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.