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As a daily devotee of Chris Matthews and his hour of commentary on MSNBC, I was unexpectedly embarrassed and offended yesterday (Aug. 5) when Chris and his panelists, Gene Robinson and Michael Steele, began chortling gleefully over the purported despair of white Americans due to their impending relegation to minority status within the American population.
A bias toward one's own race is, I believe, endemic to members of every race. There are plenty of liberal Americans with deep Anglo-Saxon roots who have managed to overcome that bias. They neither rejoice nor despair at the inevitable fluctuation of racial majorities and minorities in our nation. The Republican notion that migration from poorer countries to a relatively prosperous country such as ours can be stemmed by any method short of genocide is simply a fantasy promulgated by charlatans. Had the indigenous tribes of North America (I myself am one-sixteenth Muckleshoot!) possessed the necessary malevolence and weaponry, members of the pink race would never have made it past Plymouth beach. Had Cortez not possesssed muskets and the morals of a conquistador there would be no Latin America.
The missing factor in the debate over immigration, missing because it has become an entirely taboo subject in American political life, is religion. Unless and until that is taken into account, racial harmony will keep eluding us and every new minority's thirst for retribution will keep dismantling our quest for a functional democracy. Publicly our leaders insist that religion is a purely private matter which no longer matters, whereas it matters more than it ever has in the history of the republic.
Let me state what I believe are pertinent historical facts.
North America was mainly colonized by northern Europeans; South America was mainly colonized by southern Europeans. The original settlers of the north were, with the exception of Quebec, Maryland and Louisiana, Protestant. The colonizers of the south (as far north as Central America and Mexico) were, without exception, Roman Catholic. Until the last century these religious traditions went unchallenged in their respective lands, with profound political, economic and social consequences. The north became heavily industrialized, prosperous and politically stable with a well-educated citizenry. None of these attributes characterized the southern nations, and the contrast guaranteed that the north would become a perpetual magnet for Latin Americans seeking to escape poverty and misrule.
This pattern is essentially parallel to what occurred in northern and southern Europe. The Protestant countries of the north gave birth to the Reformation, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the transition from monarchy to democracy (i.e. Cromwell). From the lands which remained loyal to the papacy came the Counter-Reformation, resistance to democratic government, and two major dictatorships (i.e. Napoleon and Hitler). Again, the migration patterns were similar: from agrarian Roman Catholic nations to industrialized Protestant ones.
Our Puritan heritage of hard work, candor and individual responsibility (along with a generous helping of intolerance) was certainly indispensable to our rise as the world's most powerful nation, but that Puritan heritage began fading long ago. After the Civil War, in which Protestants annihilated Protestants over the unresolved evil of slavery, we ceased to be a religiously compatible people. Immigration switched to southern Europe and other parts of the globe. Nativist religions sprang up every decade or so. A new Christian fundamentalism, erroneoously named Evangelicalism, began to supersede mainstream Protestantism. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, once a rather snobbish bastion of the nation's educated elite, abandoned its Protestant heritage and ceased exerting a significant influence on our society.
America is indeed in a crisis, a people at war with itself, where creeping inequality has brought our government to a virtual standstill. The issue of race, however, is only a stand-in for what ails us. As Protestantism becomes a negligible social force, it is being supplanted by a citizenry split between people who are indifferent to all religion and people whose religion is regressive or obsessively authoritarian. The new billionaire plutocracy, which began its ascendancy during the Reagan presidency, belongs in the "indifferent to religion" category. Its religious allies are the mean-spirited "Evangelicals," who subscribe to the inerrancy of the Bible at the same time that they trample on its core message of compassion. A prime example of the rigidly authoritarian would be the Roman Catholic majority of justices on our Supreme Court, whose decisions are doing more to undermine our liberties than do the Republican anarchists who control the House of Representatives.
I greatly admire Chris Matthews, a bold spokesman for just causes (though I do wish he would quit talking over his guests). He frequently makes reference to his Roman Catholic faith, and I understand the resentment that Irish Catholics in particular feel toward their Protestant British oppressors in the old country and the discrimination which greeted them for generations after they emigrated to the United States. They are right to celebrate their rise to power. I would only remind them that they came to a land that gave them opportunities denied them in the one they left, and that its Protestant heritage had a great deal to do with the rights they now enjoy. Equally do I admire Messrs. Robinson and Steele. The slavery of their ancestors in a "Christian" country is as dark a stain on America's past as the Jewish holocaust is on "Christian" Germany's or the oppression of the Irish is on that of "Christian" Britain. I would ask them not to gloat, not to take revenge, upon the descendants of their oppressors, because vengeance only begets more vengeance. White Americans cannot earn forgiveness for those centuries of subjugation, but until they are forgiven by black Americans none of us is really free.
I cannot presume to divine the future. Protestant America is a thing of the past. If Roman Catholicism becomes a majority religion in this country, as it seems liable to do, I hope that its exposure to what is left of that Protestant heritage will have a substantial effect on the future shape of Catholicism. It seems obvious to me that the present pope shares something akin to that hope. For years I have harbored the suspicion that Jesus was a closet Quaker, which would really upset most of us. Due to the fact that I was born the year before F.D.R. assumed the presidency, I expect to have a definitive answer to the question of his allegiance shortly.
Donald Stewart Miller +