Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

WeWhoDaredWe Who Dared to Say No to War:  American Antiwar Writing From 1812 to NowEd. Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.  Basic Books, 2008.

I have just read a public library copy of this gem and it is on my Christmas list for my own copy.  High school and college courses in U.S. history should use this as a supplement.   Beginning with the War of 1812, the editors collect writings against war during every war fought by the USA:  The Mexican-American War, the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Iraq and the “War on Terror.” 

A major strength of this collection is the ideological range of the selections.  One editor, Murray Polner, comes from the liberal end of U.S. politics (he leans toward democratic socialism). The other editor, Thomas Woods, Jr., is a strong conservative (libertarian).  But, popular myth to the contrary, war is not a “conservative vs. liberal” issue, but a moral issue that has been opposed on many different grounds. (Likewise, there have been both liberal and conservative militarists.)  Some of the writers collected here were against all war, but others wrote only to oppose particular wars. 

Here we find writings from the famous (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay,  Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Abraham Lincoln (while a U.S. Congressman–against the Mexican-American war), Alexander Campbell (founder of the Disciples of Christ), William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Daniel and Philip Berrigan and others.  But we also find writings from those who are nowhere near as well known, such as Jeanette Rankin (Republican Representative from Montana, first woman elected to Congress and only member of U.S. Congress to vote against entry into both WWI and WWII), John Randolph, Church of Christ minister David Lipscomb, Russell Kirk, Elihus Burritt and others.

I am not certain why the editors began with the War of 1812 rather than the U.S. Revolutionary War (or some of the wars during the Colonial period), nor why the Korean War was omitted, but this is an amazing collection that shows that anti-war speeches and writing is a thoroughly American tradition.  A nice bonus is a comilation of “Great Antiwar Films” described and rated one to 3 stars by historian Butler Shaffer.  Scenes of anti-war protest from every period of U.S. history are illustrated by a great selection of photos scattered throughout the volume.  A great bibliography finishes out the fine volume.

The reading can be depressing since it shows how seldom peace folk have been able to stop the war machine.  It is depressing to realize how many times the press abandoned its duty to uncover propaganda and lies–this cheerleading in place of investigation did not start with the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (In fact, it is bizarre to find that many of the same bogus arguments were given for invading Canada in 1812 as were given for invading Iraq in 2003.)

But this collection need not be read in such depressing light.  Those who are against war, especially in time of war, often feel isolated and the drumbeats of militarism and shrill cries of their neighbors claim that they do not love their country.  The warmongers try to claim the heritage of the nation for themselves.  A collection like this shows that anti-war feeling and action have a strong claim to the central American tradition.  Protest, agitation, resistance are all part of the warp and woof of this nation (and doubtless of many other nations, too).  Learning this history empowers ordinary people to join in the antiwar tradition–and can work to change the nation from its embrace of a culture of imperialist warfare to a culture of peacemaking.  A war-state undermines democracy and liberty, but working against war strengthens a democratic republic.

It’s now on my Christmas list–put it on yours, too.

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October 23, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, books, citizenship, democracy, Iraq, just peacemaking, peace, politics, social history, terrorism prevention, U.S. politics, violence, war | Comments Off on Book Review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

ThoreauUpdate:  A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong.  I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword  to my copy of On Civil Disobedience.  I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars.  Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think  they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.

Happy Birthday, Thoreau.  Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA,  Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class.  He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.

Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.

Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs,  but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.]  He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend  an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine.  Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience.  In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience.  By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil.  One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws.  Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.

Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists.  Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways.  Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience.  So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.]  These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major  motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale.  He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.

We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness.  We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.

We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.

Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.

UPDATE:   It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas  K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy,  Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway.  Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten.  Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]

To help the Thoreau revival, check out the Thoreau Society.  A DVD expounding Thoreau’s basic values and principles is available and is known as Life With Principle.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, consumerism, convictions, heroes, nonviolence, philosophy, politics, taxes | 6 Comments

Brief Reflections on Patriotism and Christian Faith

As I write this, it is already 04 July 2009. It’s Independence Day, the anniversary of the day (04 July 1776) when American colonists declared their independence from the U.K. It’s the birthday of this republic, the United States of America, although our current form of government did not set until 1790.  Throughout this land on Sunday, churches will be filled with pastors giving sermons on freedom or on “God and country,” etc. Most of them will be pretty bad. Some of them will be positively idolatrous–reducing the God of all creation to a tribal deity that somehow cares more for this nation than others–a truly blasphemous idea.

