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Black Power, White Fear

I first saw them when I was thirteen or fourteen. They were frightening, that group of well-groomed, serious young black men in pressed suits standing on the corner of Greenmount and North Avenues in Baltimore. Nation of Islam. Even a sheltered kid from the suburbs like me knew who they were. After getting off the bus, I hurried past to the actors’ workshop that had brought me downtown that Saturday morning.

Sherman Jackson’s ambitious and engaging book, Islam and the Blackamerican , has helped me understand my emotions of distress in this encounter and others like it. A Muslim himself shaped by the Black Muslim experience, Jackson explains that Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for almost forty years, was a classic figure in black religious life, a charismatic and improvisational leader able to satisfy the Blackamerican desire “to annihilate or at least subvert white supremacy and anti-black racism.” (Jackson has an excellent explanation for why he insists on this compressed term rather than “Negro,” “Black,” or “African-American.” It deserves to be widely discussed.)

Jackson argues that Blackamerican culture has been organized around the need for protest against the defining social reality of discrimination. The depth of this discrimination gave rise to “a cosmic ‘No,’” as he puts it. This fundamental disposition of negation was necessary for cultural (and in many instances physical) survival, but it can block ways forward. On the one hand, the path to dignified existence in America for Blackamericans requires “middle class and genteel values.” But the need for protest and the imperative of not “selling out” stand in the way. There is a “corporate reflex that proscribes” many important values for success, “from academic performance to the use of standard English, from certain forms of sartorial neatness to ‘making it’ in the white man’s world.”

There is no evidence that Elijah Muhammad had more than cursory knowledge of Islamic sources. But he instinctively sensed the potential resident in Islam. In the fraught cultural space shared by whites and blacks in the decades before the Middle East became an American preoccupation (yes, there really was such a time), Islam was unclaimed, untainted, uncontested. On its blank slate, he wrote a script for Blackamericans to appropriate bourgeois virtues, opening up “alternative modalities of American blackness” that “were at once functionally pragmatic and virulently antiassimilationist.”

“A Black Muslim wearing a suit and bow-tie and speaking ‘Ivy League’ English simply did not connote the same meanings that were associated with a black Christian doing the same.” This fusion of protest and appropriation was the genius of Elijah Muhammad and other Blackamerican Islamic leaders. “In the name and spirit of protest they were able to construct a Blackamerican ‘Muslim’ persona that fully embraced middle-class and genteel American norms and values!” (emphasis Jackson’s). The Nation of Islam said a clear and forceful “no” to white America, and in that sense was true to Blackamerican culture. Yet the un-Americanness and un-whiteness of Islam let Elijah Muhammad’s movement take possession of the key elements of white success and power as its own without in any way diminishing the existential power of the “no.”

Jackson’s analysis rings true. I came of age in the decade after the decisive triumphs of the civil rights movement. For the most part, I encountered two types of Blackamerican males my age.

The dominant type was my antithesis. He actively rejected my upper-middle-class world, insisting on his identity outside the boundaries of white respectability, even against it. This type was already becoming the darling of white culture: the black male as criminal, sexual champion, and devil-may-care personality. He was the trickster and transgressor who gave Norman Mailer spontaneous orgasms and satisfied, and still satisfies, the psychic needs of white America for release and freedom. This type, now widely marketed in the media, allows whites to participate, if only for a moment, in the Blackamerican “no” to white respectability.

The second type was less common. His parents went to church and pressured him to succeed, just as my parents pressured me. But he was black, which meant in a symbolic sense a protégé of my world, the subject of a great deal of solicitude and encouragement. It was the seventies, and white America wanted to empower him. As a result, even if I wasn’t thinking about it in this way (and I wasn’t when I was a teenager), I was vaguely and comfortably aware of myself as above, reaching down. This retained racial hierarchy was and remains an inevitable cultural consequence of affirmative action.

The Blackamerican transgressor was dangerous. He was the mugger of the white man’s imagination—and sometimes one in reality. The Blackamerican protégé was a welcome companion, a younger brother of sorts, a tenderfoot in the troop, a welcome aspirant to the fraternity. Neither challenged me, at least not in a deep, existential way.

