The United States is a country that knows how to sell. The backbone of entrepreneurship here is not necessarily based on providing a product or service that is valuable. The secret to success in business is convincing Americans that they need or want what you’re selling, and we do it well. Where else could you take a smooth stone, nest it in a little clump of straw, place it in a cardboard box with a tiny book of “instructions,” and sell it for $3.95 as a Pet Rock? An ad executive named Gary Dahl did exactly that in the mid-1970s and became a millionaire in just a few months. Other examples include mood rings, Lucky Break plastic wishbones, and HeadOn headache relief wax. We can probably all think of a few “universities” and other nonprofits that are worthy mentions.
We will sell anything in America, and I mean ANY thing. When I was the director at Andalusia, the historic home of American author Flannery O’Connor, we scooped up red clay from the yard, placed it in small plastic pill bottles, and sold it for .75 a bottle in our little gift shop. We did the same with pond water from the property. Adoring fans and generous supporters of our house museum bought them by the dozens. No, I can’t say I’m proud of stooping to such obnoxious commercialistic measures, but it helped keep the lights on. At least we didn’t make any claims about the supernatural qualities of the clay, with all due respect to the folks at El Santuario de Chimayo who offer up mystical holy dirt on a Native American sacred hill in New Mexico.
Speaking of the sacred, I believe that Americans do a better job at marketing religious belief than just about anything else. We borrow myths and customs from various cultures and across the centuries, synthesizing them into a giant brand that we couple with Christianity, making it a lot more attractive. For example, we skillfully package up the entire Advent season in a display that can practically fit in the palm of your hand – a nativity scene that comes complete with Mary, Joseph, some livestock, and a few shepherds gathered snugly in a small stable admiring the baby Jesus. We even throw in three wise men and a guiding star over the structure, although we know these guys didn’t see the holy family until long after everyone had vacated the manger scene. We simply don’t have room for two dioramas on the coffee table. We have to save room for Santa, the reindeer, and the scioto ceramic Christmas village.
There are other practices to further illustrate the point: bunny rabbits and eggs at Easter combined with passion plays that reduce the death of Christ to a one-act skit. I am reminded of the time I was driving through the foothills of Appalachia in rural north Georgia on a Good Friday back in the late 1990s when I passed a small country church. Thankfully, I happened to turn my head in time to see three large crosses on the front lawn of the church, which would be completely expected. What prompted me to slam on brakes and swerve into the entrance of the adjacent parking lot, however, was the fact that there were three men in what appeared to be white bed sheets draped around their wastes “hanging” on the crosses. They were standing on small pedestals attached to the upright beams and holding on to large spikes driven into both ends of the crossbeams. There were several folks standing at a respectful distance in front of the display taking photographs. No banner or marque could have possibly commanded more attention. The man on the middle cross, playing the part of Jesus, I presumed, had a slightly protruding belly and was offering a modest smile for the photo op. As I moved in closer, I noticed he was also chewing gum. Who wouldn’t want to be in THAT church two days later to celebrate the resurrected Savior? What a shame Flannery O’Connor died before this happened.
Even people who love to celebrate the winter holidays with garish decorations have become disgusted with big-box stores that start filling their shelves with the stuff in early September. Now we can walk into our local Walmart before the summer ends, wander over near the garden section, and find all the accessories we could possibly need for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with just one trip. All the aforementioned illustrations may cheapen a faith tradition that is almost 2000 years old, but I don’t find them too offensive really. They simply reflect the way Americans think and operate under the encompassing influence of capitalism, which is the true soul of the Republic, morally bankrupt as it may seem at times.
What I do find reprehensible is how people in high places have notoriously attempted to hijack religion and use it to further their personal or institutional agendas, and Christianity has perhaps fallen victim to this evil form of abuse as much or more than any other faith. It happened with the late Roman Empire, the rise of the papacy, the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, the perpetuation of slavery in America, and many other pivotal points in western history. And it’s happening today – right now. The most effective way to pitch a policy package or promote a public figure to a large block of this country’s population is to make sure Jesus is clearly visible on the label.