Some preachers will do better. My brother-in-law, Rev. Bill Westmoreland, a Presbyterian minister in Cincinnatti, OH, will be preaching on the differences between freedom in Christ (e.g., Gal. 5) and the individualistic, consumerist versions of “freedom” that most of the nation will celebrate this weekend.

But let’s skip the idolatrous perversions.  What of patriotism itself? Can Christians be patriots?  Some would be highly skeptical of the idea.  The great Pascal said that patriotism as love of country is a great idea but why should my love stop at an artificial border? Good question, Blaise.  Others have noted that patriotism is the last refuge (or excuse) of the scoundrel. (I am reminded of the scene from the hilarious  play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas where a TX Sen. was caught at the brothel–and immediately claimed that he had been drugged and kidnapped and taken there against his will by his enemies–all because they KNEW he was the fiercest anti-Communist in the Senate. Yeah, right.) Huge evil has been done in the name of patriotism–by the patriots of many nations.  Can a Christian, who believes that the saints are called out from among all nations, really be a patriot?

I think so if we define “patriotism” differently than “nationalism” or “militarism.”  Love of one’s native land is natural,  like love of one’s family.  It doesn’t have to mean hatred or contempt for others’ nations anymore than quiet pride in one’s family means the hatred of other families.  The Apostle Paul, with dual citizenship,  both bragged on his heritage as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and on his Roman citizenship–though he knew the shortcomings of both.  The Sanhedrin would eventually arrest Paul and turn him over to Rome–where tradition says he was martyred.  So, Paul had to have a critical love of country.  It could not be the kind of blind patriotism which ignores the faults of one’s nation. It had to  point out those faults and seek to correct them.

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler–which led to his arrest by the Gestapo and eventual execution by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer was partially motivated by his ecumenical commitments to the church universal.  But I would contend that Bonhoeffer was a greater patriot than those “German Christians” who lavished praise on Hitler, flew Swastikas in their sanctuaries,  and supported the Third Reich’s agenda.

I would similarly claim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–who once called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” to be a better patriot than the “God and country” Jerry Falwell types.  I would say that Rev. William Sloan Coffin, or Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who were leading resisters to the Vietnam War were also patriotic Americans–genuinely so.

A Christian patriotism must be an “eyes wide open” critical patriotism that is always calling for repentence and reform. Because Christians can never forget that no nation, no government, is anywhere close to the standards of the Rule of God. Our first loyalty is to that other “kingdom” (forgive the patriarchal language,  the political meaning comes through better) which is not from this world–but which will overthrow the Powers and Authorities  of this world.  We are loyal first to the “God Revolution,” and second to the global church (the scattered People of God) and third to the whole world, in and out of the church, as God’s beloved creation. Only after that, as a lesser loyalty, can we be lovers of our own nation and government.

Nationalists and jingoists, therefore, will always find Christians to be suspect. We will not appear patriotic enough for them.  Too bad.

On a more secular note, I link to this great forum on patriotism by the online version of The Nation.

July 4, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, citizenship, ecumenism, politics, theology | Comments Off on Brief Reflections on Patriotism and Christian Faith

Wanted: More Public Intellectuals

A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.

A public intellectual is different.  She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day.  Now, a public intellectual  is not the first need of a society,  by any means, but all societies need them.  The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals.  So were Socrates, Plato,  and Aristotle. 

America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals:  Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.  But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad.  We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.

To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way.  Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help  shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national  dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote  his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.

The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center).  With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism.  I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism.  Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual  center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies. 

But the left and center aren’t much better off.  In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes,  we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today.  I can think of a few:  Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum,  Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it.  Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.

We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues.  We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals. 

Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else. 🙂

June 27, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, moral discernment, philosophy, politics | 27 Comments

Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) Does the Right Thing

Since I am critical of the Republican Party on most issues, and of the conservative base of the GOP even more, I have made it a policy on this blog to note and praise every time I see something done by a Republican politician of which I approve. I have been accused of “knee jerk GOP hatred” which is not true. 

Today, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) signed legislation increasing FL’s tobacco taxes by $1 per package of cigarettes.  Excellent!  It will help curb teen smoking and addiction and it will add $900 million per year to FL state revenues–which will offset the state’s Medicare costs and will help fund research into cancer cures!  Well done, Gov. Crist!

I especially highlight Crist’s actions here because they take some political courage (a virtue always in short supply in either major party).  You see,  Gov. Crist is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and this action is bound to be used against him–not by his Democratic opponent in the general election (which increasingly looks to be Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL) ), but by his Republican primary challenger, Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is more conservative than Crist.  The rightwing of the GOP hates any and all taxes.  Crist is very popular in FL and will probably win the primary, but he is not all that popular with the conservative GOP base.  Rubio has been endorsed by national conservative Republican Mike Huckabee (formerly Gov. of Arkansas and former presidential candidate who is now a Fox News pundit) and by Jeb Bush, Jr., son of the former FL Gov. and nephew of George W. Bush.  There is no doubt that the GOP right will use today’s signing to brand Crist as a terrible tax hiker!  He had to know it, too.