Not so the Black Muslims I now and then saw at a distance when I was growing up. I remember them as symbols of male self-possession and potency. In my racial imagination, they could meet me face to face, but not on my own terms. They represented something that I never otherwise encountered as an adolescent: a cultural way of being American that was close enough to engage me, compete with me, put demands on me, but independent enough to resist me, and even ignore or mock me. I never felt so white, so contingent and vulnerable, as when I encountered Black Muslims.

Vive La France

More than 300,000 protesters marched in Paris on January 13, chanting “un père, une mère, c’est élémentaire.” The leaders of the movement resisting same-sex marriage and adoption in France are Frigide Barjot, a provocateur and self-described “nutty Catholic”; Xavier Bongibault, a young gay atheist who is at war with what he describes as the homophobia of the LGBT establishment; and Laurence Tcheng, a leftist outraged by the antidemocratic tactics of the Hollande government as it presses forward to redefine French laws of marriage and family.

Robert Oscar Lopez recently wrote a helpful account of the French movement on the indispensable website Public Discourse. (He also maintains a helpful blog with information about the movement at “History must note that France was the first country to reject the facile charge of ‘homophobe’ as a way of silencing people’s doubts. Nobody in the U.S. has been able to break the stranglehold of threats, character assassination, and emotional blackmail that has allowed LGBT activists to call those who doubt their proposals bigots (and get them fired, incidentally).”

Lopez should know. His courageous account of being raised by a lesbian couple (“Growing Up With Two Moms,” also at Public Discourse) brought him a great deal of grief. A gay rights organization emailed his colleagues at Cal State Northridge, denouncing him as a gay basher. Administrators mobilized to investigate. His crime? He had questioned LGBT orthodoxies.

There are two observations to make about the protests in France. First, American intellectuals pride themselves for being brave free-thinkers, but for the most part they’re conformist. French intellectuals have a long tradition of loyalty to conscience. It’s sometimes ill informed, smug, and misguided, but it’s nonetheless real, and it allows the colorful leaders of the French protest movement to step out of the conventional roles assigned to “progressives.” Sometimes the side you’re on is wrong, and you need to have the moral courage to say so.

The second concerns Christianity. Lopez writes, “It is time for Americans to follow France’s lead. Frigide Barjot, Laurence Tcheng, and Xavier Bongibault have presented us with a game changer. They have given us the necessary rhetoric and republican logic to present a strong case against redefining marriage.” It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think the rainbow coalition marching in Paris against gay marriage is possible here.

In France, the Catholic Church lost a great deal of its power over culture and politics more than a century ago, and other religious groups are either small or, in the case of Muslims, marginal. The progressives in the streets are not looking over their shoulders, worrying about empowering the old forces of traditional morality. They can ally themselves with religious leaders such as the Catholic bishops and Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, whose contribution to the cause of marriage we’re honored to publish in this issue.

In America, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Mormonism remain very potent cultural forces with political consequences. We’re contending for the future of American culture, and the other side sees us as a sturdy, dangerous adversary. As I wrote in the last issue, the two self-confident family cultures in America are the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives, in many ways evenly matched and at odds with each other. There’s a deep and consequential cultural divide in America, and both sides are fighting for control over important aspects of public life: marriage, of course, but also abortion, euthanasia, school curricula, religious freedom, and more.

There are some exceptions. I disagree with Jonathan Rauch about sexual morality, but I admire his willingness to say in public that he’s in favor of marriage, full stop, not just gay marriage. But, in the main, LGBT activists don’t think they can afford even a temporary or partial alliance for fear that it will weaken their main strategy, which is to marginalize as bigots all who oppose them. And in pursuit of that goal they won’t tolerate any dissent, as Robert Lopez can attest.

Civility in Public Life

I’m skeptical about calls for civility in politics. Those who wring their hands over the “incivility” and “extremism” on the right give a pass to gay activists who denounce as bigots those who oppose them. Shrill, uncivil, “hateful”? That’s how they describe those unfortunate, misguided, and benighted people who don’t think the way liberals think, and don’t have the decency to keep quiet. The president himself has a bad habit of shifting from challenging the substance of Republican policies to implying that Republicans have evil motives.

