Category Archives: social justice

What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.

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Gustave de Beaumont’s Forgotten Abolitionist Novel

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I recently joined Ed Blum on the editorial staff at Christian Century‘s religious history blog, Then and Now. I’m looking forward to working with Ed, whom I’ve gotten to know over the past several months through CFH and S-USIH. His religious biography of W.E.B. Du Bois is truly outstanding and I highly recommend it.

My inaugural post appeared today–I wrote about an 1835 novel entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States. Marie was written by Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1866), Alexis de Tocqueville’s travelling companion on their famous tour of the United States that took place in 1831-1832. Tocqueville is famous for having written Democracy in America, which is an extensive consideration of American “institutions,” as Tocqueville put it. Democracy is much more well-known: it was translated into English for the first time during the 1860s, and has been widely read here in America, especially in the years since World War II. (And for a brief word of shameless self-promotion, I am currently in process of editing a new abridgment of Democracy). Democracy is not an uncritical work, but it is a work celebrating American exceptionalism. It is often appealed to by political conservatives, who are found of misattributing the “America is great because she is good” line to Tocqueville.

But Beaumont’s work, a true-to-life work of fiction that he meant to be read alongside Democracy, is less well-known to Americans. It was not translated into English until 1958, nearly 100 years after Democracy. In contrast to Democracy, there is nothing celebratory about America in Marie. It is a tragic story, and it strikes at the heart of something very central, albeit very ugly, about American culture–deep-rooted racial prejudice.

I hope that you add Marie to your reading list, and that you settle in to absorb its message. Marie is much more than a critique of slavery. It is a critique of the myriad absurdities inherent to racial prejudice, to say nothing of the glaring hypocrisy of racial injustice in America. While the work is set in the 1830s, the book offers us a way to think historically about racism in America, as it also continues to give opportunity to reflect on the abiding reality of white privilege in contemporary times.

Here is a taste of my post

Beaumont’s Marie was a work ahead of its time. It was not the first abolitionist work in America, but it was the first one to go beyond slavery and look squarely at the broader problem of racial injustice in America. Not only that, but it presented racial injustice as being ingrained in American culture, reaching not only to African slaves but also to “mulattos,” those in whose veins coursed the slightest hint of African blood. Beaumont told the story of Ludovic, a Frenchman who migrated to America in search of a new life invigorated by liberty. Ludovic fell in love with Marie, a lovely American girl of 1/32 African descent. Because of this, she was considered “colored,” and she and her brother George were ostracized by society. Ludovic’s marriage to Marie incited a race riot in New York, from which they barely escaped. Ultimately the couple had to flee prejudice to the wilderness of Michigan, where deeper tragedies awaited. The novel ended with a disconsolate Ludovic, having witnessed the destruction of the ones he loved most in what he believed was the land of the free.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1896 monograph entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation which he produced as Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

To close his work, Du Bois presented a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” In this little section, Du Bois reminded his readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve Union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Du Bois warned Americans that it was their habit to deny or dismiss the presence of real social ills in their country. He observed that Americans were loathe to admit that their nation had deep flaws and sins, and the result of this denial was that they continually delayed the honest addressing of those flaws to later generations. The failure of the founders to adequately and decisively solve the question of the slave trade, and by extension the institution of slavery, at the Constitutional Convention exacerbated the problem. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation plunged into the tragedy of the Civil War because of the failure of 1787. The lesson for Americans of his own day was, therefore, to avoid the kind of failure the founders perpetrated at the birth of the nation. Don’t believe the lying words, “America is a pristine nation, pure and innocent of social ills.” Americans must identify injustices in its society and rather than put off those injustices for another day, they must deal with them when they ought to be dealt with, that is, in the present moment.

Here is an excerpt of Du Bois’ admonition to those who would accept the myth of America as an innocent nation, that they would cease believing in myths and take responsibility for pursuing justice in the here and now.

With the faith of the nation broken at the very outset, the system of slavery untouched, and twenty years’ respite given to the slave-trade to feed and foster it, there began, with 1787, that system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people. Each generation sought to shift its load upon the next, and the burden rolled on, until a generation came which was both too weak and too strong to bear it longer. One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common-sense in facing the complicated phenomena of political life must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it. Such an attitude is dangerous; we have and shall have, as other peoples have had, critical, momentous, and pressing questions to answer. The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed, it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.

It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, and social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.

Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Confession of a Southern WASP

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Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001

This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.

West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.

Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?

And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?

I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.

Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.

My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.

As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.

But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.

This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.

Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.

And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.

If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.

That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).

But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all.  Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.

Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–

Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.

May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.

What is the Relationship between Patriotism and Justice?

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I’ve been looking closely at David T. KoyzisPolitical Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. A well researched, firmly grounded, original approach to how religious commitments affect political ideology. Much of what Koyzis writes in his chapter on nationalism resonates with me.

In that chapter, Koyzis critiques nationalism as idolatrous because it locates supremacy in the state, defined as a transcendent reality. What makes nationalism idolatrous is that it demands unconditional loyalty of the citizen to the state, over and above all other loyalties.

The way out, according to Koyzis, is “patriotic loyalty.” Patriotism is an appropriate expression of love of country, but that love is rooted in justice. If justice is defined as the giving that which is due to all in a community, then patriotic love is the expression of “shared commitment” to the members of a national community bound by a political power in a defined set of geographical boundaries.

What does a shared commitment look like in such a community? It seems that it would take the form of people looking to the common good of the other members of the community. This notion is at the heart of the res publica, or the republic, also known as a commonwealth.