So, here’s my hat tip to Gov. Crist for doing the right thing REGARDLESS of the risk.  Politicians of all parties take notice: This is what a spine looks like!

Update:  Of course, Crist had to follow this good deed with a kick in the teeth to injured workers!  Nice, Governor Suntan. I sure hope that your Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate (probably Rep. Kendrick Meeks) highlights this nastiness in the general election!

May 29, 2009 Posted by | ethics, politics, taxes | 6 Comments

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Walter Rauschenbusch

rauschenbuschAfter a brief introductory chapter by editors Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, Shapers begins with a 3-chapter section on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” which profiles Walter Rauschenbusch (most famous theologian of the Social Gospel), Muriel Lester  (1855-1968)(British Baptist pastor, social worker, influential writer on contemplative spirituality, & globetrotting peacemaker), and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) (African American Baptist pioneer in education and social uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition).  Each of these pioneering 20th C. shapers of Baptist social ethics was born in the late 19th C., in the wake of the U.S. Civil War (and the Crimean and Anglo-Boer wars), the Industrial Revolution and its resulting social dislocations, the beginnings of global resistance to Euro-American colonial imperialism, the mechanization of wars, the first international peace movement since pre-Constantinian Christianity, the birth of socialist politics (in both Marxist and non-Marxist forms), the rise of global movements of organized labor, and the international movement for women’s suffrage.  This is the matrix which gave rise to the Social Gospel and each of our 3 profiled pioneers can be seen as representing different facets of the Social Gospel. (A more complete picture of this foundation-era would have included chapters on John Clifford (1836-1923), Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), and J. B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964), pioneers all).

The chapter on Rauschenbusch is written by Paul A. Lewis, a friend of mine–and a closer friend of my fellow Baptist peace blogger, Mikeal Broadway who blogs at Earth as it is in Heaven, a blog my Gentle Readers should frequent.  Lewis is part of that generation (mine) of Southern Baptists who found themselves in the midst of seminary (in his case, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco) during the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC (1979-1994) and who sought a different way of being Baptist–which included pursuing advanced theological education in ecumenical, non-Southern Baptist, circles. Paul earned a Th.M. at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is related to the Presbyterian Church, USA, studying with Douglass Otatti whose “Reforming Protestantism” flows more or less directly from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition. Then Paul completed a Ph.D. at the United Methodist related Duke University, studying with Stanley Hauerwas–a profound critic of that tradition. (Paul used to say that he was a “misplaced liberal among the Hauerwasian communitarians.”) Today, he is Associate Professor of  Christian Ethics in the Roberts Department of Christianity, College of Liberal Arts, Mercer University, Macon, GA–a “moderate” Baptist institution related to the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–the more centrist of the two breakaway groups from the SBC. (I belong to the smaller, more liberal, breakaway group, the Alliance of Baptists.)

The chapter  begins with a biographical sketch of Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants whose father, August Rauschenbusch was a pietistic Lutheran missionary pastor who converted to Baptist views and helped to found the ethnic German Baptist Convention (today the North American Baptist Conference in the U.S. and Canada). Walter was born in Rochester, NY at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War and would die in the midst of World War I. His life spanned the post-bellum “Gilded Age” of U.S. Industrial Revolution extremes of wealth and poverty–which largely paralleled the contemporary Victorian era of the U.K. with it Dickensonian extremes.  His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). 

Young Walter imbibed his parents warm pietistic faith, but was also disturbed by the bad state of their marriage–which others found “shocking.” (Victorian-era accounts are so veiled that it is difficult to tell, but might this marriage have even been abusive?) He desired to become a minister, even a missionary.  He was partially educated in Germany at a conservative Gymnasium (equivalent in the U.S. to a very rigorous high school, plus the first year or so of university) before earning an A.B. at the University of Rochester and his seminary degree at Rochester Theological Seminary.  But Walter’s dream of being a Baptist foreign missionary was denied by the Northern Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (today, the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA). The officers of the Foreign Missionary Society found problems with Rauschenbusch’s views on the atonement–presumably that it deviated from the then-standard doctrine of “penal substitution” which evolved from Anselm to Calvin to the rigid and bloody forms of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Dismayed, Rauschenbusch became a pastor. He had been a student pastor at a German-language Baptist congregation in Louisville, KY during his seminary days, but now became pastor of Second Baptist Church at the edge of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Tenderloin” slums in New York City.  The poverty and related problems of his congregation convinced Rauschenbusch that simply preaching about personal salvation was insufficient.  He became involved in works for social justice, calling himself a socialist (though never joining any socialist party) and joining with other socially active ministers in the “Brotherhood of the Kingdom.” He found himself part of the Victorian-era “Social Gospel” movement which paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics.

