Playing the Birmingham Jail Card

Of all the claims made by U.S. Catholic bishops about their alleged victimization at the hands of Barack Obama, perhaps the most daring has to do with the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. As they left church this past Sunday, Catholics nationwide were handed parish bulletins with inserts promoting the hierarchy’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” two weeks of public events and protests against purported attacks on religious liberty in America, leading up to the Fourth of July. The one-page message from the bishops was wrapped within the timeless story of African American struggles for racial justice.

The Catholic leaders called special attention to King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he quoted St. Augustine—“An unjust law is no law at all.” They elaborated: “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”

Their April 12 statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” started the bishops on this path toward calling for unspecified civil disobedience if that’s what it takes. At the time, the prelates announced their Fortnight for Freedom, hastening to add that it would coincide with the feast days of several Christian martyrs.

This 12-page exhortation was not penned in a squalid prison cell. It was probably drafted in the splendid headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in northeast Washington, D.C., or in a cardinal’s mansion. That aside, the bishops appear to be making an astonishing claim. They’re suggesting a sort of moral equivalence between their grievances under Obama and those of the Negro under segregation.

In the bulletin insert, the hierarchs did not even get around to talking about their campaign until halfway through the message, after mingling their gripes with the “dark history” of racial oppression.

The litany of complaints begins with the Obama administration’s ruling in January that employees of Catholic hospitals and universities must have access to contraception coverage through their healthcare plans. And it extends to other disputes including whether local Catholic Charities should receive government money for adoption services if they refuse to place children with gay couples. (This past spring I covered a refreshingly civil debate on these matters for Boston College Magazine, and the article is available here.)

Consider a few juxtapositions between the April 12 letter from a distressed hierarchy and the epistle from a Birmingham jail.

Lynching and Licenses

The bishops: “Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.”

King: “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity …”

The bishops: “New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. While this would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.”

King: “ … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) … when your wife and mother are never given the respect title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Just and Unjust Laws

The bishops: “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought … Catholics in America must have the courage not to obey [unjust laws].” And, the bishops, quoting directly from King’s letter: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

King: “Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (Note: By this standard, the contraception mandate is not unjust because it applies equally to everyone.)

There are fair contentions on both sides of the debate over whether government is going too far in one or more of the cases exhibited by the Catholic hierarchy. The matter of the bishops and Obama is not a simple one. But the question of their campaign and the historic struggle for civil rights is plain enough: there’s no comparison. The issue of segregation was black and white morally as well as racially, a simple matter of decency and justice. The fight that the bishops have engaged has little of that clarity.

The bishops would do us all a favor by positioning themselves as religious leaders who object to what they see as a debatable public policy, rather than as martyrs in the making with God and the GOP on their side. …read more

When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points. …read more

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