All your past and present failures, bad decisions, naughty behavior, crude language – all your transgressions can be immediately forgiven and forgotten as long as you claim that Jesus is your co-pilot. He doesn’t even have to be in charge of the flight! In spite of the separations set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, the United States throughout its history has wedded patriotism to the Christian faith. You can bet that when most Americans read the phrase “In God We Trust” on their money (why is it still there?), they aren’t conjuring images of Zeus, Shiva, or even Allah. They are envisioning the Christian Trinity.
No other demographic is more committed to maintaining the dominance of Christianity in this country, right up to the three branches of government, than strongly conservative evangelicals. They are a powerful lobby and voting bloc, spreading out over multiple denominations and encompassing all races and socio-economic sectors. Their influence has waned slightly in recent decades as the overall population is becoming more secular, but they have a loud and clear voice in public affairs, especially on the national level. Sadly, even the least qualified candidates can overcome a multitude of sins and ineptitude by claiming they are guided by Biblical principles and dedicated to protecting this brand of Christianity from resistance or competition. By focusing on a few essential staples that evangelical Christians hold sacred, these con artists can easily sell them the rest of the merchandise regardless of how cheap, useless, or even dangerous it may be. Jesus is central to the deal, and we Americans can’t pass up a good deal.
(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)
Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.
Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.
In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.
While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”
The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.
It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”
In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.
Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South. Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”
Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.
She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . . And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”
In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”
The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”
Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.
Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”
By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”
Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the tipping point.” It’s probably too early to know for certain, but the wide-spread reactions we are witnessing to the February 14, 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, may indeed by a sign of a national opinion shift about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its unofficial but most vehement advocate, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Of course, the Parkland tragedy was only one in a long list of mass shootings in this country, and gun advocates typically point to almost any other solution than more restrictions on private ownership of firearms. “We should enforce the laws that are already on the books,” they say. However, there are cases where a shooter didn’t break the law until he decided to kill multiple people. I don’t think anyone believes that any action taken now will completely stop mass shootings in America, but can they be decreased? Can the number of casualties be reduced? Is it worth trying to include a discussion about restrictions on types of guns and their capacity? I think so.
We can’t exactly shut down all public events in the country, along with movie theaters, malls, parks, nightclubs, and all other places where people gather. We can hope that there are always good guys with guns around who are better trained than the average law enforcement officer, but how effective will that be against a suicidal maniac who wants to take out as many lives as possible before being taken down or blowing his head off? Let’s make it more difficult for them. Let’s make them choose other weapons that aren’t as efficient in closed spaces, at least. Or, we can just throw up our hands and say that no gun laws will ever slow down the murders. But then we are going to have to explain how stronger gun laws in other countries do impact murder rates.
We can no longer interpret our founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, as if we were still living in the 18th century. In truth, we have been re-interpreting these documents for over 200 years, and adding to them because they cannot completely address a society that continues to change with every generation with regard to values, beliefs, and technological advancements. I think we can all agree that the weapons available even to the wealthiest nations in the 18th century cannot compare to what the average American can now have in his closet.
Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the 2nd Amendment is not the only one under scrutiny. There are plenty of restrictions on free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment, that we all accept as a society because doing so makes us safer. Those have developed over time and are still in force. Even now there is serious discussion about how electronic communication creates issues that we have never had to address before but probably will, just as we had to do with broadcasting. The result will most likely be more and newer restrictions to free speech. We impose restraints on religious practice too, and for good reason.
Even gun enthusiasts generally agree that fully-automatic weapons don’t belong in the hands of private citizens, and they certainly don’t support individual ownership of advanced weapon systems used by forces around the world. We have a handful of people in this country who are wealthy enough to buy tanks, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles, but no one argues about their right to keep and bear those arms! Some of our guaranteed rights were never intended to be, nor can they be, absolute rights.
