Vinoth Ramachandra

American History Lessons

Posted on: February 13, 2020

I have been spending the past two-and-a-half weeks in the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I am again appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, especially the parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent American evangelist, George Verwer, once told me, “You must remember that Americans are an ignorant people.”

Exaggeration, no doubt. But, still, a solid core of truth. Despite having many of the finest universities and research centres in the world, large swathes of the American public (including many who study and work in such institutions) remain ignorant of their own national history, the lives of their fellow-Americans outside their circle of family and friends, what is happening in the world beyond their shores, and how American policies promote injustice and suffering elsewhere. This applies, not least, to the depressing number of white American Christians who support politicians like Donald Trump.

I had the great fortune to listen last Sunday to Mark Noll, the eminent historian, as he spoke at a Sunday School class in his church on the topic of Christian involvement in US politics from the Civil War to the 1950s. Much of what he said was familiar to me; but I was intrigued by two stories he shared which may, I believe, be of contemporary relevance.

The “radical Republicans” of the late nineteenth-century, Noll observed, were the radical Democrats of today. They pushed through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, thus empowering black folk, while it was the Democrats who had not only supported slavery but wanted government to get off their backs. The strong black churches that emerged after the Civil War were all solidly Republican. In 1960, the two presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon were urged by their advisors to reach out to the black community. Nixon refused, while Kennedy did. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who had been a staunch Nixon supporter- because “blacks should vote for the party of Abe Lincoln”- switched sides. Ever since then blacks have been overwhelmingly Democrat.

The second story concerns the Temperance movement of the nineteenth century. This was largely the work of white women who recognised alcoholism as the source of many social evils, not least the male abuse of women and children. Francis Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873 was a remarkable woman who combined evangelistic preaching with educational reform, lobbying for women’s voting rights and agitation against drink. As the century progressed, drunkenness was also seen as disrupting industrial production and efficiency.

In common with other evangelical Christians in the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the WCTU and other temperance groups saw personal discipline and moral transformation as the way to social transformation. But their popular success made them overreach. Not only did some temperance advocates become more extremist, resorting to violence against bars and even pharmacies that sold alcohol, but they spread misinformation (e.g. that a single drink could make a man an alcoholic) and pushed for the federal prohibition of drink. When the latter was achieved in the 1920s, all it did was to drive liquor consumption underground and increase the power of the Mafia.

Might there be an analogy with the “pro-life” movement in the US today? Neither personal discipline nor punitive laws, important as they are, can effect lasting social transformation. Cultures need to change and oppressive socio-economic structures dismantled. And Christians, instead of always trying to use the apparatus of the state to impose their vision of human well-being, need to take on the intellectual challenge of articulating that vision in meaningful and winsome ways to the wider public.

Even if (the unlikely) legal change does come, I hope it will not be a return to the age of back-street abortions. And if the dominant secular culture remains unconvinced, “pro-life” would be seen as tied to a right-wing political agenda and will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.

15 Responses to "American History Lessons"

Maybe the idea that the electorate must pass a test before they receive the right to vote isn´t so shocking after all.

Hi Vinoth.

This is a timely reflection. Thank you, as always. I have been pondering some of the same matters–having recently read Chernow’s magisterial biography of Ulysses Grant and Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglas. Most Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history, especially as it relates to its ‘original sin’ of chattel slavery. Also listening to a fascinating podcast about all (ALL!) the American presidential elections showing, pretty clearly, how polarized and nasty they have nearly all been. It’s not a cynical piece, just a reminder of how popular history has typically been whitewashed over time. (Literally, perhaps…) It’s called: American Elections: Wicked Game .

FYI, on the matter of Christian world view and abortion, here are two quite helpful (IMHO) essays: https://peaceaftertrauma.com/2018/10/23/blood-on-our-hands-7-reasons-why-im-a-christian-against-abortion-who-doesnt-vote-pro-life/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/yes-christians-can-be-both-anti-abortion-and-anti-trump/2020/02/13/9afd9654-4e97-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.

And one more that might be relevant–an essay by Nathan Hatch on how Christians through American history have been prone to capture by various political ideologies and movements. Very timely, IMHO. See what you think: https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/the-political-captivity-of-the-faithful/

Pray that you are well. Grateful for your faithful labours.

