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.

9 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

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