Both 1st and 2nd Amendments are restricted rights. The current debate really comes down to a question of what limitations our society will accept. I have never advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment nor do I, as a gun owner, support taking away all guns from law-abiding, responsible citizens. I hope the country is moving toward finding ways to reduce violence, which may or may not involve more restrictions on firearms. I do maintain that any discussion of reducing violence by people using guns should take into account the type of guns that are made so widely available to individuals.
My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.
Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).
The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.
The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.
Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.
On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.
On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.
President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.
Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.
Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”
Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”
I started pledging allegiance to the flag when I was a small child in elementary school, a ritual that I never questioned and that was just as much a part of the daily routine as lunch, recess, and reading from a primer about the riveting adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. I can vaguely remember that there were one or two students who were exempt from “saying the pledge,” and we were told that their religion forbade them from participating. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom the meaning behind such a religious restriction, having no exposure to any faith traditions outside rural Southern Baptist churches. You can’t get more patriotic than Southern Baptists. I don’t recall reciting the pledge in class when I attended a white-flight, church-sponsored private high school, which strikes me now as most ironic. Maybe we did and I was just too preoccupied with friends, girls, and turbulent hormones to give it any thought at all. Even as young children we could all rattle off the run-on sentence with no regard whatsoever to its intent of inspiring devotion to the homeland. When Francis Bellamy penned the original pledge in 1892, it was generic enough to be adopted by any republic with a flag, not just the United States, and it had no mention of God even though its author was a minister. The pledge was given official recognition by Congress in 1942. The divine creator was inserted in 1954 by a request of President Eisenhower and an act of Congress in reaction to atheism associated with the spread of Communism.
The United States didn’t have an official patriotic song until 1931 when Congress passed a law formally designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Fast forward almost a century and now we find ourselves in a national debate over the proper respect for this song and that waving banner it praises. Of all places, the most high-profile test of true patriotism in this country apparently takes place just before kick-off at televised football games in the National Football League. The suggestion is that respect for a song and respect for the United States are of equal importance. I cannot quite agree with that premise. Should American citizens respect the National Anthem? Perhaps, but I don’t necessarily consider such respect to be a qualification of patriotism. Should they respect the flag? Well, they should be encouraged to respect the flag, although pledging allegiance to it should never be required by law. Furthermore, I don’t think demonstrations of allegiance to the National Anthem or the American flag should be a requirement of employment either, even for athletes, but that isn’t my decision to make. Disrespect of the flag is a right protected by our constitutional government and demonstrates the price of democracy and free speech. Without this protection, waving a flag that represents the Confederacy — a failed attempt to disband the government of the United States — would be an illegal act. The mere display of a Confederate flag is a blatant disrespect of the Republic, but we permit it. In certain parts of the country, flying the Confederate flag is encouraged, even by elected officials who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution over and over again. Somehow, this paradox wreaks of hypocrisy to me.
Do we show respect for the country by habitually standing for a song while giving little or no thought to its lyrics? Is there any evidence that daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by children later produced within their adult hearts and minds some measure of undying loyalty to their country, upstanding moral character, or compliance to the law? I wonder how many people in the stadium seats could actually write the lyrics of the first verse of the National Anthem (much less the other long-forgotten stanzas). I wonder how many Americans think about the fact that this country was not “the land of the free” for over a million people in bondage at the time the song was written. I wonder how many times before April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh stood for the National Anthem and pledged his allegiance to the flag.
Before anyone can honestly be expected to honor the flag, he or she needs to be able to respect the Republic for which it stands. In truth, we all know that recent developments around this issue aren’t really about a 19th-century song or a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. They are just symbols of a collective dream that cannot come true for too many of our citizens who don’t have the privilege afforded those of European descent. Perhaps, some day, when America truly is a unified Republic that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL,” everyone will be proud to pledge allegiance to the flag that waves over a land of free and brave patriots.