Blessings,

Barrett

Vinoth Ramachandra wrote on 2020-02-13 08:23: > WordPress.com > vinoth-ifes posted: “I have been spending the past two-and-a-half > weeks in the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I > am again appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, > especially the parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent > American ev” >

Barrett, I am very grateful for the interesting and useful articles you have pointed me to, as well as your kind personal comments. How do we get these articles into the hands of the American Christian leaders who need to read them?

Hi Vinoth,
Thank you for this thought-provoking article! It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my brother recently about how abortion was introduced deliberately as a rallying point for conservative evangelicals several years after Roe v. Wade, after the battle was lost for segregated schools. It seems as though few evangelicals cared about abortion as an issue until then. This is an article I would love more people to read: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
Blessings.
Wesley

Two very interesting posts, got round to reading them only now. I shared them with the national debating team 🙂

Thank you.

Sanjit

On Thu, Feb 13, 2020 at 9:54 PM Vinoth Ramachandra wrote:

> vinoth-ifes posted: “I have been spending the past two-and-a-half weeks in > the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I am again > appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, especially the > parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent American ev” >

Vinoth said:

“How do we get these articles into the hands of the American Christian leaders who need to read them?”

They won´t read them. They´ll call the articles liberal rubbish and then toss them into the bin or place them in the bottom of bird cages. Then they´ll go back to watching FoxNews.

Sorry for the cynicism.

Matthew

Hello! I’ve never been on this site before but I am enjoying being challenged by some of the political thinking here. Something struck me as contradictory and I’m interested to hear a response to this because I’m sure there is one.

In your post about HOW TO GET SUPER RICH you made the case at the end, and in the replies, that people who assume that the church is the only group that should help have no theology of government and they haven’t read the OT well. Thats all fair. But it leaves the reader feeling like they should really look to the government and vote in a way that brings about economic change, which ultimately means forced generosity, which I am also fine with on some level. BUT

In this current article, despite agreeing that abortion is an important topic, you seem to chose the opposite reasoning, trusting more in Christians call to persuade society against abortion and less value in seeking to use the government to enact their values. To me this doesn’t seem much different than forcing people to be generous. We have values we want others to hold, and sins we want them to avoid, be it greed or murder or whatever, and we have to walk the line of answering how we should vote as well as how to persuade others. Yet, you seem to be saying if we are talking economic greed, trust more in political policy, but if its murder of the unborn, trust more in christian persuasion.

I’m not trying to accuse, but I am very interested in a response. It feels like slick talking that privileges economic inequality to murder. This also raises the question for you of whether you have read the OT well. There is nothing the law values like life. The idea that abortion probably won’t change but economics easily could is not persuasive at all. Greed and power is probably the most difficult thing to change, whereas millennials are increasingly pro-life and it is currently illegal in Alabama to have an abortion. It’s not at all impossible that roe v wade could be overturned.

All that to say, what am I misunderstanding? What is the rationale for privileging economic policy to murder as something to pursue politically with our votes? Why could someone not argue the exact opposite emphases to you: persuasion in in economic policy and government policy for abortion?

Zach, thanks for a good question.

Re economic inequality: please remember that this is also tantamount to murder. Life expectancy among poor communities in the same city/country is much less than among the rich. And there is plenty of evidence on the psychological harm that inequality does to people, as well as damaging their educational and job prospects.

Also, the primary duty of government is to do justice (not “forced generosity” as you call it). How it achieves this (whether better market regulation, social welfare or increased taxation or a combination of all) will obviously vary from context to context. But in recent years we have seen a near-universal move on the part of governments to perpetuate injustice by enacting policies that support rich banks and corporations while leaving the churches and charities to help those who are the victims of these policies. The rich are recipients of public benefits that do not often pay for. Reminding governments of their responsibility for social and economic justice is a duty of Christians.

Re abortion: I live in a country where abortion is criminalized. Many poor women die, become seriously infected or suffer permanent infertility at the hands of quacks and back-street abortionists or because they try to do it themselves. The rich women can go abroad for safe abortions. This was the situation in the US and other Western countries before it was legalized. Do you really want to see a return to such conditions?

