Love, Listening, and Christ Likeness in our Public Discourse: Where Do We Go After Ferguson

Cultural miscommunication was acute during 2014.

Over the past year it became apparent that many conservative, white Americans find it difficult to understand how anyone could be opposed to the political concepts such as limited, constitutional government and an emphasis on law and order.  As the logic goes, “If we all just mind our own business, follow the rules, and work hard, who needs some bureaucracy from Washington meddling around?  Why would anyone not want government out of their life?  Why would anyone want to be taxed to death?  Isn’t it just the media exaggerating racial problems just to make a profit for themselves?  We really have all these problems are because we have de-emphasized personal responsibility . . . right?”

This tension has been glaring during recent election cycles but is now especially damaging in light of the unrest following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities across the country.  Many good willed conservatives have been genuinely baffled by these outpourings of emotion.

This summer and fall I read through Taylor Branch’s 3 volume history documenting the politics of mid-20th Century America. The the amount of light these books shed on the current mistrust in our political discourse cannot be over stated.

Why?

Read the following carefully.  Doing so will I think give some insight into why many people do not trust those who preach “small government” and “law and order.”  The following statements are all quotes made during the 1960’s by stalwart segregationists or their close allies seeking to undermine new civil rights legislation.  There are several included here, but the length is necessary to demonstrate the pervasiveness of my point, namely that minorities and others in the U.S. today have good reason to question the language and intentions of “small government” advocates.

NOTE: Quotes are all from Taylor Branch.  If you would like the exact citation please let me know.

Alabama Governor George Wallace on why he was resisting federal pressure to integrate the University of Alabama: “There can be no submission to the theory that the central government is anything but a servant of the people.  We are God-fearing people, not government-fearing people.  We practice today the free heritage bequested to us by the Founding Fathers.”

Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett on the racial disturbances of 1963: “You are witnessing one more chapter in what has been termed the television revolution.” He went on to say the news media were driven by a secret racial agenda, saying the past year’s coverage “publicized and dramatized the race issue far beyond its relative importance.” and that this deliberate media bias served as “a smoke screen to hide the biggest power grab in American history . . . The real goal of the conspiracy is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington.” 

When running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1964, George Wallace developed a stump speech that downplayed the race issue and “courted resentment of ‘sweeping federal encroachment’ by ‘pointy headed bureaucrats’ tyrannical judges, and ‘tax, tax, spend, spend,’ politicians – all supported by what he called the “ultra-liberal controlled press.”

While filibustering the landmark 1964 civil rights bill, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia read the “entire text of the Magna Carta signed in June of 1215 – ‘749 years ago next Monday.’ Byrd traced American doctrines of constitutional liberty to historic roots in Anglo-Saxon character and specifically to the property rights of British nobles had forced on King John at Runnymeade, then declared the whole civil rights bill fatally undermined this foundation.”

Senator Barry Goldwater, “endorsed the segregationist charge that the new civil rights law was a cause rather than a cure for injustice – ‘the more the federal government  has attempted to legislate morality, the more it actually has incited hatred and violence.”

During debate on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Strom Thurmond took to the Senate floor and “eulogized the Senate as the ‘final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law, for it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency in the year of our Lord, 1965.’  Defeated Southern Democrats foresaw a ‘federal dictatorship’ over the vote process to cement the impoverishment of ‘garden variety’ white people.”

Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, “continued to defend the Goldwater positions against Medicare (‘socialized medicine’) and the 1964 Voting Rights Act. ‘I would have voted against it if I had been in Congress,’ he said, and denounced the 1965 Voting Rights Act by extension as an encroachment on local control”.

In 1966 Lester Maddox, famous for chasing black customers away from his restaurant, won the Georgia Democratic nomination for governor.  “Georgians are determined to turn back the trend of socialism,’ he declared in victory, going on to accuse high-toned Democrats of complicity with President Johnson to betray God and private property.”

I could keep going.  This is a small sampling.

Do you see the problem yet?

Words don’t function in a vacuum.  The above quotes demonstrate beyond question that terms like “limited government”, “heritage of freedom”, “federal overreach”, and “states’ rights” have a political history and a specific context.  They are in short . . . loaded.

Thus when today’s conservatives preach them it rings hollow to many of our minority sisters and brothers.  And it should.  They grew up hearing the same language from arch-segregationist leaders committed to defending an apartheid regime – a society literally built to benefit Anglo-Saxons at the expense of others.

So when a sixty year old African American woman turns on cable news or hears her white friend at work rail against “tax and spend liberals” or warning of “creeping socialism” she might have easily heard George Wallace say the EXACT SAME THING as he was fighting to keep Alabama segregated. 

The onus is on those who profess such beliefs today to explain how they are different than Wallace, Thurmond, and the lot.  If they don’t, they shouldn’t be surprised when most minorities will continue to vote otherwise.  The subtext will continue to be, as Barry Goldwater stated to white audiences during his 1964 presidential campaign, “You know what I’m talking about.”

By the way, this is not just a political issue.  It is a faith one.  All those quoted above to the best of my knowledge were born again Christians.  Because of this context, white Southern Christians today have a responsibility to empathize with our fellow believers of different ethnicities.  Continuing to knowingly use terminology deployed in recent history as weapons of oppression is callous and selfish at best . . .at best.

“But that was then” we say.  “Today we are color blind.  There was real oppression back then.  It’s about the Constitution now, that’s all.”

That’s exactly what the segregationists said too.

“I never made a statement in my career that reflects on a man’s race.  My only interest is the restoration of local government.”  -George Wallace in 1966

Now to be clear, I’m not saying today’s small government conservatives are the same as George Wallace.  I’m not saying they are wrong in their beliefs.  I think most mean well and have good ideas.  What I am saying though is they use much of the same language.  If we’re going to have a better 2015 and beyond, we’ve got to realize that is hurtful.

Peace,

Ben

***Thanks to Pastor Russ Pflasterer for his helpful edits.  Check out his blog here.

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