Moral Revolutions in America

In a recent article, Yale professor David Gelernter noted that modern America had “two extraordinary accomplishments: victory in the Cold War and the all-but-eradication of race prejudice in a single generation.” The back story of the latter is worth pondering around Independence Day.

When I was growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, everything and everyone around me was segregated. Five years before I was born, local idiots vociferously insulted Jackie Robinson when he came to town with the Montreal Royals, prior to his debut in Brooklyn. Twenty-odd years later, the man for whom I occasionally served Mass, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, was shouted down at a Baltimore City Council meeting when he testified in favor of an open housing bill. Until my latter high school years, the N-word was heard in polite circles, even among people who would never deliberately harm someone they so designated. That ingrained patterns of prejudice changed dramatically within a generation is indeed an extraordinary accomplishment.

And it was a moral accomplishment — a moral revolution. The civil rights movement in its classic period was predominantly a Christian movement; its appeals to American traditions of equality and fairness were regularly buttressed by appeals to biblical ideas of justice. The legal movement to end segregation may have been led by lawyers, but the movement in the streets was led by black Baptist ministers and other clergy, and their presence helped give the classic civil rights movement the character of a revival.

Now it is certainly true that, in the period immediately following the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legal change accelerated cultural change. But a critical mass of moral passion was essential to getting that legal change through Congress. And that moral passion was most often rooted in Christian conviction. The classic civil rights movement called America to a reckoning with the truths its Declaration of Independence deemed self-evident; it also called America to a reckoning with its God.

The United States today is no paradise of racial comity, and the bitter residues of segregation can be found among both blacks and whites in 2011. That truth notwithstanding, America is also the most racially egalitarian society in human history. Most Americans don’t recognize this because Americans, being the cultural children of Calvinism, are very good at self-flagellation. Compare the United States today with Europe and Latin America, however.

It is impossible to imagine an Afro-Bavarian (or Afro-Saxon, or Afro-Prussian) chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, just as it is impossible to imagine an Afro-Italian prime minister of Italy or an Afro-French president of France. Brazil advertises its racial tolerance, but no Afro-Brazilian president is likely anytime soon. One of the reasons why the heroic Dr. Oscar Biscet was kept in a communist dungeon in Cuba for years is that Biscet is Afro-Cuban, and the pale-faced inheritors of the Castro brothers’ failed revolution are major-league racists. The reason there will almost certainly not be an African pope in the next 20 years is not American racism but concerns about a black man in white among European and Latin American papal electors.

The remarkable racial egalitarianism of the contemporary United States not only stands in sharp contrast to the country’s history of racial prejudice; it tells us something important about the future, and specifically about the future of the pro-life movement, which is the natural heir to the classic civil rights movement. And what it tells us is that, within living memory, America was moved to undertake massive cultural and legal change on the basis of religiously grounded appeals to moral truth.

Yes, the America of the Montgomery bus boycott and the freedom riders and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Edmund Pettis Bridge is a different America than the America of the Kardashians, MTV, Bernie Madoff, and “gay marriage.” But America still asks, in song, “may God thy gold refine.” And while it does, there is real hope for reincorporating everyone, born and unborn, into the community of common protection and concern.

 

George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Gian

    “concerns about a black man in white among European and Latin American papal electors.”

    Is there any basis for such a serious allegation on the integrity of papal electors?

    • Hmyer

      I would like to hear Mr. Weigel’s answer to this question also.

  • TomD

    “America was [and, by implication therefore, will be] moved to undertake massive cultural and legal change on the basis of religiously grounded appeals to moral truth.”

    One significant difference is that the mass media was overwhelmingly in favor of the civil rights revolution. Since the 1960s, the mass media, and especially the dominant culture, has become even more influential among the young. One side of the cultural debate is treated respectfully and favorably, almost always the left or progressive position, while the traditional or conservative position is treated sceptically and unfavorably.

    It is hard to envision the mass media supporting the pro-life movement or any other traditional-value-based cultural revolution. Although I would wish it were otherwise, it is unlikely that a revolution of this nature will take hold as long as our present culture has dominant influence.

  • V

    @TomD

    The current dominant culture can only maintain it’s stronghold if they can continue to convince the “useful idiots” that are the underdog.

    How much longer, do you suppose, that sort of deception can take place?

    I feel that it is becoming clear to many that the emperor has no clothes.

    I was once as loyal of follower of this culture as I could be with few guiding morals. I will grant you, I had an advantage over many, in that I was taught to recognize and respect morals, and had an inkling of what they meant. I did not understand the significance of a moral life. That is, until, buffeted and bleeding from the sheer agony of living this hopeless life, I realized my view of this world was causing most of my pain.

    I did recognize that what my soul thirsted for was not unfettered libertienism, but freedom guided by the hand of God.

    I know many people who are still in the grips of this culture, and it is not kind to any of them. Sooner or later, those with the humility to look past the pride of believing in false promises will start listening for the Voice in the wilderness.

    We as a Church need to be ready for that, ready to catch our brothers and sisters who are hurting in untold ways. Don’t give this culture power it does not have. Watch for those who wake to the comforts of a home that they may never experienced before.
    Pray for the rest. You may well be surprised.

    My point is also… the News media as we know it is dying. The New Media is the Blogosphere and it’s inheritors. The Old Media fiddles while Babylon burns.

  • Manfred

    From the evidence I have seen, “same sex marriage” is being treated as a civil rights issue. Many Church-going Catholics appear to be supporting this issue for that reason. I would like to see Mr. Weigel address that point.

  • c matt

    To be fair, the US only elected its first black president barely 3 years ago. Its institutions are also much younger, by centuries, if not millenia, and therefore are a bit more malleable (for both good and bad).

  • JonD

    Cardinal Arinze has been mentioned as a possible future Pope. Who knows what effect the Holy Spirit might have on the future conclave? I remember when it was said we would “never” have a non-Italian pope and then we had Blessed JPII!

  • Don L

    The was another “moral” that occurred in the 1960s -a revolt against all moral authority -in the form, first of a sexual and druggy culture, and later in the form of a societys dumping of God, family, and personal moral responsibility. Victimology resulted in a guilt- free parasite class feeding upon the working class -protected by the political class for the value of their votes. Every possible identifiable group was deliberatly propagandized in order to divide and destroy what was a fair resemblance of a melting pot -in order to play one group or gender against the other:rich vs poor, black vs, white, young vs old, women vs men, elitists vs the uneducated, business owners (job creators) vs unions, conservationists vs eco-worshippers. The big revolution was Marxist inspired and nearly over now as half the country seeks to have a nation the opposite of our fathers and grandfathers, giving up freedoms for maternalism, morality for hedonism and sexual license, family for wealth, God for the nanny state.

  • Theorist

    I think the best question is, that now that we don’t have a virtuous population (and probably never did but it is worse now), shall we allow freedom? If a virtuous population is necessary for freedom, then a lack of virtue must, by simple logic mean the end of freedom.

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