As is always the case, the establishment has a monopoly on “mainstream” and “normal.” Postpartisan “objectivity” is not civility; it’s an academic, critical superiority that stands at a distance from the real work of democratic politics. That’s why it’s hard to get leverage if you’re outside the magic circle of right-thinking, left-leaning people. You often need to shout to be heard. Loudly. As Flannery O’Connor said, when facing a hostile consensus “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

But there are limits. In the Ten Commandments, God gives special attention to the disciplines of the tongue. The second commandment prohibits misuse of the divine name; the eighth, false witness. It’s this special focus on speech that characterizes the teaching we find in the Epistle of James. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” So it is with our tongues. Civility in politics is no small thing.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule carries us a long way toward civility. We like others to assume that our political views reflect our best judgments about the common good. We should accord the same presumption of goodwill to those we oppose in the public square. This presumption isn’t a pious fantasy. Some politicians and pundits are cynical and small-minded, but most are motivated by a vision—misguided, perhaps, but well-intentioned—of what’s best for the country.

The Golden Rule in no way precludes strong criticism. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But it does rule out grand dismissals. I voted against Obama because I think his governing agenda harms the common good and thus in a certain sense will “destroy America.” But it’s uncivil to say that’s his goal or purpose or desire. For the same reason, it’s uncivil to say that Republicans want to “reward the rich” or that opposing gay marriage is based on an irrational homophobia and bigotry.

Jesus says, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Partisan debate is not the time to focus on the second half of that paradoxical exhortation. Politics is a contact sport. We should avoid cheap shots, but there’s plenty of room for punishing blocks and bone-crushing tackles, which in politics means a calculated rhetorical focus and, at times, fitting exaggeration. For example, it’s not an offense against civility to put the complex policies of our opponents into pithy slogans. Calling Obamacare a government takeover of the medical industry isn’t perfectly accurate, but the hyperbole brings forward an important difference between Democrats and Republicans.

There are, however, limits. St. Paul warns us not to do evil that good might come, and that rules out deliberate falsehoods and misrepresentations, slander and calumny. As we face a crisis of funding for entitlement programs, it’s only too common for pundits to say that Republican leaders want to “destroy Social Security.” Politics is a contact sport, but “destroy” is a long way from “reform,” or even “reduce” or “privatize.” That seems like a misrepresentation to me, though perhaps I’m employing a double standard. I’m more confident about the supposed “war on women.” That slogan clearly and deliberately misrepresents concerns about the ways in which the HHS contraceptive mandate impinges on religious liberty.

We—even those of us who have bound ourselves to “You shall not bear false witness”—are often tempted to neglect St. Paul’s warning. Every election can seem tremendously important and decisive. The future of America is at stake! What’s a little prevarication, distortion, and verbal deception when compared with the supreme necessity of preventing the election of the candidates we oppose? Many liberals felt this way about George W. Bush. Many conservatives feel the same about Barack Obama.

The best way to guard against this temptation and other temptations is to keep in mind the words of Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world.” In political struggles, we’re easily overcome by a sense of almost cosmic urgency, along with a self-important conviction that we’ve got the answers. Reminding ourselves that Jesus is Lord tempers this urgency and vanity. He has secured for us a future much greater than what we can make for ourselves in our important but not ultimate efforts as voters, partisans, and leaders.

First Things and Politics

A few friends are frustrated that First Things is a conservative journal, often speaking of the views “we” hold. Isn’t faith greater? Doesn’t faith transcend partisan differences? Isn’t American conservatism in many ways at odds with a Christian or Catholic (or Jewish or Muslim) view? Shouldn’t the magazine avoid taking sides, letting its religious and moral witness speak for itself?

Yes and no. Yes, of course people of faith—and for that matter of moral seriousness and goodwill—can come to different conclusions about public policy. And of course the first thing of all first things is our obedience to God, which has a profound interior and ritual reality that is corrupted if we equate or reduce it to politics. But as I read the signs of the times, modern progressivism has become profoundly antagonistic to moral and religious authority. Whether we like it or not, men and women of faith in America are on the political right now, at least when it comes to social issues.

As Midge Decter once said, “There comes a time to join the side you’re on.” Quite right. Our faith may not be political, but it has political implications. We’re citizens with a duty to promote the common good as best we can. Today, many on the left—enough to control the Democratic party—oppose fundamental aspects of the common good as we understand it: denying the sanctity of life, undermining marriage, and limiting the role of religion in public life. Some—I think of Christian liberals, Franciscans, followers of Dorothy Day, students of Ron Sider, and many other religious people who emphasize solidarity—are being forced to join the side they don’t want to be on. This is the age in which we live.

