Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, speaker and historian, spoke in the Samford University Wright Center on Tuesday, March 22 as part of President Beck Taylor’s Love Thy Neighbor week-long series of events. After his planned lecture was removed from the schedule of events for Taylor’s inauguration week in October 2021, the Samford community was excited to welcome Meacham to campus for the first time.
The event was well-attended by students, faculty and members of the wider Birmingham community. Meacham began his talk with an anecdote about a woman at the National Book Festival who mistook him for author John Grisham, which had his audience laughing immediately. He continued this lively storytelling throughout his hour-long speech, succeeding in engaging his audience the entire time.
Taking the slogan of this week’s focus, Meacham centered his speech around the idea of loving one’s neighbor, stating that disagreeing with a person’s opinion does not mean one should not love them.
“Love your neighbor. It’s the central command. Love God, love your neighbor,” Meacham said.
Meacham brought his book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” into the conversation as well. His New York Times Bestseller is about the soul – not just the human soul, but the soul that belongs to the United States of America.
“The country has a soul, too,” Meacham said. “We are agents within that soul.”
Meacham then continued to discuss the idea of loving one’s neighbor. He said that this is a difficult thing to accomplish, mainly because of our “sinful natures,” and he gave the audience four key principles to keep in mind.
The first principle was “curiosity.”
“We have to be curious, not just about ourselves, but about the forces that are shaping the world in which we live,” Meacham said.
The next principle was “compassion.” Meacham said there was “no greater embodiment” of compassion than John Robert Lewis, a man who overcame segregation to become a “statesman of the Republic.”
The third principle was “candor.”
“We do ourselves no favors by mistaking civility for false acquiescence. Conflict aversion is not civility,” Meacham said.
The last principle was “empathy.” Meacham told a specific story about George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, whom Meacham said was the most empathetic person he ever knew and whom Meacham gave the eulogy for following his death in 2018.
“The most civil thing you can do is imagine what it’s like for the other person and treat them as you would wish to be treated,” Meacham said.
Meacham also did not shy away from discussing his faith and its role in his life throughout his speech. He said that he attended Christian schools all throughout his young life and grew up Episcopalian, the denomination of which he still claims to be a part of.
After his speech, Meacham sat down with Chief of Staff & Assistant to the President, Michael Morgan, and Vice President for Marketing and Communication, Professor Betsy Holloway who asked him a series of questions ranging in topic from the crisis in Ukraine to his Christian faith. Holloway then asked Meacham to leave the students in the audience with a final charge.
First, Meacham quoted Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker: Remember, the other fella might be right. Meacham also encouraged students to pick up physical books and read.
“There’s something about engaging with a text that will deepen your rational capacities,” Meacham said. “Text will arm you better to make wiser decisions, partly because it will give you a minute to think.”
Meacham received a standing ovation in the Wright Center at the end of the event. Samford students and faculty alike said they enjoyed Meacham’s talk and gleaned a lot from his words of wisdom.