The Social Gospel (which Rauschenbusch did not found), similar to movements of “Social Christianity” in the UK and Europe, connected Christian faith to Progressive or even democratic socialist politics. It firmly opposed the ideologies of “Social Darwinism” by which the Robber Baron industrial millionaires of the Gilded Age justified the peonage, child labor, dangerous working conditions, union-busting, and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Social Gospel ministers and theologians claimed that society, not just individuals, needed to be redeemed–and took on the prevailing view that saved individuals would automatically save societies. 

Rauschenbusch grew too deaf to continue serving his congregation adequately, so, after a European sabbatical in which he studied liberal theologies and biblical studies and the new sciences of sociology, took a position at his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary.  First, he taught a variety of courses in the German Department and, then, became Professor of Church History for the seminary as a whole.  From this position, Rauschenbusch became the major theologian of the Social Gospel. His work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) was the best selling religious book in the English language for 5 years. Sadly, re-reading it today, far too much of it seems horribly contemporary.

Rauschenbusch wrote many other works, including Prayers for the Social Awakening (many of which wound up in the hymnals and liturgies of mainstream Protestantism),  Christianizing the Social Order (his most Constantinian-sounding title, but Rauschenbusch was not proposing any theocracy–but a “salt and light” penetration of institutions that would remake them away from greed, corruption, and oppression to mutual sharing and the common good), and his masterpiece, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Lewis analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Rauschenbusch for Baptist social ethics well.  He notes that MANY of the criticisms launched at Rauschenbusch are simply wrong–however rightly they may characterize others in the Social Gospel movement. Far from “minimizing sin,” Rauschenbusch had several chapters on sin in A Theology, noting the many personal and social dimensions.  He described the super-personal dimensions of institutional evil in ways that anticipated the later biblical studies of the “Principalities and Powers,” such as in the work of Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, or Walter Wink.

Nor is it true that Rauschenbusch downplayed the atonement, although he did try to rethink it in ways that went beyond the objective/subjective fight that traces back to Anselm vs. Abelard.

Also, Lewis shows that the frequent criticism that the Social Gospel diluted the Christian message of personal salvation, to whatever degree it may be true of others, is certainly false when applied to Rauschenbusch.  His deep personal faith was well known and found literary expression.  He composed hymns and prayers.  He viewed his work as a kind of evangelism. And he knew that any social movement for justice would lack roots without a deep spiritual grounding–which he continued to find in the gospel, especially in the person and work of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch was a strong Baptist believer in liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and church-state separation, but NOT in apolitical, socially inactive church. His churches worked to address social evil and to influence policies–to stem alcoholism, prevent child labor, reform industry, work for economic justice, end poverty.  Toward the end of his life, in the wake of WWI, Rauschenbusch, who previously had given little thought to the gospel’s implications for war and peace, became a pacifist.  (The Social Gospel split at this point:  Parts of it were involved in the beginnings of a Christian pacifism that went beyond the traditional peace churches, and joined with the international peace movement.  Other parts of the Social Gospel movement justified WWI in terms of a “crusade for democracy” and would have sounded strangely like the U.S. evangelical cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Rauschenbusch went with the peacemaking stream.)

Lewis does a nice job also of showing some of Rauschenbusch’s blind spots and weaknesses. Like much of the rest of the Social Gospel leaders, Rauschenbusch shared the Victorian-era view of women and the family.  Indeed, his writings never mention the rising feminist/suffragist movement that was prominent in his lifetime–and he died 3 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) enfranchised women throughout the U.S. (But he would have seen Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which shared much of the values of the Social Gospel, become the first national political party in the U.S. to adopt a women’s suffrage plank in their national platform in 1916). In fact, one giant motivator in Rauschenbusch’s determination that working men receive adequate pay and benefits was to make it unnecessary for wives and children to work. And he held to traditional views of male leadership in the family–though rebelling against the strict authoritarianism of his father’s example.  In this, he was simply a man of his time.