Patriotism, understood through the lens of justice, is sharply distinguished from nationalism. Nationalism is exclusivist, in that only two groups of people exist: those who are members of the community and those who are outside of it. Those inside are superior to those on the outside. And those who are superior have the right to act upon those who are inferior in any way they choose. Race could be the animating force of this acting upon the other, or religion, or greed.

But patriotism, based upon justice, does not adopt an “us versus them” attitude either within the community or without. Patriotism is inclusivist because it is rooted in love of community that upholds and pursues the common good of all its citizens. It is a limited love–patriotism does not seek to exalt the community over the family or religion. But it is a just love, that is one that is properly placed and applied.

Justice unites a society, while injustice breaks it apart. During the American Civil War, the injustice of slavery shattered the Union and extinguished the lives of many hundreds of thousands. But justice restored the Union by ending slavery and bringing about reconciliation between the sections. It was limited in its application, in that African Americans were not given what they were due–the rights and privileges of full citizenship and respect for their human dignity. Much more had to be done to effect justice for an entire segment of the community that had been neglected and abused for a very long time. But true patriots point out injustices that exist in the community, and pay the price to see that those injustices are corrected.

When approaching the idea of American exceptionalism, there are two expressions–one is nationalistic and one is patriotic. That is, one is exclusivist and the other is inclusivist. One is closed, the other open. One is based on an idolatrous conception of America, the other is based on a Christian conception and application of justice. One sees America as the pinnacle of human existence. The other sees America as a community of shared ideals that are rooted in the rule of law as defined by transcendent ethical standards. This community will not always live up to its ideals. But it is a community that cannot live with itself until it does.

The Fracturing and Marginalization of Evangelicals

Just finished writing a review of Ken Collins‘ work, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration for the Westminster Theological Journal. It is an outstanding work that traces the history of evangelical Christianity in America since 1925. Collins’ main thesis is that in the wake of their loss of cultural influence in the early 20th century, evangelicals sought to compensate by reaching for political power. But this reach failed to recover the Protestant cultural consensus of the 19th century, or the intellectual credibility that evangelicals enjoyed prior to the Scopes trial. Instead, evangelical Christianity in America was fractured into liberal and conservative factions, indirectly contributed to the cultural marginalization of religion in general, and lost its prophetic vision and voice amid the many challenging social issues of contemporary times.

Collins identified several fascinating aspects of evangelicalism in his historical treatment, but the aspect that stuck out the most in my reading was his critique of both liberal and conservative evangelicals’ identification of the church with a political agenda. Liberal evangelicals, such as Campolo and Wallis, are too quick to see public policy through the lens of a social gospel. Conservative evangelicals, like Land and Falwell, frequently see America as God’s representative on earth. Both have a way of conflating America with the kingdom of God, albeit in different directions. But by politicizing the message of the gospel, both groups have contributed to the loss of a political theology in public discourse. Religion once was a public activity, in other words, religion had a voice in public policy (cf. the Progressive era). Now, however, religion is seen as a purely private affair best kept within the four walls of a church. Collins explains how evangelical Christians, in their desire for political power, helped to contribute to that wrong understanding of the role of religion.

Much of what Collins says in his work is relevant to the book I am now writing for IVP Academic on the history and theology of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion and nationalism. By using theological categories to define American exceptionalism, evangelicals distort the meaning of Christianity and exalt America to transcendence. The dangers inherent in this are legion.

What is Collins’ solution? I think he is on to something here–evangelicals have work to do in two directions. First, evangelicals can recover a political theology by appealing to natural law arguments to advocate for the dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. His model is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal to white clergy in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this, evangelicals can make headway (slow headway, to be sure) in offering reasoned defenses of their positions on pressing social issues such as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty. Second, evangelicals must reject liberal and conservative factions and recognize that there is immensely more that unites them than what divides them. They can also reach out to Roman Catholics, who have been their allies in pleading the Christian case on social issues. Related to this, evangelicals must purify themselves and be true to their calling as ambassadors for Christ (King spoke of this in his letter, too), in order to allow the Spirit to empower them.

Collins’ work has a great deal to offer. The question is, are evangelicals even interested enough to pay attention? That remains to be seen.

Dolls and Civil Rights: May 17, 1954

Today marks the 59th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation necessarily violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Earl Warren, who had replaced Fred Vinson as Chief Justice, was instrumental in bringing about the 9-0 ruling in both vote and opinion.

One of the central aspects of the Court’s opinion, written by Warren in an intentionally concise and nontechnical style so that laymen could understand it, was the assertion that public school segregation was psychologically damaging to African-American children. This was significant, because Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision which established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” asserted the opposite–that segregation has no adverse effects on children whatsoever.

Horace English, a psychology professor at Ohio State, and Louisa Holt, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, both testified to the Court concerning the adverse effects of segregation on African-American children.

But the work of Kenneth Clark (the first African American to receive a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University) and his wife Mamie was also instrumental in the Court’s ruling.In 1939, the Clarks conducted an experiment now known as the Clark Doll Experiment, which tested childrens’ perceptions of racial differences using little white and black baby dolls.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS will be placing the dolls used in the Clark’s study on display to mark the anniversary of the great decision. Here is a portion of the report provided by the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the years before the May, 17, 1954, ruling, husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented children with a black doll and a white doll as part of a series of social science experiments. The black couple then asked the children which doll was the nicest, smartest and prettiest. The Clarks said the system of racial segregation at the time was the reason most chose the white doll. . .

The doll research influenced the court, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing that separating children “solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”