It’s my view that we can’t simply join. American conservatism is itself divided, and some of the libertarian factions are very uncongenial. In joining, we need to be about the business of reforming. We need to leaven the American right. At present, it’s too individualistic, too antigovernment, too confident in the omnibenevolent powers of the marketplace. We can make these commitments more pragmatic and more humane—more in accord with the purpose of politics, which is to order our common life together as well as we can in a fallen world.

After Children

Since 1976, the cohort of women without children at the age of forty has doubled to 20 percent in America. Thirty percent of German women now say they do not plan to have children. Forty-eight percent of middle-aged German men say that you can have a happy life without children. Sociologists predict that within about fifteen years almost a third of Japanese males will be unmarried at age fifty, and within twenty years a quarter of all East Asian women fifty years old will be single and a third childless. Birth rates are below replacement in much of the West, and even lower in some East Asian countries.

These statistics and a great deal more are presented in The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future? Prepared by Joel Kotkin and others, the report, which reviews recent demographic literature, is sobering. “Today, in the high-income world and even in some developing countries, we are witnessing a shift to a new social model. Increasingly, family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of society.”

It’s hard to know why we’re heading in this direction. Demographic and social change rarely has a single explanation. However, Kotkin and his team of researchers speculate about a number of possible reasons.

Wealth seems to work against children. Rich countries like America, Germany, and France have relatively low birth rates, and the birth rates of Greece, Spain, Italy, and Japan are catastrophically low. But the places experiencing rapid economic transformation, what we might call single-generation modernization, are those seeing dramatic decreases. Kotkin reports that Singapore, one of the economic miracles of the last half-century, had a total fertility rate of 1.15 births per female in 2010, down from 1.8 in 1990 and 3.2 as recently as 1970. Marriage rates there have also fallen. (Something of the same rapid modernization may be a factor in Greece and Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy. These countries were on the periphery of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, developing modern economies only fairly recently.)

The decisive factor may be the pressure that economic development places on traditional patterns of life. As labor becomes more valuable in an industrial and postindustrial society, the needs of children and the costs of child rearing can seem too great. Moreover, a consumer society surrounds us with goodies, and we’ve got to give some up in order to devote time and resources to raising kids. Thus a paradox of modernity: Economic development brings dramatic decreases in infant and childhood mortality and in that sense is child-friendly, but the same development turns them into expensive luxury goods that many don’t think they can afford.

The cost of children is exacerbated in densely populated cities where housing is very expensive. Demographers report that fertility rates decline as population density increases. (The same holds for marriage rates.) Cities, especially densely populated cities, have the highest percentages of women who have never had children.

A decline in religious observance is another factor. Religiosity and fertility are strongly correlated. Nearly all religious traditions organize and discipline male–female relations, putting an emphasis on family formation and procreation. Kotkin and his fellow researchers also point to the empowerment of women, which is often related to the broad cultural changes that include a decline in religiosity.

To a striking degree, many societies no longer presume that women should play the roles of wife, mother, and center of domestic life. This may well be the most important change of the past century. It’s not limited to the West. Economic development across the globe creates demand for labor that draws women into the workplace. Moreover, although the report doesn’t say so—it would be impolitic—breaking down traditional limitations facing women in education, employment, sexual freedom, and more has been a major ideological goal for international organizations. That’s not because of some sort of politically correct conspiracy. It’s because the liberal modernity they represent has a strongly individualistic bias. In this context, human rights, however noble in concept and necessary in fact, will have an anti-family bias.

What happens when large and influential portions of society opt out of the forward flow of the generations? Kotkin points to the economic problems facing societies with many elderly retirees and fewer young workers. Japan is a prime example. More arresting are his cultural speculations: “A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future-oriented requirements of children.” Debt crisis? Not mine, thank you. “We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared toward consuming and recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.”

Adam begat Seth, and Seth begat Enos, and Enos begat Cainan, and on, and on, and on. The genealogies of the Bible evoke the forward thrust of time, and the procreative fruitfulness of the male–female union serves as a natural sign of the supernatural promise of eternal life. Abraham is promised countless descendants. The Gospel of Matthew, the beginning of the New Testament, begins with the cascading flow of generations from Abraham to Jesus. In all cultures, children are seen in one way or another as bulwarks against the consuming abyss of death. In them we have a future.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis .