It’s Friday but Sunday’s coming. This classic evangelical refrain contrasts Good Friday with Easter Sunday, the despondency of the crucifixion with the joy of resurrection, and, more broadly, personal sin with salvation. The Brethren tradition gave high priority to adult baptism in the salvation process, but otherwise, they agreed that humans could expect a Sunday.
This wonderful five-word summation of Christianity fits Jon Meacham’s just-released book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (2018), one of my summer-reading delights. Meacham’s best-seller is his response to the alarm over American society shared by many across the ideological spectrum. (At this writing, it’s been another rough week.) The Soul of America is about history rather than religion, and Meacham, a committed Episcopalian, does not explicitly apply the Friday-to-Sunday concept, but it nevertheless jumps out of his book.
Meacham’s point is that America has faced difficult times before and always overcame them. In the nineteenth century, for example, slavery and sectional politics threatened the very existence of the nation. In the 1920s millions of small-town and rural white American men joined the Ku Klux Klan, and in the 1950’s McCarthyism ran rampant. In the end, however, America’s better angels won. American democracy has Fridays, but Sunday always comes.
Those who justify Meacham’s hopefulness include Calvin Coolidge, Robert Welch, and Lyndon Johnson. Coolidge (a big surprise!) conspicuously rebuked the Klan by affirming the rights of all “without discrimination on account of race or color.” Welch stood up to Joe McCarthy (“have you no sense of decency”), and in 1964, an election year, no less, Lyndon Johnson gave a passionate pep talk for civil rights to a banquet crowd in New Orleans, i.e., in the heart of Dixie. He received a rousing ovation but still lost the state in November.
As Christians know and Meacham reminds us, nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes. Lincoln probably did more than anybody to end slavery, but he never quite accepted racial equality. Harry Truman was path-breaking on civil rights, but privately he used ugly racial terms. To be sure, even saints sin but not enough to diminish Meacham’s sunny optimism.
Meacham’s anticipation of the inevitable re-emergence of America’s best represents religious-like faith in a secular institution. Most of us hope that Meacham is correct—actually, many of us are pulling very hard for him—but just because Sunday has always re-appeared in America’s past does not necessarily mean that it always will.
In spiritual matters, however, Christians know that Sunday always comes. Like Lincoln and Truman, we make mistakes, but we can still do God’s work. Like America, we have low points in our lives and faith, but in the end, Sunday arrives. Individual lives have infinite variation and Sundays may not always look alike, but everybody can get one.
For Jon Meacham’s America, it’s Friday but Sunday is coming, probably. For Christians, it’s Friday but Sunday is coming, for sure.