Probably like a fair number of other people, I decided to spend part of the weekend prior to MLK Day reading Nick Kotz’s new book, Judgment Days, about the complex relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson, who together helped achieve the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act breakthroughs in the mid-1960s.
I’ve just finished the section on the Civil Rights Act, a tale dominated by Johnson’s familiar legislative genius and King’s agonizing balancing act over how to keep pressure on Congress without creating a national backlash. But what really stands out is the common conviction of MLK and LBJ that the drive for civil rights legislation had to be cast in moral, not legal terms–a conviction that both expressed to John F. Kennedy prior to his first big national civil rights speech.
“I know the risks are great, and we might lose the South [in 1964], but those sorts of states may be lost to us anyway,” [Johnson] told Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen. “The difference is, if your president just goes down there and enforces court decrees, the South will feel it’s yielded to force. But if he goes down there and looks them in the eye and states the moral issue and the Christian issue, these southerners will at least respect his courage….”
Six days after Johnson had given his counsel to the White House, the president received strikingly similar advice from Martin Luther King. A front-page article in the June 10 New York Times quoted King as saying that the president must begin to address race as a moral issue, in terms “we seldom if ever hear” from the White House. The following evening, with little preparation and against the advice of his staff, the president went before television cameras with a sketchily drafted text and committed himself to the main issues of the civil rights struggle. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he declared. “It is as old as Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
The importance of using “values language,” you see, did not just arise in 2004.
More than thirty-six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it’s still common to think of his commemorative day as a sort of ethnic holiday–an acknowledgement of the particular suffering and protracted struggle of African-Americans in achieving formal recognition as full citizens.
But even a cursory understanding of King’s ministry and public career shows otherwise. He had every opportunity, and every justification, to limit his message to one of racial grievance, but he didn’t. He could have rested on his laurels once the worst injustices of southern segregation had been overturned, but he wouldn’t. He might have retired from the Christian ministry to become a politician, or retired from civic activism to become a religious leader, but he never did, and never would have even if his life had not been cut so short.
What Martin Luther King did as effectively as anyone in our history was to hold up the civic and religious values of America and demand that his country, its institutions, and his fellow-citizens live up to them. And he held up a mirror and forced us to measure ourselves by what we pretended to believe. For all his eloquence and strategic and tactical leadership, that remains his most important legacy today, for all of us.
He didn’t just play a crucial role in the liberation of “his people.” As a white southerner, I am convinced he helped redeem me, and “my people” as well. And as a Christian, I am sure he helped redeem our faith community from decades of passive, and sometimes active, defiance of the Gospels.
We are at another time in American history when it would be useful to compare our contemporary civic life with our professed ideals, and our religious life to the divine commandments of selflessness, peacefulness, mutual respect and love so many of us claim as the center of our lives. In memory of Martin Luther King, we should pause a moment today to hold up a mirror, and again measure ourselves by what we pretend to believe.
My last installment on the remarkable interview the President gave The Washington Post involves the administration’s decision to become the first in history to refuse to pony up some new federal money to pay for local security costs associated with inaugural festivities. Asked why he was pushing for D.C. to use up some of its homeland security money for the Big Elephant Dance, here’s what Bush said:
“The inauguration is a high-profile event, like a lot of other events that, unfortunately, in the world in which we live, could be an attractive target for terrorists. And by providing security, hopefully that will provide comfort to people who are coming from all around the country to come and stay in the hotels in Washington and to be able to watch the different festivities in Washington and eat the food in Washington. We’ve got people coming from all around the country, and I think it provides them great comfort to know that all levels of government are working closely to make this event as secure as possible.”
Bush, you see, wants to make sure that District officials understand there’s a war on terror going on, and that a $40 million party to celebrate his second term might create an attractive target for terrorists, so what are they complaining about? I mean, what’s that homeland security money for, if not to make sure the Dancing Elephants feel as safe as they do back home, right?
