President Obama at the Lincoln Memorial
President Obama at the Lincoln Memorial

This is a conversation on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly of PBS that I wanted to share with you. Here is the link to the video, and below is the transcript of part I.

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, a conversation about the spirit of the country on the eve of the Obama inauguration. Alice McDermott is a writer, a National Book Award winner, whose latest novel is “After This.” Rabbi Marc Gopin is director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Virginia. And Dr. Robert Franklin is president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Welcome to all of you. Bob Franklin, the mood of a country is an ambitious and sometimes elusive thing to try to get at. But what do you sense, especially among African Americans?

Dr. ROBERT FRANKLIN (President, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA): I think that Barack Obama’s election has evoked a sense of renaissance – of rebirth, renewal of our confidence and deep spirit of hopefulness that America can truly live out the meaning of its creed, as Dr. King said in 1963. And what I encounter all around the county is a sense of new possibility. At my college, Morehouse, two day following the election we gathered the students. We had a couple thousand students in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse campus, and I asked the guys, “Look you have an open mike today. I’d just like to know what is the meaning of this for you, your families,” and they said, “Dr. Franklin, we were very excited. We feel that this is just tremendous. It shows America’s greatness. But we really didn’t appreciate the full impact of this until we called home and heard mothers and grandfathers weeping on the other end of the phone,” and that sense that their prayers were being fulfilled is just amazing at this time.

ABERNETHY: And some of them said some things to you about their own prospects?

Dr. FRANKLIN: Oh, I’ll tell you, it was an amazing theme that began to emerge that can be summarized in two words: no excuses. I mean, one after the other they got up and said, “You know, after this election it means there’re no excuses for our academic underperformance, for our irresponsible behavior – no excuses. And one of the young men looked at the rest of the students and said, “You guys, there are a few of you who come to class late, a few of you who are not prepared for class – no excuses.” So it’s interesting the way in which the sense that Obama has achieved this, we are now able to achieve. America permits achievement.

ABERNETHY: Is that showing up in work habits, in homework done?

Dr. FRANKLIN: It already has, believe it or not.


Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes, I’ve already seen this sense in the guys. You know, at Morehouse we teach students how to become Renaissance men with social conscience and global perspective, and we talk about the importance of being well-read and well-spoken and well-traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced. And already these guys are saying, “You know, Obama’s a Renaissance man.” He reads. He writes, Alice. He writes coherent, elegant sentences in his own hand. Gee whiz, that’s refreshing.

ABERNETHY: Well, that’s refreshing. It’s amazing.

Dr. FRANKLIN: It really is inspiring college students.

ABERNETHY: Alice McDermott, what about the rest of the country? Bob Franklin is talking about how it is for African Americans. What about the people you know, and the people you’ve written about?

ALICE MCDERMOTT (Author): Well, first I have to start with as a writer how wonderful it is to once again hear people talk about language as something that does something other than obscure and misdirect – that wonderful, beautiful language is not just rhetoric that we dismiss, but something that can inspire us and speak to our hearts and speak to our spirits. It’s, as a writer, it’s been a wonderful resurgence of hope for me on a personal level that Obama’s language and Obama’s speech has once again opened up, I think to all of us, the possibility of what words can do in a good way.

ABERNETHY: But it’s not all euphoria is it? I mean, isn’t there some skepticism, too?

Ms. MCDERMOTT: Well, I think we all have to, every once in a while, keep our feet on the ground and be reminded not only of the troubles ahead and the situation. And I think Obama has done a very good job at reminding us of this, that the reality is that we still have a long road. And I think what most people have appreciated from both sides – Democrats, Republicans, white and black, and hesitant about this presidency and euphoric over it – I think the sense that we can have reasonable discourse again, that we’re not angry at each other all the time, that we can acknowledge one to the other that we don’t agree on all this but there are some things we can agree on and we can speak about.

ABERNETHY: Rabbi Gopin, your special field is conflict resolution, international mainly, I think. You’re just back from Jerusalem?

Rabbi MARC GOPIN (Director, Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University): Yes.

ABERNETHY: What do you hear, what do you hear there about expectations?

Rabbi GOPIN: Well, as a matter of fact I gave a speech just three days ago in Jerusalem at a place that was a bipartisan center for meetings of Palestinians and Jews – a lot of wonderful people who are not on the news, who are relating to each other constantly. And I was amazed by one comment from a very religious young Jewish man who was looking to Obama as somebody who would be a spiritual savior for the Middle East because of his example of bipartisanship and his example of what Alice was talking about – the redemptive power of words to inspire and to make change, and also the call to responsibility.

ABERNETHY: So, we want this new president who’s going to be coming in, we want him to solve all the problems of the American economy, we want him to deal with global warming, we want him to solve a couple of wars, and now you’re saying that people in the Middle East want him to be their spiritual savior. Is that what you said?

Rabbi GOPIN: I’m amazed at the language, but I also have to say that one of the reasons why people see this as a prophetic voice – his as a prophetic voice – because his is a call to responsibility. I think one of the reasons why every time he speaks he practically makes me weep is because he reminds me for the first time in 40 years of my heroes from 40 years ago who died – Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and others who didn’t just say I will take care of you. It was a call to responsibility. It was something that we would all do together. It was enormously empowering, so not only am I moved, but my 12-year-old daughter and my seven-year-old daughter were calling people all over the country – kids their age – to register their families to vote. I mean it was an amazing moment for America, and people around the world are sensing that.

ABERNETHY: But let me get back, Alice, let me get back to this skepticism or, you know, realism or whatever one might call it. The people that you write about, if they were real people, what would they be saying? Would they be saying that there’s this – would they be looking toward Obama for salvation?

Ms. MCDERMOTT: Well, you know, I think there’s two sides to change, and I think we have to recognize that there’s also a large portion of the population who are frightened by change, and for them this is a very big change. This is a huge change, not only the way we talk about ourselves and the way we talk about our government, but that we have come to this moment where a black man is taking the oath of office. And there’s a large segment of the population that says, “Wow, everything’s changed.” And that’s not always something that makes them feel comfortable, and I think that’s something that we have to acknowledge. But, again, I think Obama has done a good job at speaking to that.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Bob, you know, let me just play on this, because I think this is a time when the nation and the world can pivot from despair and tragedy, disappointment, economic downturn to possibility and imagining themselves behaving differently, feeling, responding to the call…


Dr. FRANKLIN: …both my colleagues have talked about…

ABERNETHY: I think some of us …

Dr. FRANKLIN: Dr. King…

ABERNETHY: I’m sorry, go ahead.

Dr. FRANKLIN: No, I just wanted to invoke Dr. King’s words in his last speech. You know, “we’ve got some difficult days ahead.” And think about that – the way he prepared his -and he would be dead the next day. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but I’ve been to the mountain top, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” And I think it’s that legacy of King pivoting from despair and tragedy and conflict to there’s possibility. But you have to step up, as Rabbi Hillel in one of my favorite quotes, you know: “The world is equally balanced between good and evil. It’s your next act that will tip the scale.”

ABERNETHY: We have to stop there. I’m sorry. This is really fascinating. Many thanks to Marc Gopin, Alice McDermott, and Robert Franklin.

© Marc Gopin