Similarly, Rauschenbusch held very negative views of Roman Catholics–as did most pre-Vatican II Protestants.  He assumed that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy and a heresy and threat to progress.  No matter how conservative or liberal, one would have been hard pressed to find Protestants with more charitable (or even accurate) views of Catholicism before the 1960s. To Protestants prior to the breakthrough with Pope John XXIII, Catholicism was a global superstition that was anti-science, anti-democracy, and firmly on the side of the wealthy against the poor.

Much of the Social Gospel was incredibly racist.  Here, also, Rauschenbusch was not guiltless. But Lewis fails to show how much better Rauschenbusch did here than many Social Gospel contemporaries. He held far too many sterotypes of African-Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities, but he did NOT share the enthusiasm for eugenics or the Social Darwinistic assumptions that “the white race” would spread while other races would shrivel and die out.  Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke out against this and opposed segregation. However, like most of the Northern Social Gospel advocates, racial issues were not on his “front burner” for good or ill. Those of his students who took the Social Gospel South (where it survived WWI and the Niebuhrian and Neo-Orthodox reaction), by contrast, made racial justice and reconciliation the number one moral issue of their lives.

Lewis also judges the Social Gospel for its supposed failure to reproduce itself, noting that while all of Rauschenbusch’s children shared his politics, none of them shared his faith.  This seems to me to be overly harsh. I have known many a fundamentalist evangelist whose children rebelled against the faith of their upbringing. Rebellion, deciding to be one’s own person, is part of the movement of one generation to another.  Most persons of faith worry that their children might not share their convictions and most parents struggle to understand the choices of their adult offspring, no matter the outcome or how close they remain.  The failure of Rauschenbusch’s children to become Christians could have much to do with WWI, which was preached as a “crusade.” Post-war periods usually show a decline in faith–as even the U.S. is experiencing now. Exposure of corruption in church and state leads to periods of disillusionment–it would have been strange if Rauschenbusch’s family had escaped the skepticism which set in everywhere after WWI.

And Lewis fails to note that Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter’s great grandson, is himself an American Baptist minister who is helping a new generation recover the strengths of the Social Gospel. See his updated edition of his great-father’s classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the ChurchPaul Rauschenbusch is Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University and a contributing editor to Beliefnet.com .  What one generation rejects is often rediscovered by another–and that is as true of the Social Gospel as of any other tradition. 

Lewis quotes H. Richard Niebuhr about F.D.R. Schleiermacher and applies this to later generations’ dismissive views of Rauschenbusch–and since I so wholeheartedly agree, I will let this quote close my post as it does Lewis’ chapter. 

Today, an ungrateful generation of theologians, which owes far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after [Rauschenbusch], while it inters the good with his bones.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics, heroes, liberal theology, peace, politics, Religious Social Criticism, salvation | 5 Comments

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco

In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news:  For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices.  The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety.  Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see.  But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet.  If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight.  So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.

Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right.  In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling.  After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).

Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left.  But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons.  He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV,  in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain.   (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA.  GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).

So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction.  The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction.  If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.

Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off.  Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign.  They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.

But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left.  Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation.  They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently.  “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious.  Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.

What to make of all this?  Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations.  On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries.  It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.  Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.

On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies.  In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality).  He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that  another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)

There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation.  And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage.  Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.

Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now.  If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me.  But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.

I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies.  Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that!  And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP.  But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration.  Say it isn’t so, Barack.

UPDATE:  Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional.  So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year.  It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | abortion, Christianity, civil liberties, evangelicals, GLBT issues, homosexuality, politics | 26 Comments

Context Makes All the Difference

Because of my mental health break from blogging, I have yet to comment on the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  Marty on the Homefront has the full context of the snippets played out of context of his sermons here.  I have been furious about this. I would never have said, “God damn America,” (or any place else), but the prophet Jeremiah (Wright’s namesake) said much the same thing about Israel/Judah. As Frank Schaeffer pointed out, his father, Francis A. Schaeffer, who helped to launch the Religious Right in the late ’70s, repeatedly called for armed revolution against the U.S. by Christians if the government refused to outlaw abortion–but no conservative Republican politician was ever demonized for friendship with Schaeffer. In fact, at his funeral, Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives were in attendance. John McCain’s endorsements by Hagee, who has called for Palestinian genocide and demonized both Jews and Catholics (but is uncritically supportive of the Israeli govt.), or by the late Jerry Falwell (who blamed 9/11 on feminists and gays and liberals–everyone but the terrorists), or Pat Robertson (who regularly urges the assassination of foreign leaders with whom he disagrees) have not been much questioned. (In fact, the press have long sugar coated the real John McCain, but that’s a subject for another time).