That’s a really reassuring message to the residents of the Washington, DC area whose security will thereby suffer for the other 51 weeks of the year. I guess that’s what we get for failing to understand that our most important function is to serve as a staging area for George W. Bush’s second inaugural, which is what this country is all about.
Another great moment in the Washington Post’s interview with the President occurred when he breezily allowed as how he had no intention of pushing for approval of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Why? Because he’s discovered that a lot of Senators think there’s no need for it. “Senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA [the statutory Defense of Marriage Act that said no state had to recognize any other state’s action to legalize gay marriages] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen,” said Bush. “I’d take their admonition seriously… Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate.”
Well jeez, Mr. President, this has been the central argument against your constitutional amendment proposal all along, and explicitly the position of the Kerry-Edwards campaign: that there was no evidence to support your lurid vision of “activist judges” in one state running wild and forcing gay marriage on Red States. That didn’t stop you from promoting it before the election and forcing the issue into the presidential race, right? I mean, had you adopted this “let’s wait and see” attitude on gay marriage a bit earlier, we wouldn’t have all had to endure a campaign marred by an inherently bitter and divisive issue, right?
The cynicism of Bush’s “never mind” statement on gay marriage is hard to mistake. He and his party richly deserve whatever backlash they incur from social conservatives on this one.
Every once in a while, George W. Bush says something so astonishing that you have to hope he doesn’t know what his words actually mean, which is always a possibility. In an interview with the Washington Post that was published today, he basically said the election results meant that nobody in his administration needed to worry about, or apparently, even talk about, the mistakes made in Iraq. Here’s the Post’s paraphrase of that portion of the interview, and the money quote from Bush:
“President Bush said the public’s decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.
“‘We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,’ Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. ‘The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.'”
An accountability moment. This is the guy, remember, who promised back in 2000 to usher in a “responsibility era” in American politics. And now it’s down to a minute. Takes your breath away.
Aside from the fact that Bush would have lost badly had the entire election been about his Iraq policies, this idea that an electoral win provides some sort of plenary indulgence for every mistake made in the past, present and future is really scary. Unless I missed something, the presidential election was a choice between two candidates, not some sort of referendum on whether to endow the incumbent with retroactive and prospective infallibility. For every president, every moment in office should be an “accountability moment” when it comes to the impact of administration policies and actions, especially when they are fraught with the kind of life and death consequences associated with a war.
We should all raise hell about this Bush statement until such time as he qualifies it or admits his mouth once again got a dangerous distance from his brain.
There’s more of interest in the Post interview, but I’ll save that for another post, because I have a feeling I’ll have to link back to this one in its one-note simplicity early and often.
Categorizing politicians on Social Security “reform” is all the rage in the blogosphere at present, as witnessed by Josh Marshall’s tireless campaign to smoke out Members of Congress and classify them as either in or out of the Democratic “Faint-Hearted Faction” or the Republican “Conscience Caucus.” And then there is my colleague The Moose, and his useful effort to distinguish GOPers on Social Security as “free-lunchers,” “green-eyeshades,” and so forth.
I’d like to spread the practice to another critical issue, the budget deficit, where Republicans hew to a general line of spilling red ink like drunken sailors in a printshop, but offer a number of distinct rationales for their fiscal vice.
There are at least four Fiscal Factions in the Washington GOP.
There are those who pretend the deficit problem doesn’t really exist, or is rapidly getting better, and pursue a dazzling array of deceptions to advance their dubious case.
There are those who admit the deficits, but say they don’t matter.
There are those who buy into Grover Norquist’s “Starve the Beast” theory, which argues that deficits are a Good Thing because they will ultimately (and preferably long after current GOP politicians have retired) force a major shrinkage of the federal government. (Elsewhere I have described the allure of this theory as offering Republicans “the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe.”)
And there are those who grumble about fiscal profligacy and perpetually threaten to do something about it, even as they support an administration and a congressional leadership that are daily making matters worse.
