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October 24, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Greater Spartanburg Ministries, 680 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303, (864) 585-9371.

For three Tuesday nights last October, I taught the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to a dozen or so Scouts. To earn this award, these young Americans must read and discuss the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The merit badge emphasizes our rights and our responsibilities as American citizens. One is the privilege and the duty to vote.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is reported to have said, “Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least.”  

My grandfather admired Mark Twain and quoted the famous writer often. Someone asked Pappy who he was going to vote for in an upcoming presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.”  

An important election is approaching. This contest is, of course, quite serious, yet, as are all political events, it is, in some ways, comical. The professional comedians of America have always played a significant role in the campaigns that precede any election. This year candidates for President and Vice President have been the subjects of stand-up routines. Most have been spoofed on talk shows. “Saturday Night Live” features regular impersonations of both Democrats and Republicans.  Comedy has been a significant factor as voters make their decisions, not only this year but also throughout our history.

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

Writing for Time in an article in 2008, Roy Blount, Jr. called Mark Twain our original American superstar. Like current humorists, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan,  Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler,  Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, Maya Rudolf, Michael Che, Keenan Thompson, Bowen Yang, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, 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 mustache, Twain was the first true 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,” wrote Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once said 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. While 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 funnyman, who is a national misfortune there.” Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funnyman 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 3, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimation, we will again see closely contested races in many quarters. Some older Americans voting this year will remember when the United States learned that every vote matters. 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 decide 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 people of faith, 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 citizen. I am going to pray pretty much without ceasing. I am also going to laugh at all the jokes and impersonations that are funny. I intend to do the same beyond November 3, no matter who is elected.

On Election Day in years past, Clare and I ate a good breakfast. We prayed for this country and our leaders at every level. We then drove out in the county to our voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in Whitestone, South Carolina. We waited patiently for our turn, being grateful if there was a large voter turnout. Once behind a curtain, I made my selection, keeping whom I cast my vote for, or against, to myself. It is, after all, a secret ballot.

This year, Clare and I voted by mail. We sat down together at our dining room table and had a brief prayer before marking our ballots. Though I don’t know how she voted, I imagine that we agreed on some things and differed on others. We respect the secret ballot. I am grateful for this country and the freedom to vote.

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 critical election with a prayer in my heart and a smile on my face. I believe that both Mark Twain and the Almighty would approve.

The lyrics of “America, the Beautiful” are the words of my prayer.

America, America, God shed His grace on thee…

America, America, God shed his grace on thee…

America, America, God mend thine every flaw…

I will also enjoy the humor and the satire that will surely be part of these days ahead. The wisdom of the scriptures gives a remedy for stress.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)

Humor is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, there are no harmful side effects.

The Scouts in my merit badge class are too young to vote. I am trying to teach them and our grandchildren to cherish this right and protect it for others. As always, the very best teaching is by example. I vote because I value freedom. I vote because I love this country. I vote because I see in the eyes of young Americans the hope for this country’s future.

Clare and I have already voted.  I would urge you to do the same.

Please vote. Please.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at

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