Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Meditation on the State of America on its 237th Birthday

by John Shelby Spong

The United States celebrated its 237th birthday this past week. It seems, therefore, a fitting time for some moments of national reflection. In today’s column I seek to identify some of the forces that now appear to hold this nation in its grip. America is, I believe, going through an identity transition in which a new definition is emerging as to who and what this nation is. Such a time of expanding consciousness is never easy for a nation to endure. These transitions normally create great anger, but they are inevitable for, in the words of the poet James Russell Lowell, “time makes ancient good uncouth.”

Change is a necessary aspect of every living thing. Death alone ends change. The power of change, as well as its fear, is present in the three major debates that engage America today. All of them have aroused intense political feelings and highly-spiced political rhetoric. I seek not to judge the rightness or wrongness of the competing sides, but to help myself and others to understand what these issues mean; out of what they might arise; why such deep emotions swirl around them, and finally, to see if the resources of our Christian faith have anything to bring to bear on the debate.

The three debated issues are: 1) the move to fix our immigration laws, 2) the constant anti-female bias and rhetoric that shows up in a variety of bills targeting a wide array of issues, 3) gun control laws, especially the requirement of a background check before gun purchases. The irrationality of the debates becomes immediately obvious when we ask the obvious questions: Why does a nation of immigrants have such negativity about immigration? Why do males seem to be threatened by females so deeply that they harass and seek to control them in public life? What is it that causes the citizens of this nation to own more guns per person by a huge number than the citizens of any other nation in the world?

Another interesting thing about these debates is that polls reveal a decisive majority of American voters believe that the immigration laws need to be changed; that women should have equality in both economic life and in health care, including reproductive health care and birth control, and that background checks for gun ownership should be required by law. So our curiosity is aroused as to why our elected leaders have chosen on each of these issues to defy this majority point of view.

These debates have also aroused excessive emotions. Such frenzy reveals the presence of feeling, operating consciously and unconsciously. I want to understand these emotions. All three of these contentious issues are, I believe, related. Each reflects a nation in transition and each reveals a dramatic shift in power. It is the stuff of politics and nation building.

A quick view of some historical facts might be helpful. This nation was not born as a democracy, but as a republic in which the right to vote was both controlled and limited. A prerequisite for voting was the ownership of land. That fact limited the franchise originally to upper class, well-to-do white males, but the pool of voters was destined in time to be increased dramatically, making control less and less possible. Non land-owning white males were the first to be added to the voting rolls, although poll taxes were quickly passed by the land-owning white male legislatures to discourage massive voter participation. Poll taxes kept poor whites from voting before they were used as a racial tool. That step, nonetheless, began to stretch the power of white males if ever so slightly. Following the Civil War, the vote was extended by a constitutional amendment to black males, but in the South, where the majority of the black people lived, intimidation made black voting dangerous and so the black vote was minimized. The poll tax now had a racial purpose. To this the threats of physical violence including lynching were added by the Ku Klux Klan. When those tactics came to be treated as crimes other means of suppressing the black vote would be devised. Requiring special voter identification and limiting voting hours are two of them.

In 1920 a constitutional amendment was adopted extending the vote to women. Great male fear accompanied that amendment and its passage was fought with hysterical rhetoric. Even Frederick Douglass, one of the great voices of black emancipation, was a vehement foe of women voting. Among the reasons used to deny women the vote were these: Women didn’t understand politics! Women vote on emotions not rationality! Women might get together and elect the wrong person! The fact is that during the first seventy-five years of women voting, they split in an almost identical pattern with the men’s vote.

As more women began to be educated, however, and to enter the work place as business executives, politicians, doctor, lawyers and even clergy a significant gender gap developed in American politics. In 1996, the women’s vote finally and decisively did elect the president of the United States, returning Bill Clinton to the White House for a second term. Without the women’s vote, Robert Dole of Kansas would have become the President of the United States. That gender gap was even larger in 2012. White male power was shaken. As long as women could be controlled by their biology and thereby be restricted by their inability to plan their families then competition from women for power could be minimized. The opposition to birth control and abortion was the immediate result.

In 1954, the Civil Rights movement succeeded in desegregating the schools and in 1964 and 1965 a public accommodation act and a voting rights act were passed and black people began to climb the ladder toward economic and political power. These black voters did not vote for the party of Lincoln, but for the party that best addressed their economic agenda.

Also in 1965 the Hart-Celler National Immigration Act was passed ending the system of immigration quotas assigned to each nation, which had served to privilege immigration from the nations of Europe and to limit severely immigration from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Now immigration, legal and illegal, began to change the complexion of the American body politic. It became more brown, more black, more female and younger. The Senate now reflects this shift, with twenty women senators forming a critical mass. The House of Representatives also reflects this shift. The Congressional Black Caucus has become a force with which to reckon. Then in 1971, and as the result of the Vietnam War, a constitutional amendment was passed lowering the voting age in America from 21 to 18, adding three more years of youthful voters to the voting rolls and once again a shift in the voting population was achieved.

Later in 2008, the power of white males ruling America was broken and, to the horror of some, an African-American senator won the White House, defeating an American war hero and a long time member of the ruling establishment. The response to this election was a determined effort to limit him to one term and a campaign was waged against his legitimacy. His birth in the United States was questioned. He was accused by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, of “channeling his Kenyan father’s anti-colonial prejudices.” The Tea Party was born to call America back to yesterday’s values. They were against immigration and against women having the power to free themselves from biological necessity.

Despite all of this frenzied activity, the President was re-elected in 2012 by an even larger majority. When the vote in the 2012 election was analyzed, Mr. Romney still won the majority of white male voters, but only among those over 40. President Obama won large majorities among black voters, Latino voters, women voters and young voters, giving him the victory.

The fear level among white males was now at frenetic levels. They looked into the future and saw a woman standing in the wings ready to take them on and to win the White House in 2016. They saw the Latino and the black populations growing. They saw the women’s vote becoming as militant as that of the Tea Party. They saw young people rising in power. It was as if they were facing a “last stand” and every tactic of opposition and gridlock began to be used.

If the immigration bill were to pass, eleven million, now illegal, residents would be added to the voting rolls. Women were no longer willing to be second-class citizens. Next a move was being made to limit their access to guns. The fear became rampant. Gridlock became real.

A new America is being born – those who were once treated as outcasts are now owning their place in America’s life. Those who once ruled without serious challenge are seeing their power weakened and passing to those who seem to them to be “different, foreign or alien.” Fear creates irrationality, ideological arrogance and efforts to suppress. History reveals, however, that these tactics never work. The United States is in the process of learning that today.

That kind of fear is always greater than the reality it fears. New leadership tends to carry on far more than to destroy. Women in power become both Democrats and Republicans. When blacks and Latinos become wealthy citizens, they too will become conservative. When young people grow older, they will increasingly reflect the values of the establishment. So America will walk through this transition. The Republican Party will ultimately move back to the center and in time will be returned to power. History reveals that despite all the changes I have outlined, the White House has in the last 113 years been occupied by the Republicans for 60 years and by the Democrats for 53 years. This country has remarkable balance.
Finally, in this political process we, as a people, are redefining humanity. We are learning an ancient biblical lesson: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Democrat nor Republican, male nor female, gay nor straight, black nor white, bond nor free, there is simply a new humanity, a humanity without barriers or boundaries, celebrating all that humanity can be.

I suggest that we ride out the political storm that is raging in America at this moment and see it as little more than the birth pangs of a new understanding of what it means to see the image of God in every human life. Happy 237th!


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