s another story that I haven’t forgotten - one that took place during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The President had been shot by a deranged gunmen outside the Washington D.C. Hilton and was in critical condition in the hospital. Most did not know the seriousness of his condition. After his surgery, Reagan was able to receive some visitors. One of those was the Speaker of the House, a Democrat, Reagan’s ideological foe. A Politico piece describes that scene, chronicled in Chris Matthew’s book, Tip and the Gipper, When Politics Worked:

In Matthews’s book, former Reagan aide Max Friedersdorf recounts a scene from George Washington University Hospital following the assassination attempt on Reagan. O’Neill was one of the first people Reagan let visit him.

Friedersdorf said that when O’Neill entered Reagan’s hospital room, “he nodded my way and walked over to the bed and grasped both the president’s hands, and said, ‘God bless you, Mr. President.’ The president still seemed groggy … with lots of tubes and needles running in and out of his body. But when he saw Tip, he lit up and gave the speaker a big smile, and said, ‘Thanks for coming, Tip.’ Then, still holding one of the president’s hands, the speaker got down on his knees and said he would like to offer a prayer for the president, choosing the 23rd Psalm.”

“If that doesn’t grab you,” Matthews said, “you’re not a human being. That stuff still gets to me.”

That grabs me. We’ve just endured a long and excruciating and divisive election. Important issues were on the ballot. And yet now we have to accept the results and move toward healing our divisions. There are a lot of incentives for disunity and incivility. Social media algorithms reward hot takes and condescension toward the those who aren’t like us. But we as Christians don’t have to play along, do we? We can model something different.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop speaking boldly and courageously. The gospel and its implications, even when spoken with the most gracious terms, will always be, at times, in conflict with the prevailing culture. To speak up for the vulnerable will upset some around us. But a word from Peter, a man whom tradition says was martyred for his faith, offers a distinctly Christian way to engage. “Have an answer for every man, but do it with gentleness sand kindness.” Courage and civility are not enemies but friends. The loudest person in the room is not the bravest.

I’m grieved by the divisions in our country and more specifically by the divisions in the church. Jesus prayed in John 17 for the unity of his bride. What can we do to be intentional about fostering that kind of unity? Here are three quick thoughts:

  1. We need to listen better to people with whom we disagree instead of ascribing motives from afar.

  2. We need more humility and open-handedness about our own opinions, especially on issues of prudence. We are not always right about everything.

  3. We need to guard our public words, especially those of us who lead in any meaningful way.

Lastly, I want to end on a positive note. Despite the divides in our country and in our church, here are three pieces of hope in ascending order of importance:

  1. America is a good, but flawed country. Our elections are messy, but this system works. Millions of people around the world would give anything to live in our imperfect and wonderful country.

  2. The church has issues and problems and deep fissures, but I cling to the promise of Jesus in Matthew 16:18. Christ is building his church, right now while you read this, and the gates of Hell are not going to prevail against it. God is not wringing his hands over what you are currently wringing your hands over.

  3. The Resurrected Christ is returning in power and glory one day. He is renewing and restoring a broken world. One day all will be made right. Rest, my Christian friend, in that reality.

This Week on The Way Home Podcast

Fear has been an ever-present part of our lives in 2020. It’s true that we have a lot of things to fear – the COVID-19 virus, economic shutdowns, unrest, racism, and more – but Christians are often tempted to give way to an unhealthy sense of fear. Kristen Wetherell joins me on The Way Home podcast to talk about her book, Fight Your Fears, how fear has played out in her own life, and what encouragement she has for people going through this interesting and difficult year.

Listen Now

Interesting Links

  • You absolutely must read this piece by Peggy Noonan on what happened in this election.

  • Then you should read this by Andrew Sullivan.

  • Lastly, read this by Mitch Albom

What I’m Reading

  • I’ve been caught up, too much, in following and watching the election. Ugh! Still, I was able to finish this magnificent biography of James Baker, The Man Who Ran Washington.

  • I’m in the middle of this wonderful book, Another Gospel by Alissa Childers. An absolute must read.

  • Lastly, I’ve started this great book, The American Story which features interviews with historians like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow and others. I recommend the audiobook.

Personal Projects

So here are some things I’m working on:

  • I’ve still been doing a ton of interviews for A Way With Words which right now is on sale at Lifeway.

  • I’m also thinking about the upcoming Christmas season. My publisher, Moody, is rolling out an entire church campaign for Characters of Christmas. There are a lot of free resources here.

  • I also recorded a Characters of Christmas podcast for LifeAudio with Salem

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