You might have election obsession (with all kinds of apologies to Mr. Foxworthy):
If 9 out of every 10 posts you share on your Facebook page are “breaking news” stories designed to “expose” the “truth” about one of the candidates, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
If you can’t have a conversation about something as benign as your last vacation without eventually referring to a political party or a candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
If your Facebook page has turned into a news feed from sources that have titles including words like liberal, conservative, left, right, progressive, or patriot, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
If you are convinced that everything that is wrong with America is embodied in one candidate while everything that could be right about the country can be achieved through the efforts of the other candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
If photos of candidates show up on your Facebook feed more often than your family members or your pets, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
If you know more about the personal life and background of a candidate than you do about some of your best friends, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
And finally, if you have contemplated leaving the country if your candidate of choice doesn’t win, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.
People who break the law are committing a crime, and so by definition, they are criminals. Therefore, people who enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers are illegal immigrants and are criminals. Anyone who doesn’t report income to the IRS is also a criminal. Anyone who downloads commercial, copyrighted music without paying for it is a criminal. Anyone who commits insurance fraud is a criminal. Anyone who engages in insider trading is a criminal. Illegal gamblers are criminals. Most people in the country who smoke or sell marijuana are criminals. People who speed are criminals. Gun laws across the country are routinely ignored, and those who do so are criminals. Laws are never, absolutely never, static or permanent. They have to evolve with a society. That goes for laws about drugs, guns, speed limits, gambling, prostitution, and yes, immigration.
Should we still have laws in place that make it criminal for a woman to vote in elections? Should Jim Crow laws still be in place to “control” the black population? Laws have changed over and over in our history to reflect how the society evolves. We tend to criminalize activity that isn’t so harmful sometimes while ignoring crimes that are, especially if we consider ourselves “innocent.”
Let’s all pick up some big rocks and throw them at the prostitute and tell Jesus to be quiet. Better yet, let’s try to structure our laws, all of our laws, to reflect how the country works, to protect private property, and to help peaceful people in the U.S. pursue happiness.
Many voting precincts around the country allow people to vote early for elections, which is a dandy idea if you ask me. I get to avoid a line even if there aren’t any real crowds (sadly), and I take care of my civic responsibility at a time that suits my schedule. Early voting is a wonderful convenience. Given the current political climate leading up to what is likely the most controversial and divisive presidential election of my lifetime, I would like to carry the concept one step further. Let’s get this over with by having an early election. If social media is any indication of the current volatility of emotion and anxiety surrounding the election, we need to blow the lid off this pressure cooker as soon as possible. Is there really anybody left out there who hasn’t made a decision about the candidates?
If we’re honest with each other and ourselves, which hardly ever happens on social media, we know that what we all do is accentuate the negative news about the candidate we oppose and ignore the damning news about the one we support. After a while, most of the “breaking news” about the candidates just becomes sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latest scandal is just another bug on the windshield — hit the spray switch and the wipers and in a few seconds it’s gone. It doesn’t change the course, it certainly doesn’t change anybody’s mind, and it doesn’t get us any closer to being one nation indivisible.
Members of Congress will continue to thwart the efforts of the President no matter who wins the White House, and the President will continue to use executive orders and other powers to bypass Congress. With this model now firmly established in Washington, the federal government will get very little good work accomplished, which for some of the remnants of the Tea Party, will be just fine. The chances of the federal government shrinking any time soon are practically nonexistent, so the next best thing for the anti-government crowd is for the train to stall on the tracks. Of course, that means that horrible abuses of the system and wasteful spending of tax money will continue to escalate, and both of the controlling parties are equally out of control with spending.
I don’t know what it will take for Americans to overcome their deep differences. We may be too far gone. Even an attack on our own soil only produces a temporary and superficial sense of unity that is quickly forgotten when the partisan rhetoric machine cranks up again. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that Trump, Clinton, or Johnson will be able to bring the nation together. If the model of Darwinian evolution’s survival of the fittest can be applied to the U.S., perhaps we simply aren’t the fittest.