Let’s call them the Liars, the Deniers, the Celebrators, and the Procrastinators.
Nominations are open for the membership and leadership of these factions, and for examples of their distinctive rationalizations.
Noam Scheiber at The New Republic’s &c blog posted a less-than-friendly comment today on the political value of Teddy Kennedy’s big speech yesterday on the future of the party. He focused on Kennedy’s rhetoric on Social Security. I don’t personally have a big problem with that, and moreover, have gotten used to just ignoring all the shadow-boxing in Democratic speeches aimed at the non-existent internal enemy who’s telling Democrats to “move to the right” or “surrender” or whatever.
The problem I have with Kennedy’s suggested message for Democrats is his full-throated advocacy of dealing with America’s health care crisis by just expanding Medicare to cover everybody.
Given Medicare’s many problems, making it universal is probably the least appealing, and by far the most expensive, way to expand coverage. This idea (which Dick Gephardt promoted for a while in the ’90s under the exciting label of “Medicare Part C”) has all the flaws of a single-payer system without any of its virtues, other than a bogus “simplicity.”
Beyond the dubious merits of the idea, there’s a bit of a message discipline problem here. One of the arguments that most Democrats are using in opposing Bush’s Social Security plan is that the retirement program that’s truly in crisis and in need of immediate reform is Medicare, whose long-term cost spiral is frightening, and whose solvency problem is immediate, not remote. So here’s the White-Haired Lion of Democratic Senators arguing that Medicare is actually the solution to all our problems, if we just make it immeasurably larger.
That dog truly won’t hunt, and Ted Kennedy should not expend his well-earned political capital on it.
Jeez, it seems to just run in the family, this desire to take a big safety net program and do something completely irresponsible and deceptive with it.
Even as W. continues to tout his Social Security “reform” plan, little bro’ Jeb down in Florida is rolling out a really bad proposal to “reform” Medicaid in his state. It’s basically a block grant to private health plans to let them figure out what to do with low-income families on a “defined contribution” basis. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.
Speaking of Christian Right leaders who have traded their religious birthright for a mess of secular political pottage…The Moose reported the other day that his ol’ buddy Ralph Reed, lately a state Republican Party chair and political consultant in my home state of Georgia, is considering a run for the office of Lieutenant Governor.
There’s plenty of irony in this ambition of Reed’s. For one thing, the Republican takeover of the Georgia Senate in 2002, which Reed masterminded, led the GOPers to strip the Lootship, held by Democrat Mark Taylor, of most of its longstanding powers. For another, Reed is known to have dreamed since childhood of becoming Governor of Georgia, but is temporarily blocked from achieving that dream by the nonentity he did so much to lift to the Chief Executive Office of the Peach State, the incumbent Sonny Perdue. That’s gotta gall Ralph, since ol’ Sonny was laboring as an undistinguished conservative Democrat in the backwaters of Georgia politics back in those days when Reed was walking tall and talking big on national television as the Svengali of the Christian Coalition.
But the bigger point is that Ralph Reed is trying to cross the invisible but very real line between campaign consultant and candidate; staff and elected official; operative and Talent; organ-grinder and monkey. It’s always the private belief of every political staffer that he or she could vastly exceed The Boss in every conceivable accomplishment if the old fool would get out of the way and let the real brains of the operation take over. Putting aside a number of U.S. House chiefs of staff who have succeeded doddering Members after semi-publicly performing their duties, remarkably few pols have actually succeeded in crossing the Great Divide. Robert F. Kennedy and Gary Hart were big exceptions to this general rule. Reed may think he’s another.
But something else may be going on that transcends politics: the age-old desire of all successful people to prove they can succeed in radically different roles. It’s especially common in the political world’s first cousin, the acting profession, where comics are forever trying to prove they can win an Oscar for drama, and bimbos of both genders are forever struggling for acceptance as Serious Artists.