The demonizing of Rev. Wright, and Obama by extension, strikes me as racist. I DON’T mean that black ministers are not subject to criticism, nor that Wright’s remarks weren’t rightly repudiated by Obama.  As I said above, I would never ask God to damn anyone or any place. But I have heard Wright preach at the 2003 meeting of the Alliance of Baptists, which celebrated our ecumenical ties with the Disciples of Christ and with the United Church of Christ (Wright’s denomination and Obama’s). I know the good his church does. I know that a man who was once a U.S. Marine has more patriotism than any of these chickenhawks who demonize him.  I also know that, while I have preached far fewer sermons and written far less than Rev. Wright, one could easily take minute snippets out of my stuff and make me sound like an idiot or worse.  (Someone once overheard me quoting someone with whom I disagreed and claimed I was making physical threats on the president!) I could do the same with almost any public speaker–but it wouldn’t be either right or honest and it wouldn’t help in any public discussion of major issues.

What strikes me as racist about this is that no one even inquires who the pastors are of white candidates, no matter what they say.  Ronald Reagan seldom even went to church.  The only time we knew who Bob Dole’s pastor was came when the press leaked that both the Clintons and Doles went to Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. (during the time that Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, whom I know slightly, was pastor). Shortly after that the Doles moved their membership, but no one asked where. We knew nothing about Bill Clinton’s Baptist congregation in Arkansas until they refused to kick him out during the Lewinsky scandal.  Do we know Hillary Clinton’s current pastor? McCain we know can’t decide whether he is Episcopalian or Southern Baptist.  So, the extreme focus on Obama’s pastor by mostly white reporters and politicians, most of whom have never been in a black church and don’t know anything about African-American Christianity, strikes me as having, at least, racist overtones.

I have been twice a member of a black Baptist congregation and I know that members expect the pastor to be bold and confrontational–but don’t expect to follow his every word.  I remember when visiting a black church in which the pastor described the “war on young black boys” in the ’90s that the members came up to me afterword to make CERTAIN that I knew their pastor was not demonizing all whites–but I knew that already. (In fact, nothing was said that day with which I particularly disagreed.)  I also know that Black sermons take you to the depths of pain and anger before giving you the hope and joy of the Good News. But the ignorant media never showed that these snippets from Wright were NOT the conclusion of his sermons.

Nothing approaching real journalism was attempted. When confronted with the free ride given to McCain despite his endorsements by controversial rightwing preachers, reporters said they might cover that if those sermons were playing on Youtube! So, today’s reporters are too lazy to investigate, but have have YouTube users do it for them. No wonder we are in such sad shape!

(Hey, if we can’t smear Obama as a closet Muslim, let’s smear his pastor and make them both sound anti-white and anti-American.)

Obama may or may not become the next U.S. president. Either way, he will recover.  I grieve because Rev. Wright, a brother in Christ, may not recover his reputation as a sincere servant of God.  The false witness borne against him is a great and lasting sin.  Conservatives would be outraged if “the liberal media” quoted race-baiting statements from Rev. Jerry Falwell in the days when he still supported segregation, without ever mentioning his later repentance on this issue. But I have heard ZERO conservatives standing up for Rev. Wright. (Even Mike Huckabee, who DID say that Obama should not be held accountable for Wright’s statements unless he agreed with them, did not make any attempt to stand up for Wright. And, as a former preacher, Huckabee knows that no preacher wants to have his or her whole preaching career judged by fragments of one or two sermons. We all have sermons we regret. ) What context can be given for that omission, I wonder?

P.S. Frank Schaeffer also rightly notes that Clinton is wrong about Obama being “out of touch” with religious America. As Schaeffer notes, candidate responses to controversies can be dismissed, so we learn more by what they say BEFORE it was an issue. Schaeffer quotes from Obama’s remarks in 2006 at a Sojourners event, an evangelical event.  The full speech is on the Obama campaign website and has been since it went up. But the speech itself was given nearly a year before Obama began campaigning for president. His accounts of his conversion all pre-date this, too.

I am not sure Schaeffer is right to dismiss Clinton’s own faith as genuine, and I don’t know about McCain’s faith (he seems to hold the nation itself as his god, but I could be wrong), but I agree that Obama is certainly most “in touch” with Christian America. I never thought I would agree as much with one of the founders of the Religious Right, a self-declared 55 year old father of a Marine, who is gun owning, flag waving, military loving lifelong conservative.  But as Schaeffer says, if Obama can reach him, he can reach anyone in America.