I think I made it clear in my post that I don’t believe abortion is about “pro-choice”. Morally, it is wrong except when the mother’s life is endangered and has to be saved by aborting her foetus. Unlike the radical feminists, moreover, I believe that in the face of abortion we are faced with the moral claims of two persons, albeit at different stages of development. But law is almost always about compromise. (Think of arguments for war, the death penalty or permitting adultery or idolatry). This is especially the case in a pluralist society. Legally, we have to safeguard as far as we can the life of the foetus and the life of the mother. Such a compromise may involve setting a time limit on when abortion is permitted. I am personally in favour of reducing that limit to, say, the first 8-10 weeks. (An arbitrary figure, to be sure, but so is any figure).

The laws as they stand in the US and most Western countries are far too lax, and give loopholes which are easily exploited for selfish reasons. And I believe that Christians should publicly oppose moves to completely decriminalize abortion (that is, making it available until actual birth). But demanding a blanket ban is tantamount to ignoring the plight of many poor, vulnerable women. And, when this demand is coupled with a pro-Trump agenda that is already so blatantly anti-poor as well as racist and sexist, it exposes Christians to the charge of hypocrisy in claiming to be “pro-life”.

If Christians in the US were more consistent in their pro-life rhetoric (for example, by also espousing environmental protection, reducing economic inequality and speaking up for the rights of people suffering under regimes armed by the US), the Christian understanding of the evil of abortion will become more plausible and perhaps attract more secular liberals to our concerns.

I´m hearing good arguments regarding abortion and “pro life” in response to this blog post. I struggle greatly with this topic as I no longer vote for the party that is “pro life”/anti-abortion, but at the same time, it is very difficult for me to vote for the party that believes abortion in nearly all cases should be legally allowed. The dilemma caused me great stress in the last two U.S. elections and I eventually decided not to vote. Now look what happened 😦

Thank you for giving more to think about as we approach the 2020 election in America, Vinoth and the others.

Matthew

These issues are great opportunities for us to remind ourselves that we exist in relationships. The ‘mother-foetus(from zygote onwards) is not the only relationship that matters but the labyrinth of relationships from family, to extended family, wider society and of course the overarching accountability to God.
We are called to provide the security our societies need to help each other flourish including the unborn and the troubled mother(& family) often due to gross economic inequalities. The current issues are much to do with social security, trustworthiness and freedom to flourish. The electorate often has a difficult choice and I suspect this side of heaven we can only look for compromised choices in a self-obsessed and fearful world unaware of the offer of Christ.
I was also very impressed to learn that Leah Norma McCorvey (known as Jane Roe in Roe vs Wade 1973) being a victim of 2 solicitors who were looking for potential plaintiffs vs the State, did a complete u-turn, gave up working in a abortion clinic, sought forgiveness from the Catholic church, published 2 books and tried her best to overturn Roe vs Wade before she passed away a few years ago.

Vinoth, here is my response to your #8 response to my original post #7. I’d love your response.

My point in saying “forced generosity” is simply to say that there is an amount of money that some people are going to make given the current situation, and the government would be forcing them to make less money, in contrast to them making more money, and be in generous with it. I understand that you could use the word “justice.” I would have to agree with you that there is definitely a problem.

What’s hard is quantifying how big of a problem it is in comparison to other problems in America. Using the example we have been discussing, it’s not obvious from my reading of scripture that, “Economic inequality is tantamount to murder,” as you said. Feel free to pick apart my reasoning. Does economic inequality lead to the death of some? Yes, but, does anger lead to murder? Yes!. Are anger and murder the the same? They are not! Similarly, economic inequality and murder are not the same. The potential of one sin leading to another does not equate them, it relates them. In the law in the OT, there was theft, and then their was theft of a person. One required restitution, the other death. Yes, stealing a person’s ox could lead them to go hungry, and eventually death, but we don’t see the law equating them by prescribing death for theft of an ox because it could (and probably would) destroy the person’s livelihood, and even lower the life expectancy of members of their family. When a life is directly involved, something changed in the way that the OT law viewed the action. The point here being that the theft of large corporations may lead to early death of people, but murder is still biblically something different altogether. And this is the key: abortion IS murder. This being the case (and I could be mistaken), your reasoning for putting more emphasis on economic inequality over abortion in your response to me doesn’t seem to justify your position.

