By John Pierce
Writing in the July 9 edition of The Christian Index, J. Robert White lamented the “violation of states’ rights” and God’s law by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision. The executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention yearned for the good old days.
“I found myself longing for the United States of America in which I grew up,” White wrote in his column.
Certainly, most of us have fond memories from our childhood and youth, and reminisce about family and friends from days gone by. But caution and sensitivity are needed in recognizing that the goodness enjoyed by many was not shared by all.
Not everyone wants to return to the America of yesteryear — for good reasons beyond medical advances and car seat warmers.
What White failed to note is that he grew up in heavily segregated Alabama during a time of institutional discrimination and racial strife, when African Americans were denied many of the basic rights enjoyed by white Americans. And women of all races had fewer educational and vocational opportunities.
“I grew up in a great and wholesome America,” White, 69, warmly reflected.
Hmmm. For him, that would have been Montgomery in the late ’50s and ’60s.
In 1960, when he was age 14, a white mob attacked Freedom Riders at a Montgomery bus terminal.
In 1963, when he was 17, a racially motivated Sunday morning bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church took the lives of four innocent little girls in attendance.
“Great” and “wholesome” do not describe the Jim Crow era and civil rights struggles for many who suffered from such violence, inequality and injustice.
But it sure was a nice time — for some Americans. And at least gay and lesbian people couldn’t have their relationships recognized by a secular government.
White also gloried in his public school days of old when pastors prayed at football games and students, regardless of their chosen faith, began each day reciting the (overtly Christian) Lord’s Prayer together.
It’s hard to recall any of those pregame prayers including confessions of the racist culture emboldened by those who bowed their heads and lifted their voices.
From a broader perspective than one’s warm, selective feelings for a bygone era, however, there appear to be greater educational needs today than once again force-feeding sectarian prayer on school students:
For one, teach them more about James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and the good Baptist John Leland, who insisted that church and state remain separate in America so that everyone’s religious liberty is protected.
Two, recount for these students (and for adults who seem to have missed the lessons as they occurred) the sacrificial struggles for racial and gender equality of past decades that older white men may remember as “a great and wholesome America.”
Again, having warm feelings for slower living and cherished family memories is a gift. However, wholesomeness for a preferred group is not the same as freedom and equality for all — even when greatly romanticized.
Going backward to when political power and educational, vocational and other opportunities favored the privileged few doesn’t make America great or wholesome.
The better way is to acknowledge both the good and the evil in our past — and to move ever closer to liberty and justice for all.