Through the strange logic of serendipity, events led President Obama to make two remarkable addresses yesterday. First, he spoke about the Supreme Court ruling that has legalized gay marriage in all states. Then he flew to South Carolina and eulogized pastor Clementa Pinckney, gunned down by a deranged neo-confederatist in a historic black church. The two events illustrate a change that has been underway since Obama himself was elected, one that has deeply unsettled a certain group of white and Christian Americans.
We all like to see our world reflected back to us. For four centuries, that world has been one ordered around the place of privilege of white Christian men. In the past few decades, that place of privilege has been challenged--first by women, then by non-whites, and now by non-Christians. At each point along the way, these interlopers reflected a different world back to those whites and Christians and men--and it was a world that not only challenged their place of privilege, but made pointed moral judgments along the way.
The confederate flag's reputation has already dimmed, but that doesn't mean the confederacy isn't still honored by millions. Neocon pundit Bill Kristol, most famous for his advocacy of the Iraq war, spent a good portion of his week defending it with comments like this: "The Left's 21st century agenda: expunging every trace of respect,
recognition or acknowledgment of Americans who fought for the
Confederacy." This is that world whites created for themselves and which, for ten decades following the civil war, they could see reflected back to them. The Confederacy--whose leaders were by definition traitors--was a courageous group of brothers and fathers. Defenders have always focused on the war and its sufferings, not the reason there was a war in the first place.
It was impossible to reconcile that world with the world of blacks, to whom so much legal, economic, and actual violence was done in the name of that flag and all that followed it. When the gunman killed nine black people in the name of the confederate flag, we saw a nationwide wave of revulsion--a rejection of the "courageous fathers and sons" narrative white southerners have always reflected back to themselves to conceal terrible moral crimes. Over the past ten days, confederate defenders have been forced to look at that history through the eyes of those their ancestors shackled, raped, and killed--and it's no wonder they wanted to look away.
With the ruling on gay marriage Christians reacted like wounded victims. Mike Huckabee, a former southern governor and ordained minister, put it this way, "If accepted by Congress and this President, this decision will be a
serious blow to religious liberty, which is the heart of the First
Amendment." In much the same way, those who have defended the right to marginalize non-straights legally and culturally were confronted with a world in which their view had become marginalized. And again, they didn't handle it with grace and understanding.
Society is always about power. It is structured to the benefit of those who have it and justified through self-serving myths that clothe the power in moral righteousness. What we are seeing in the US in the Obama era is a reordering of the power away from white, Christian America. Part of that white, Christian American myth has been the "bootstraps myth"--that those who are willing to work hard will be successful, that those who are successful are hard-working, good folk. That pretty story--that one's own place in society is not only earned, but a reflection of moral goodness--is a profound part of identity. To have it challenged by a different story, one that points out the legal privileges that allowed you to achieve that success, is undoubtedly painful. That's why white, Christian social conservatives have had such a difficult time with the Obama era. They are not only losing their favored positions in society, but are being forced to confront a narrative that accuses them of moral crimes. Each one of these events is a rebuke to who they are as people.
It's important to note that there is no class of Americans who bear special responsibility for those moral crimes. As Americans, we all bear the responsibility for our history. Whether or not we opposed slavery or redlining or the Iraq war, they are our nation's heritage. To point out their immorality is to acknowledge our failure as a society. President Obama often talks about working toward a more perfect union. That means accepting that the old union was imperfect.
The American myth is being rewritten. It no longer revolves around the moral righteousness of white Christians. When we talk about the "two Americas," what we're really identifying is this clash of worldviews. The past decade has been a rough one for those who are trying to preserve the old one.