As a young boy, I went to the public swimming pool every day during the summer. On Wednesdays, black people were allowed to swim with everyone else. After two hours, the lifeguard blew his whistle when it was time for the blacks to leave. Most white people applauded when that whistle blew. In what Southern state did this happen? Iowa.
But after a few summers something changed. Black people began to swim alongside the white people everyday of the week. The lifeguard didn't blow his whistle anymore. In a small but important way, the character of that young boy changed. It seemed to him that black people should have been allowed to swim in the pool all along.
A movement was sweeping the land that touched that small town in lowa. It was driven by this self-evident truth: all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. America was coming to terms with a sorrowful chapter in its history.
Is America guided by a covenant or a contract? Do we share a vision, a common understanding of what it means to be American? Or are we a nation of dissimilar peoples brought together by historical circumstance governed only by law, with no shared morality or values, and no common vision?
These questions are being asked by the fellows of the Policy Forum of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs because of the contention and strife so prevalent in our civil discourse today. Are we a nation headed toward increasing social division, or will the institutions hold? Where do we look for answers?
Our history, particularly the civil rights movement, can give us some direction.
The civil rights movement took the bold and largely unprecedented step of challenging not only the prevailing law, but the prevailing attitude of American society. It sought to change the habits of two centuries as ingrained as few others. In large part, although not perfectly and not without conflict, Americans responded well. Their conscience was awakened and many Americans did what was right.
The success of the movement shaped social discourse, particularly Democratic Party politics, for years afterward. No wonder. The guiding principle -- that all men are created equal - is as compelling today as it was then. The appeal rings with moral authority and certainty, and it ennobled all people - black and white alike -- who embraced it.
For some, morality is like religion - it should not be discussed in public life. But our reluctance to engage morality in the public square inevitably leads to a political vision that is short-sighted, that diminishes the vitality of our social institutions.
Take the Democratic Party, for example. One reason for the Democrats' stumbling in recent years is they forgot that their vision of civil rights was shaped not by politics, but by morality. The vision was derived from self-evident truths already held.
The movement did not create those truths, although it was driven by them. The party did not create those truths, although it wrote them into law. Those truths arose from a moral sense that lay deeper than the movement or legislation itself. It lay even deeper than the Constitution from which the movement marshalled its arguments.
Democratic misreading left the party vulnerable to a radical liberalism that applied the moral principle of the civil rights movement to other issues of a moral character in ways the movement never did. Abortion is the most evident but there are others such as homosexuality and euthanasia, for example.
Radical liberalism applies the language of civil rights to equality of conduct, not to equality of person. Within this framework, abortion becomes reproductive rights, homosexual activism becomes gay rights, euthanasia becomes the right to die. What was once immoral becomes moral, and the framework that gave us civil rights grows increasingly dim.
Radical liberalism understands the civil rights movement as a triumph of government activism, and not the moral awakening that it was. It does not understand that conscience of those whom they once awakened, they now offend.
Republicans have generally been uncomfortable with the civil rights movement even though they supported it (a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats). The idea of government activism for social change goes against the Republican grain. Yet Republican support shows how compelling the moral vision of the civil rights movement actually was.
The success of the movement shows there is a covenant in American society, one that is bound and shaped by morality. Lose the morality and you lose the covenant. Awaken our moral sense and the covenant is inevitably strengthened.
Fr. Johannes Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Diocese of American. This article was originally published in the "St. Paul Pioneer Press" on November 12, 1995. Copyright © 2002 Rev Johannes L. Jacobse