April 19, 2008 Posted by | politics, progressive faith, race, scandal | 7 Comments

Book Review: In Defense of Our America

romerobook.jpgI read many books on politics, but few which move me to tears.  I also read very few political books that, instead of having a dry pedantic tone, read like a fast-paced, contemporary adventure novel.  In both instances, this is one of the few exceptions.  I picked up In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror by Anthony D. Romero and Dina Temple-Raston after I had seen Romero interviewed on Bill Moyers’ Journal on the Public Broadcasting System.  I expected it to be a good book; I did not expect it to be the gripping tour de force that it is.

Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The ACLU is the oldest non-governmental organization in the U.S. dedicated to upholding the civil liberties and human rights defined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  It was founded during World War I to defend the rights of conscientious objectors and other dissenters from the government’s war policies.  Since that time the ACLU and its crack legal team has defended many unpopular defendants and causes in its defense of the Bill of Rights.  Romero is the first Latino and the first openly gay man to head the ACLU–and he took that post just 1 week before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Great timing, no?

Dina Temple-Raston is a journalist and writer who has been a foreign correspondent in China, Hong Kong, and was a White House reporter during both Clinton administrations.  She has won awards for her previous books, A Death in Texas and Justice on the Grass.

This book is not about the ACLU per se, although the stories are drawn from cases the ACLU has been involved with since 9/11.  Rather, the book is about ordinary Americans and their struggles for liberty and fairness.  It includes the true story of John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban” whom former Atty Gen. John Ashcroft used to justify every draconian measure adopted in the “war on terror”), a quiet, sensitive California boy who converted to Islam and traveled to Yemen and Pakistan in order to study Arabic and become a Qu’ranic scholar; who became convinced of the need to join the Afghan army in order to fight the Northern Alliance (at the time, the U.S. was giving economic aid to the Taliban to fight the Northern Alliance and classifying the latter as a terrorist group–which would be reversed quickly after 9/11), who was naive about the Taliban and had no idea that they were harboring al-Qaeda or who Osama bin Laden was.  Lindh was captured in 2002, tortured, and charged with aiding terrorists and had to make a plea arrangement to get 40 years in prison.  This is his true story and that of his parents.

It’s also the story of prisoners who survived drowning in Katrina spending months in prison because no one had any records of who was where.  Their crimes? Some were in prison simply for failure to pay traffic tickets.  It’s the story of student war protesters being spied on by the U.S. government as “credible threats,” and high school science teachers striving not to be forced to give equal time to the pseudo-scientific theory of Intelligent Design.  And much, much more.

You may not agree with the ACLU’s position on all cases–I don’t and I’m a member–but threats to civil liberties and the struggles to protect those liberties have never seemed so real.  The issues can seem abstract, but these case studies are told in such a way that we see how high the stakes are.  In our post-9/11 world we seem ready to give up everything that makes us America for the sake of physical security.  Fear is driving our agenda–because we are no longer the home of the brave, we may soon cease to be the land of the free, as well.

The good news is that the ranks of the ACLU and other civil and human rights groups have swollen multiple times since 9/11.  The good news is that many Americans are refusing the Faustian bargain of giving up liberty to obtain security. As Ben Franklin once said, those who make that trade deserve neither security nor liberty.  The good news is that reading this book not only shows dramatically what is at stake, but energizes the reader for the struggle.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | books, civil liberties, human rights., politics | 1 Comment

GOP: Racist?

You know the world is a strange place when Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich warns the Republicans that they are looking racist.  After all, Gingrich has been guilty of plenty of racial demogoguery in his career.  What’s next?  Lessons in racial sensitivity from Lee Atwater (who created the infamous Willie Horton ad for George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis)?  Or frmr Sen. George Allen (R-VA) of “Hello, Macaca” infamy? Isn’t having Newt Gingrich warn you about appearing racially insensitive somewhat like Bill Clinton giving seminars on marital fidelity in the face of temptation or Tony Blair speak on how best to demonstrate that Britain isn’t under the U.S. thumb?

This all started, of course, when the top GOP presidential candidates refused to have a “debate” hosted on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language TV channel in the U.S.  The event had to be cancelled, although the Democrats had already gone to such an event.  Then, after the Democrats appeared at several mostly African-American fora, especially one at the historic Howard University in Washington, D.C., the G.O.P. candidates refused to go to a similar event at Morgan State University (another historic African-American university in Maryland) scheduled for 27 September to be hosted by Tavis Smiley and broadcast on PBS.  Democrats have had a much more hectic schedule of appearances than Republicans, yet the latter keep citing “scheduling conflicts” as reasons why they won’t appear before black or Latino audiences.

Even though the Democratic leaders haven’t said anything, Republican bigwigs have begun to worry about the image all this event skipping is causing.  Enter the advice by Newt Gingrich:

For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African-American or Latino audience is an enormous error.  I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules.  I see no excuse–this thing has been planned for months and these candidates have known about it for months.  Any of them who give you that scheduling conflict answer are disengenuous. That’s baloney.

