The Audacity of Hopelessness 

Protestors get ugly in the streets of Denver.


DENVER -- To hell with Fox News and all their manipulative, faux-patriotic jingoism. Michelle Obama was right: Sometimes it's hard as hell to be proud of this deeply troubled country.

On Monday night Mrs. Obama took center stage at Denver's Pepsi Center and delivered a message as simple and as elegant as the beautiful blue green dress she wore so very well. Her broad smile lit up the stadium as she looked out over the massive, cheering crowd and spoke intimately, as though she were talking to a good friend over dinner. There was no speechifying and no oration, just plain language echoing at every turn her husband's belief that too often Americans settle for "the world that is" rather than "the world as it should be."

"We know what opportunity and justice look like," she said, describing her America as a place where hope and hard work are still rewarded.

"Isn't that the great American story?" she asked rhetorically, and the crowded nodded their hopeful dittos to that. Then, after invoking the name of Martin Luther King and trumpeting the true spirit of women's suffrage, she reminded her doting audience that America's greatest blessings were hard-won by real heroes who stood together against the tide, marched against injustice, and gathered together "in churches and union halls" because they refused to settle for anything less than the world as it should be. It was the kind of speech designed to make people feel proud to be Americans. Meanwhile, in the streets outside, "the world as it is" was raging.
A balding, overweight man identifying himself only as "Shultais" -- a mononym he spelled out for me -- stood with a trumpet in his hands shouting at passersby on Denver's 16th Street mall, a wide pedestrian thoroughfare in Downtown Denver. He wore a sandwich board on his chest reading, "The wages of sin is death," and his face turned as red the 2004 electoral map while he shrieked the gospel. His tongue and lips were caked with dried spittle, as thick and white as Elmer's glue, his eyes smoldered like those of a malevolent angel, and his already raspy voice cracked as he shrieked about the sins of liberals and shouted dire warnings about judgment day.

A passerby shook his head as he passed. "Praise be to Allah," he said with all-too-evident irony, in a deliberate attempt to make the veins pop out in Shultais' temples.

"That's exactly what the terrorists shouted when they flew a plane into the World Trade Center," Shultais answered back.

"I thought they said, "Jesus Christ what have I done?" an onlooker quipped. Another young man sighed. "Christians, and non-Christians, this is the show," he said. "This has caused the worst wars for thousands of years."

Shultais, who hails from New Jersey and spends up to 12 weeks a year traveling the country, speaking out against sinfulness, doesn't scream at everyone. If you approach him respectfully he responds in kind.

"All we want to say is that God has issues with sin," he explained, standing underneath a sign reading, "Homo Sex is a Threat to National Security."

"A lot of people think we judge, but it's not about being judged. I've got no right to judge nobody. I've made more mistakes than anybody in this world. But I also know what it feels like to feel the forgiveness of Christ in my life, and I want to share that with people. I want people to know that God can forgive them on any level whether they've got a hang-up on drugs, or a hang up on crime, lust, stealing. Whatever the case may be.

"Our group doesn't have a name, but some of these guys spend 30 weeks on the road for Christ..."

"Their name's," a blond, lanky counter protester in a black t-shirt and pink bandana suddenly shouted, interrupting an obvious interview.

"Christ only asks people only one question," Shultais continued, atempting to ignore his heckler. "What will you do with me? Will you believe or will you call it hogwash?"

"Why don't you come to the streets when you don't have riot cops protecting you and see what happens," the heckler continued, drawing his target's full attention.

"What was that?" the Evangelical trumpeter asked. "Are you threatening me? Why don't you do something right now? Because if you touch me you'll find out what the bottom line of suffering is all about?"

"Just touch me," the blond snarled, puffing up his chest.

"No, you touch me," said Shultais

"I'm not touching you,." went the blond.

"I don't like to be like this," Shultais apologized. "I just don't like being threatened."

"Nobody threatened you."

"Yes you did"

"No, I didn't."

And so it went: The two men stood toe to toe, at the center of the mall, condemning one another to various visions of the pit. All around them signs waved--signs with slogans like "Repent of your wicked heart of unbelief," "Homo sex is sin," and "Warning : baby killing women, so called Christians, porno freaks, Muslims, drunks, homosexuals, party animals, rebellious women, liberals, Jesus mockers, sex addicts, and Mormons: God will judge you."

It's all enough to make the most diehard atheist hope that there is Supreme being keeping score somewhere, judging the actions of these two ridiculous figures, and all the innocent passersby who have been forced throughout recorded time to endure their never ending battles.

As genuine and touching as Michelle Obama's words may have been, it's difficult to know where they fit in an angry America that seems to have abandoned the vision and ideals of activists past -- an America where winning your fight is worth destroying the prize. To borrow a phrase from John McCain, that's not hope we can believe in.


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