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September 18, 2016

“Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain.  Someone once asked my grandfather whom he was going to vote for in a presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.”

Many of us feel the same way this time around as an important election approaches   in November 2016.   The presidential political contest is serious, yet, in some ways, it is comic. The comedians of America have played a significant role in the campaign that precedes the election. The candidates have been the subjects of stand-up routines and half-hour satires. They have appeared on late-night talk shows. “Saturday Night Live” features regular spoofs of both Democrats and Republicans.  Comedy has been a significant force as voters make their decisions.

Beginning in the year 2000 Time magazine has published a special issue. In the past “The Making of America” series has featured Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. This year, 2016, the magazine featured Thomas Edison. The seventh annual issue featured Mark Twain, the first American writer to achieve the kind of fame normally accorded presidents and generals.

Writing for Time in an article in 2008, Roy Blount, Jr. called Mark Twain our original American superstar. Like current talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, and James Corden, Mark Twain also helped the folks of his day laugh at serious issues.

Roy Blount was quick to remind us that this stinging satire is not new. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature could be traced back to Mark Twain. With his white suit, cigar, disheveled hair, and bushy moustache, Twain was the first political comedian, the master of one-liners. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said, after his obituary mistakenly appeared in the New York Journal.

“As it happens, many of the issues of our day were also the issues of Twain’s day,” writes Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once remarked to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. “Why, Carnegie,” Twain answered, “so is Hell.”

Twain had a talent for detecting hypocrisy. His irreverence could be edgy. When it was funny, it was unsettling.

The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on United States coins in 1864. Mark Twain was 29 years old at the time.  Three years before Twain’s death in 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation by declaring that “In God We Trust” should be removed from United States coins because they “carried the name of God into improper places.”

In conversation with Andrew Carnegie, Twain quipped that “In God We Trust” was a fine motto, “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well – In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”

Mark Twain came from America’s heart.  He made Americans laugh, especially at themselves.

In the special edition of Time that featured Twain, Richard Lacayo wrote of an exchange between Twain and the British poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold. After making two visits to the United States to observe American customs, Arnold eventually wrote his impressions in the book Civilization in the United States.

Troubled by the way Americans appeared to lack any capacity for reverence toward those in authority, Arnold wrote, “If there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect.”

One institution of American life that struck Arnold as improper was what he called “the addiction to the funny man, who is a national misfortune there.” Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funny man of all, Mark Twain.

Offended by Arnold’s words, Twain prepared a reply.  Though never published, it includes the single best one-line defense of how a democratic society works. “A discriminating irreverence,” he wrote, “is the creator and protector of human liberty.”

Lacayo wrote of Twain, “He was plain speaking and had the kind of deadly wit that could cut through the cant and hypocrisy surrounding any topic, no matter how sensitive: war, sex, religion, even race. Twain was righteous without being pious, angry for all the right reasons and funny in all the right ways. You might say he gave virtue a good name.”

Tuesday, November 8, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimation, we will again see a closely–contested presidential election. Many voting in this year’s election will remember when the United States learned that every vote counts. Harry Truman narrowly won the office of President in 1948.

I am awaiting the end of the campaign.  Most of the country is ready to make a decision and then to move forward.  We have all experienced an overload of rhetoric.

Mark Twain understood how important it is for people of faith to vote. Again criticizing Christians, Twain wrote in the September 2, 1904, edition of Collier’s, “If more Americans could be persuaded to vote, it would bring about a revolution that would be incalculably beneficent.  It would save the country.”

Until Election Day, I am going to try to become a more informed voter. I am also going to laugh at all the jokes and impersonations.

On Election Day, I plan to eat a good breakfast. I will pray for this country and those we will elect. I will drive out in the county to my voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in Whitestone, South Carolina. I will wait patiently for my turn, glad for the large voter turnout. Once behind a curtain, I will make my selection, keeping whom I cast my vote for or against to myself. It is, after all, a secret ballot. I will be grateful that I enjoy the freedom to do so.

I learned long ago that prayer and humor are first cousins. We pray and we laugh about what is most important in our lives. So I intend to approach this important election with a prayer in my heart and a smile on my face. I would urge you to do the same.

Both Mark Twain and the Almighty would approve.

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