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Four Key Differences Between the Classic Civil Rights Movement and the New Left’s Campaign Against “Discrimination”

A note from Al:

The homosexual rights movement might produce the most significant shift in America’s social morality without the involvement of America’s churches. Yes, some of the mainline Protestant groups have applauded the change, but they did not spur the change as they did during the civil rights movement.

 In our nation’s history, social morality has always been grounded in and nurtured by America’s churches and synagogues. Abolitionism, prohibition, outlawing of abortion and today’s pro-life resistance to Roe, the vote for women, eventual respect for conscientious objectors in wartime, the social gospel and care for the urban poor, activism to educate the poor began with the Sunday School movement, the crusade against atheistic communism and more— all depended upon the moral authority and activism of Christian leaders.

 Black Baptist churches provided much of the leadership for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. White, theologically liberal, mainline Protestant churches were soon deep in the movement. Theologically conservative or evangelical Protestant churches were much slower to respond. The leading evangelical Protestant of the last century, Billy Graham, did refuse to preach to segregated audiences fairly early on in his crusades. This took some courage. He also shared the platform with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at least once. But even Graham did not champion the civil rights movement. Grant Wacker’s new study America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation spends a good deal of time on Graham’s attitudes towards the civil rights movement.

 What about Catholics in those civil rights years? In 1958, five years before the famous March on Washington and seven years before the Voting Rights Act, the American Catholic bishops condemned segregation as an intolerable moral wrong. For the bishops, “the heart of the race question is moral and religious.” By creation, humanity was but one human race. We are all children of Adam and Eve. By redemption, Christ died for all.

 Anselm College’s Andrew Moore specializes in Alabama and Georgia Catholics after World War II. In the Encyclopedia of Alabama, he writes that “most of Alabama’s white Catholics shared white southerners’ racism and initially opposed the goals of the movement. They preferred order and stability instead of activism for integration and racial justice. Catholic teaching clearly opposed racial discrimination, however, and after the mid-1960s there was little official sympathy for segregation. For most of the civil rights movement, the Catholic Church in Alabama remained on the margins of the debates over integration and focused on internal Church affairs. It took the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights to draw the Church from the margins into the mainstream of the movement.”

 After the Civil War, Catholic churches were not radical activists opposing Jim Crow laws. However, Catholic church activities were not strictly segregated. Catholic parishes often ignored laws and ordinances that demanded separate facilities. At times, blacks and whites attended the same parish even though they often sat apart and blacks received communion after whites. Diocesan-wide events like the annual Christ the King parade and open-air masses held in Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery included prominent members of black parishes and lay organizations. According to Moore, “Diocesan-wide organizations were open to both white and black laypeople as well.”  Be glad. Catholicism is spiritually and institutionally committed to St. Paul’s doctrine that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Catholics were far from the racial attitudes of today by they often outshined our southern evangelical and fundamentalist brethren. Typical southern attitudes on race obscured our light but, on many an occasions, we did rise above the social conventions of the times.

 In this piece, Carson Holloway notes four key differences between the civil rights movement led by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and today’s gay rights agenda promoted largely through secular progressive activists and news and entertainment media.

 In short, the presence of Christian conscience and behavior marks the difference between the two movements.  For me, the most important difference concerns the moral dimension of each issue. Skin pigmentation is morally neutral and has no link to social behavior. Opposition to black skin has no rational basis. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is fraught with moral concerns and is usually linked to sexual behavior.

 Opposition to homosexual acts, unlike opposition to black skin, have a rational basis.  The courts often say no. But the complementarity of the male and female body, the universal tradition of human societies, ancient and modern, and the centrality of children in the definition of marriage all provide a rational basis for opposition. That American courts have placed the gay rights agenda on a moral par with the civil rights movement represents a weakening of the American conscience and bankrupting of our legal thinking.

Al Kresta

Demonstrators gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill in Indianapolis

by Carson Holloway via

In the ugly controversy over Indiana’s RFRA law, we have once again heard some proponents of gay rights present their movement as an heir to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s–and also poisonously comparing their political opponents to the racists and segregationists of that time.  The comparison is inapt, for the following four reasons.

First, there is the obvious difference in the tactics used by the defenders of the old order.  Blacks and their white supporters who demonstrated against segregation were often beaten, hosed down, and attacked by police dogs.  None of this has been done to the contemporary proponents of further expanded anti-discrimination laws.


Second, there is the obvious difference in the tactics used by the proponents of the proposed new order.  Those involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s were, as is well known, scrupulously non-violent.  In addition to that, however, they were also careful not to hurl hatred or anger of any kind at those on the other side.  They probably did this in part because they were sincere Christians who earnestly wanted to follow Jesus in loving their enemies.  This was the explicit teaching of Reverend King, and since the civil rights movement he led was overwhelmingly Christian, his followers listened to him.  Recall that his organization was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  In contrast, the proponents of the new, expanded order of non-discrimination have promiscuously hurled anger and hatred at their opponents.  The examples are too depressing to cite and too numerous to require citation.

Third, there is an obvious difference in the political lay of the land.  We can see this by thinking further about why the old civil rights movement was so polite and loving, and why the people who today claim to be their successors are not.  The followers of Reverend King were sincere Christians and so committed to loving engagement with their opponents, as I have said.  But there was probably also an element of political prudence in their conduct.  They knew they were part of a small and unpopular minority in the country, and so they knew they could only harm their cause by resorting to abusive language.  In contrast, today’s left readily resorts to hateful and abusive rhetoric because it knows that it can get away with it because conservative Christians are in fact today’s unpopular minority.

These are all important differences, but they mainly have to do with tactics and the political environment.  What about substance?  There is in fact an important substantive difference that should be noted.

Fourth, the kinds of discrimination about which the left is now complaining are not at all analogous to what was practiced in the 1950s and 1960s.  I mean that the motivation is clearly not the same.  The motivation in the past was raw racial animus.  The motivation here is clearly religious or moral conscience.  I would ask those insisting on the analogy to scour the records of racially segregationist America and see if they can find an example of a racist business owner who said: “I would be happy to serve blacks in my restaurant.  I just don’t want to have to cater at their weddings.”  I, personally, have never heard of such a thing and I doubt we will find any evidence that anybody maintained that view.  Why?  Because the segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s were animated by racial animus.  They wanted to keep blacks away from them and in an inferior position, period.

This is clearly not what conservative Christians are attempting who do not want to be conscripted by law into serving at gay wedding ceremonies.  They make a distinction the old time racists would never make.  They say explicitly that they have no objection to serving gay customers, but they just don’t want to be asked to show up at a gay wedding.  And why not?  Because it is a ceremony celebrating something they don’t believe in.

Even if the left disagrees with conservative Christians on this, they shouldn’t compare it to the racism of the past.



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