I have understood all along why President Obama has resisted using terms like “Muslim extremists” or “radical Muslims” to identify terrorists who pervert Islam for evil purposes. Peaceful Muslims in this country are in a precarious state. However, his resistance to associate some terrorists acts with fundamentalist Muslims denies the very real danger presented by radical religious practice everywhere. Islam does not have a monopoly on terrorists who claim to be part of a religion. Peace-loving Christians have no trouble distinguishing the faith they practice from the hate-filled ideology of the Westboro Baptists or the KKKs of this country, but they rarely deny that these groups are identified with Christianity. They may call them fundamentalists, evangelicals, zealots, nutcases, or even ultra-conservatives, or they may use quotation marks to imply they are not truly “Christians” at all, but they don’t call them atheists or agnostics either. Bands of Hindu radicals have been responsible for murdering scores of Muslims and Christians. We need to accept the fact that evil people use religions — all religions — as excuses to carry out horrific acts of violence.
I tend to agree with some commentators lately who have started identifying ISIS as a cult, a term that typically has negative connotations for most people, especially people of faith. Just to clarify, I am thinking in terms of the ISIS organization. Even though the recent Orlando shooter apparently invoked the name of Allah in his 911 call, that doesn’t necessarily put him in the league with ISIS, and it certainly doesn’t qualify him to be a Muslim as it is defined by millions of members of that faith around the world. I am quite sure that assassins throughout history have shouted “God’s will be done” before committing similar acts of cowardliness and evil. Doing so did not make them Christians in my view. At the same time, the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of people who claim allegiance. I do think we need to recognize that some of these attacks on our soil are inspired by maniacs with a warped, perverted sense of religion. Sometimes it’s Christianity; other times it’s Islam. Ignoring that fact doesn’t help us understand the motivations any better and may actually hinder us from addressing this global problem.
I don’t really think that the labels the President or anyone else chooses to use to describe these monsters are going to diminish their zeal and their thirst for blood, but I do think understanding their identification with the religion can be helpful in combating them. Rather than marginalizing peaceful Muslims, perhaps we can get more of them to help us stamp out the “cult.” Peace-loving Christians sat in church with KKK members for decades, and probably still do now. The KKK certainly fits the description of a cult in my mind, and I would bet my next paycheck that a lot of people outside the Christian faith would identify the KKK as a Christian cult or a perverted Christian organization because of the language and symbols used by the organization. I have never heard anyone claim that the KKK was an independent cult that has no identification with Christianity. They would have said the same about Koresh’s clan. I can remember growing up in a Baptist church and being taught that Mormons were members of a cult, yet almost any scholarly treatment of Mormonism identifies it as a Protestant denomination. In other words, it is very difficult to define what a cult is, and most cults historically have had their roots in existing religions. We ignore what inspires young people to join radical, hateful groups at our peril, and a perverted affiliation with a major world religion is a strong incentive for a weak, impressionable mind.
The way many people distinguish violent religious fanatics from the mainstream practitioners is by claiming that the fanatics aren’t practicing the “true” faith. And yet, the pro-lifer who turns murderer by bombing an abortion clinic may embrace all the trappings of Christian practice: attending church regularly, giving to Christian charitable causes, praying every day, reading the Bible, etc. He believes that he is doing God’s will by sacrificing the evil doctor who, in his mind, is murdering the unborn. As twisted as he is in his thinking, he still identifies with fundamental Christian beliefs, many of which he will justify with the Bible. His friends and acquaintances will identify him as a Christian, and some of them will continue to do so after he commits murder, even though they may not condone his actions. They will say things like “his convictions were strong, but he went about it the wrong way.” The real irony is that the abortion doctor may actually believe many of the same tenants of the faith that his killer does. I think this same paradigm is sometimes at play with ISIS members and their sympathizers. Most peaceful Muslims are horrified by their actions and are in fact victims of their evil deeds. But I don’t think we can escape that a perverted interpretation of Islam is what drives ISIS and what attracts sympathizers. Again, as peaceful people, we ignore that unavoidable truth at our own risk and by doing so hinder our ability to overcome terrorism in all its manifestations.