Furthermore, I want to have compassion at this point, but it is very difficult for me to see how a woman, who wants to kill a baby, needs someone to advocate for her rights? The woman can make a lot of choices. But a baby can make no choices. To say that people will attempt abortions on their own, therefore we should have them available is like saying, “Because people want to kill other people, we should just kill them for them so they don’t get hurt in the act. We don’t want two people dead do we?” What am I missing here? It seems to me that the fact that some rich women can have access to abortions that others can’t is not injustice to poor women. It’s injustice that anyone can get an abortion anywhere! There are around 615,000 abortions each year in the U.S. I’d be willing to wager that the convenience of abortions is a key factor. I would be willing to bet that there wouldn’t be 1/10th of the deaths if every woman who attempted a back street abortion died with her baby. The overall damage would be much lower. As I said in my first post. I got on here to learn. If you’re thinking what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, help me

Zach, I suggested in my post that we learn from the botched attempt in 1920s America to stop alcoholism by legal prohibition. All it did was force it underground, increase levels of alcoholism because now there was no way to regulate it or help the victims. And it increased the power of the mafia.

In many countries where abortion is criminalized, the practice is widespread. And mothers as well as fetuses die (or suffer from chronic infection). There is little evidence that banning it actually reduces drastically the number of abortions. Also, most women who have abortions (whether in the US or Sri Lanka) don’t see it as murder. Which is why I stressed the need for education rather than political campaigns. And when Christians vote for immoral politicians and judges simply because they promise a ban on abortions, the Church loses its moral credibility. We are seen as naive as well as hypocritical.

re: comment #12

Thank you Vinoth. This will help me better consider what to do in November 2020, though I must say it is looking more like another Trump victory with each passing day. 😦

Following the conversation between Vinoth and Zach, i felt the need to share that we should learn to read the commandments holistically that they embody love for God and our neighbor. Rigid and narrow or wooden interpretation leads to false obedience which is what Christ was up against the Pharisees and legalists of His day. Second, protecting the unborn and speaking on behalf of them is a Christian responsibility and i think an arbitrary time limit on abortion puts us on a slippery slope that anything can be argued based on arbitrary criteria. I have heard good arguments based on the situation of the mother – e.g. in the case of ectopic pregnancies, abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. There need provisions in the law for special cases that demand compromise to preserve life as much as possible.

Vinoth and Anada Kumar,

To our continuing conversation. I am in agreement that the law has to make room for cases where the Mother is in danger, because clearly the baby is reliant on the mother for life. To not save the mother, is to not save the child. This seems obvious.
However, to my knowledge (And I want to be corrected if I’m wrong), the fact that some people will seek underground abortion cannot be compared to the fact that that many sought underground alcohol in the 20s. Obtaining alcohol for consumption is very different than getting an abortion. As Michael J. New (who has a PhD, not a random person on the internet) wrote in his summary research article for the Lozier Institute (https://lozierinstitute.org/how-the-legal-status-of-abortion-impacts-abortion-rates/), “They find that countries where abortion is legal only to save the mother’s life or for specific medical reasons have abortion rates that are only about five percent of the level in countries in which abortion is legal on request.” At another point he writes, “Between 1974 and 1980, the United States abortion rate went from 19.3 to 29.3, an increase of approximately 52 percent. Clearly, the Roe v. Wade decision dramatically increased the rate and number of abortions performed in the United States.” I would recommend you read the whole article bc he does deal with how this data compares to developing countries, which seems to be more where Vinoth’s rationale is coming from. But we’re talking about the president of America, not a developing country. This is not simply Michael New’s opinion. It is a researched opinion based on real studies done that are cited in the article. When you say, “there is little evidence that banning it actually reduces drastically the number of abortions” either I’m wrong, or we have a different definition of “drastically.” It seems that the legality of abortion matters a good bit. This brings us back to the original question, if legality does significantly change the number of abortions, and economic inequality is not equal to murder in scripture, how can you speak as if it’s so clear cut to not vote pro-life in America? And this isn’t just to Vinoth. Anyone who has a response, please help me! I’m REALLY wanting to understand, but I cannot simply overlook the fact that arguments are being used that do not hold water.

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