Gingrich added that, “We seem to be stuck in a cycle where Republican politicians are refusing to talk to African-Americans, Latinos, or any minorities. I don’t understand it.”

One-time VP candidate, Jack Kemp, a much more moderate Republican than Gingrich, has also denounced this situation:

We sound like we don’t want [legal] immigration; we sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do: meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we are going to be competitive with people of color, we’ve got to ask them for their vote.”

I’ve got news for Mr. Kemp:  These days, most country clubs are far more diverse–and far more aware of the consequences of exclusivity–than the current crop of Republican presidential candidates!

Look, both major political parties have racist histories and periods of history when they have been the party showing the most courage against racism.  The Republicans began, of course, as the Party of Lincoln and Radical Republicans pushed through the most far-reaching legislation of the Reconstruction era–giving us that brief period in the late 19th C. when we first had African-Americans in the House and Senate and in courtrooms, gubanatorial mansions, and state legislatures. Later, the Eisenhower administration sent in the National Guard to forcibly integrate the public school in Little Rock, AR.  All during the late ’40s and ’50s, the annual Republican National Conventions were far more racially diverse than anything the Democrats had going.  I know a few aging moderate to liberal Republicans who remember those days and wonder what has happened to their Party.

Meanwhile, from Reconstruction until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was a coalition of Northern liberals, labor unions and New Dealers with Southern racists known as the “Dixiecrats.”  The struggle to expel the Dixiecrats began with Harry S. Truman in 1948–and is what led infamous segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott to leave the Democrats and become Republican.  The final Democratic break with its racist past came during the Civil Rights era when President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) championed and then signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965–saying privately that he knew he had just lost the South for the Democrats for at least a generation.

Until the mid-1960s most African-Americans who managed to register to vote were Republicans. But this began to change when the GOP embraced Nixon’s “Southern strategy”: in which the GOP would deliberately court the votes of Southern white segregationists (fleeing the Democratic Party) as a path to the White House.  It worked.  Since then, although the GOP’s real agenda has still been about keeping the rich as wealthy as possible, it has continuously used code words and symbols to attract racists (often cloaking themselves in patriotism or evangelical Christianity)–such as when Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the place where 3 Civil Rights workers were infamously murdered by the KKK–some of whom wore badges–in 1965) and announced that he believed in “states rights”–which was the slogan of both the Southern secessionists in the Civil War (i.e., the “right” for each state to support slavery if it wanted to) and of the segregationists during the Civil Rights struggle (i.e., the “right” for states to support segregation and ignore the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education). 

By the 1990s, the GOP had developed a dual strategy (Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove were all geniuses at this) : Keep sending out coded “race baiting” messages to the base, but court token minority conservatives and avoid all overt racist language.  They knew that, unless they broke with policies that keep most minority communities behind, they wouldn’t recruit large numbers of minorities (although Rove tried hard to court Latinos and African-Americans who share the anti-gay feelings of conservative whites). But, to elect presidents, the GOP NEEDS the votes of moderate whites from the suburbs, many of them born after the Civil Rights era and not knowing the code words like “states rights,” but who don’t want to be associated with an openly racist party.

That two-step seems to be falling apart.  The GOP presidential candidates seem to be skipping these minority venues out of fear that they will appear to their (dwindling) base as “pandering to the special interest groups.” They can’t, for instance, simultaneously brag about how they helped scuttle Bush’s “comprehensive immigration reform” and want to build ever bigger fences at the Mexico border and also court Latino voters.  In a crowded field, they seem to believe that they have to appear as xenophobic and “whites only” as possible in order to win the primaries.  The problem, as GOP oldtimers like Gingrich and Kemp know, is that this could carry over to the general election–when they will lose not only conservatives in African-American and Latino communities (who won’t forget being snubbed so quickly) but also those moderate suburban whites who may never have done much for racial justice but who “have Black and Latino friends at work.”

The time comes when you have to make choices.  The Democrats could not keep appeasing Southern segregationists and be the “party of the people.” The Dixiecrats had to go and the Civil Rights agenda embraced in full.  I think the GOP will now find itself in a similar place:  They either have to abandon the “Southern strategy” and reject racism on a deep level (not just appoint token conservative African-Americans and Latinos)–with the risks of losing parts of their base–or find themselves becoming an increasingly isolated WASP country club–one which can’t even host a PGA tour, much less national politics. The two-step won’t work anymore.

September 22, 2007 Posted by | politics, race | 5 Comments