Sunday, November 11, 2012

Needed: a few courageous men and women

We were sitting over dinner in our home with Rajmohan Gandhi (visiting Richmond to keynote our annual Metropolitan Richmond Day forum), two African American neighbors of thirty years, and several young IofC staffers. The conversation naturally turned to the presidential election. 

Some years ago our black neighbors chose to join a nearly all-white mainline church. They reasoned that since race is a human construct, “you can’t talk about a black church or a white church.” They both became respected elders and served on the presbytery. They encouraged the church’s outreach to the poorer sections of Richmond and supported the church’s music minister in launching the city’s first multiracial chorus.  

Yet, the church is solidly conservative and many members are Republicans. In the run-up to the elections, conversation became difficult, even with those to whom they had become personally very close.   

“How can you vote for a party that disrespects me?” our neighbor asked a white friend. The response was awkward: “We love you but …..”  

The widespread disconnect between personal faith and public policy became a topic of discussion around our dinner table. I was reminded of an observation by a local business leader with a passion for early childhood education that Americans send millions of dollars to help survivors of tsunamis, “but we have a social tsunami right here.”

White evangelicals were genuinely shocked to discover that their strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage did not result in support among the vast majority of minorities, young voters and women. Many saw the GOP platform as being extreme and a threat on a wide range of issues from immigration to climate change and economic fairness. They felt insulted by many of the public statements during the campaign.  

Not one leading Republican had the guts to stand up against the outrageous and racially charged allegations that the president was not US born. It is inconceivable that such allegations would have been leveled at a white candidate. 

Not one leading evangelical went out of his or her way to correct the astonishing belief among a majority of Republicans that Obama was either a Muslim or at least not a real Christian.

It was tragic to see Billy Graham lend his prestige to the dubious claims that God favored one side in the election. It was far cry from the Graham of 1993 who wrote in Christianity Today that “racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today.” (William Parnell wrote in the same issue that “a first step is the sincere repentance by white evangelicals.”)   

Sadly, the Republican candidate did not express outrage that a party with a proud history of ending slavery and supporting civil rights legislation would blatantly attempt to suppress black and Latino votes.

I am a registered Democrat but this is not a partisan blog. I believe strongly in the need for a healthy two-party, or multi-party democracy. I also respect the deeply held convictions of many conservatives on difficult social questions as well as on a range of economic issues. Few can doubt that without a renewed commitment to fundamental values of integrity and responsibility and stronger family units no amount of government intervention will lift communities out of poverty. Nor should liberals make the mistake of assuming that all conservatives or white evangelicals are monolithic in their views. Many are deeply committed to social justice.

Speaking to a diverse Richmond audience the day after the dinner conversation, Gandhi quoted Martin Luther King in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he spoke of the Black quest for civil rights in these terms.

[W]hen these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream, and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.

“Standing up for dignity and equality is at the core of the American Dream, King was saying. And the lunch counters he was speaking of have a direct meaning today when poverty is a sharp reality for a large number of Americans.”

Who are the Republicans who will call out the best in the party’s tradition to meet the challenge of a new America?

Our dinner group noted the attempt by the militant left to control the British trade union movement in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It led to massive industrial disputes in key industries and deeply wounded the economy. 

An important factor in turning the tide was a new willingness by moderate union leaders to take responsibility and stand up for their convictions in the face of intimidation. This in turn helped to change the direction of the Labor Party, making the leadership of a Tony Blair possible.

Throughout those decades, Initiative of Change was engaged in a sustained effort to support new thinking and courageous leadership in the labor movement. 

Some similar action by Republican moderates is needed now in the U.S. for a party that has been hijacked by extreme and irrational forces and a Tea Party movement which major moneyed interests are cynically supporting and manipulating for their own benefit.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (hardly a bastion of liberal thought) editorialized, “The future belongs to the party best able to cross the ethnic and gender lines. It does not rest with a movement personified by the snarling visage of Rush Limbaugh.” But as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “the temptation of the party’s elite will be to fasten on the demographic explanation because playing identity politics seems less painful that overhauling the Republican economic message.”

The country awaits a few good men and women with the courage to stand up, reclaim their party and return it to its true values.  

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