In the end, Ralph Reed’s desire to become the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia is the political equivalent of Racquel Welch’s decades-long, futile drive for Critical Acclaim. Eventually Welch gave up and ultimately achieved a sort of odd dignity as a celebrity who made peace with her cheesy destiny. When he gets tired of begging for an audition to show he can play a supporting role to Sonny Perdue, maybe Ralph Reed will make his own peace with God, or with his demons.
There’s a brief but pungent op-ed by Boston University’s Stephen Prothero in today’s LA Times that Kevin Drum brought to all our attentions, and it’s obviously catnip to me. Citing a bizarre 1997 poll that showed only a third of Americans could name the four Gospels, while 12 percent of us identified Noah’s wife as Joan of Arc, Prothero goes on to make an important if familiar point. We live in the most religiously believing and observant advanced industrial nation, but our level of actual knowledge about religious doctrines–our own and others–is significantly lower than in religiously indifferent countries elsewhere.
Prothero focuses on inter-religious ignorance, and also suggests that our very religiosity makes it difficult to dispassionately teach about religion without promoting a particular doctrine or offending a particular religious minority, in a country where, from a denominational point of view, we are all religious minorities.
But as the 1997 poll illustrates, Americans aren’t just ignorant about Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or even Mormons–they often know little about the doctrines or history of their own faith communities.
In his deservedly acclaimed 2003 book on American Catholics, A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels notes with alarm the avid interest of his co-religionists in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code, despite the fact that Brown’s theological pot-boiler implicitly treats the basic doctrines of Christianity as a fraud, and the Church as an ongoing conspiracy to conceal that fraud.
This indifference to history and doctrine definitely extends to Protestants. How many Southern Baptists know that their Convention endorsed liberalized abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade? Or even that an ACLU-style absolutism about separation of church and state was long the most distinctive trait of their community, dating back to Roger Williams and to the early English Separatists? How many contemporary Presbyterians know that John Knox opposed the celebration of Christmas? And how many American Congregationalists really understand that the same tradition that made their community so notably progressive on issues like slavery and civil rights also made them for many decades the very fountainhead of nativist and anti-labor sentiment?
Maybe a lot of them, but I doubt it. At one point in our history, religious pluralism created a way to define ourselves distinctively within the common American civic creed. Now the arrow seems pointed in the other direction, with religious identity being less and less a matter of heritage, doctrine and liturgy, and more and more a matter of consumer choice–and of secular values.
It’s this last point that compels me to write about this subject. To be blunt about it, millions of those Americans who can’t name the four Gospels probably have no doubt that those Gospels demand that they oppose abortion, gay rights, or feminism. More than a few Catholics who thrill at Dan Brown’s bogus expose of the machinations of Opus Dei probably think the litmus test for being a “good Catholic” is pretty much the same menu of “cultural conservatism” and “moral values.” And no telling how many Americans who can’t distinguish Muslims from Hindus or Sikhs–much less Sunni from Shia or Arabs from Persians–have probably bought into the idea of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as a religiously-based effort to vindicate Western values against an undifferentiated heathen horde.
This is not an accident, and is not the fault of the religious rank-and-file, who are not historians or theologians, and have complicated lives to lead. But the rampant secularization of much of the American faith tradition in the not-so-sacred cause of cultural and political conservatism must be laid at the parsonage door of those religious leaders who have abused the prophetic function of their ministry to acquire a “seat at the table” of secular power.
In particular, Christian Right leaders in every denomination who abet and exploit the doctrinal and historical indifference of The Faithful to promote an agenda of intolerance and self-righteousness are the true Secularists of contemporary American society, and far more dangerous to the integrity of our faith communities than all the honest unbelievers in our midst or in Europe or Asia.
To quote from the Gospel According to Somebody, or perhaps it was the Epistle of Joan of Arc to the Alabamans: “None of those who cry ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”
This is verily, verily Word Up.