The adoption of the health care reform bill is one of the great achievements of recent American history. Until now, the United States had been the only industrialized nation not to have a system of universal health for its citizens.
The efforts to block this reform were almost unparalleled in our history, but reason and common sense won out in the end. The foes charged that it cost too much – a charge they never raised about any of America’s wars. They utilized the abortion issue to try to torpedo the measure, as if very many of these people really cared about the lives of the newborn babies whose mothers had had no prenatal care or that many of them would soon die because of no adequate post-natal care.
Once the bill had passed, the anti-reform minority immediately launched an all-out assault on the action and tried to undo it. This is the most disturbing chapter of the whole struggle for reform because it resulted in an outpouring of maliciousness that we have not seen in a long time. It revealed how thin the veneer of civility is in our nation and how fragile our democracy really is.
We saw the Tea Party crowd shouting racial epithets at African-American congressmen. We heard the hate-filled voice mail messages received by pro-reform legislators. We saw the wanton destruction at congressional offices.
This behavior was excused as “isolated incidents.” Baloney! Think of Sarah Palin’s map of targeted Congress people – with gun sights indicating those who needed to be done in.
What is happening in the country we so love?
Those readers with a sense of historical perspective will recognize this behavior as analogous to that during the civil rights movement. How is this hate and violence all that different from the 1960s?
Several attorneys general and governors have said they will challenge the health reform bill. Isn’t this just like those governors who challenged school integration and civil rights legislation?
Remember Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who forced President Eisenhower to send federal troops to uphold the law in Little Rock? Or Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who stood in the “schoolroom door” to prevent integration of his state’s public university?
What were Baptists doing then? Many of them denounced civil rights activists as “communists” and started Christian schools that were nothing more than “segregation academies” to get around the law.
Today, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican and Southern Baptist, has announced that he intends to challenge the federal health care legislation.
On the other hand, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, an African-American, Democrat and trustee at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, said he would not file a lawsuit.
So not all Baptists have succumbed to the poisonous spirit of the times.
I have heard Southern Baptists say repeatedly that they repented of their resistance to civil rights reforms. But the old ideas lay just beneath the surface. The racism is still there – in the Tea Parties, the bitter rhetoric and opposition to all of what President Obama says or does.
Ironically, this harks back to yet another time in our history – the Nullification Crisis of 1832. South Carolina asserted that it had the right to “nullify” federal laws, that is, measures of which the state disapproved (in this case it was an unpopular tariff). It could declare a federal measure unconstitutional – null and void – within the confines of the state.
The U.S. Congress responded by passing a “Force Act” that authorized President Andrew Jackson to use federal troops if necessary. At the same time, Congress modified the tariff measure, making it more palatable to South Carolinians. The crisis then blew over, but it was a step along the road to secession and the Civil War that would occur three decades later.
Are the angry Republican governors attempting to resurrect the nullification precedent in order to block health care reform? Will they experiment with secession?
It amazes me that Baptists have so little comprehension of their nation’s history. The argument that “we need to take our country back” was exactly the one used after the end of Reconstruction to deprive the newly freed blacks of any role in public life and to wipe out the idea of one man, one vote. It was the same sort of rhetoric we heard in the 1960s as Southern whites attempted to hang on to Jim Crow rule.
Now we are hearing this again with the health care debate.
“Washington has lost touch with America.” Tell that to my Blue Dog Democratic congressman, who totally ignored my letters and e-mails imploring him to support the health care bill and voted with the Republicans against it.
Actually, much of America wants reform, and the shrill voices of the Tea Partiers, Fox News and the Southern Baptist spokespeople are drowning out their pleas for change.
It is high time that Baptists join the ranks of “social justice Christians” and be true to the Scriptures they hold so dear.
Right-wing extremists have done much to discredit my faith, and I am outraged that this goes on largely unchallenged. We need Christians of all stripes to stand up and say: “Enough is enough. In our nation we have the rule of law, not of a totalitarian minority. And there is no place for racism in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.