Talking with dispirited conservatives these days, there's a tendency to think things have never been worse. One of the men in my Bible study regularly gives in to Jeremiads and thinks we are on the eve of destruction.
I don't want to stop anyone fighting as hard as he can--within law--to prevent such wrong policies as Obamacare, abortion-on-demand, and the abolition of marriage. But we are still free to oppose these deeply wrong policies. And we should.
And I join with all my friends in decrying the current pressures on the church. These, I strongly believe, have never been worse. Liberal journalists at religious liberty conferences often pooh-pooh these charges. They cite such examples as Bible riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s at which dozens were killed. They note that the anti-black Ku Klux Klan was also anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant. And the KKK marched openly through Washington, D.C. in the 1920s.
Well, first, the good news is that there are such conferences being held. And some liberals even feel it necessary to respond to our reports of religious hostility in this home of freedom. Our rejoinder to their dismissive comments about Bible riots in the 1840s and Klan marches in the 1920s is fairly easy to make: None of those examples of religious bigotry was sponsored by the federal government. What we are dealing with today is unprecedented.
But in a large sense, we need to recognize the experiences of our fellow Americans. Millions of our fellow citizens remember the 1960s. This is the week in 1968 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a white racist in Memphis, Tenn. Following Dr. King's murder--and in complete contempt for all that he taught and held sacred--riots erupted in a hundred American cities.
The flames of violence and lawlessness were stoked by radicals in those cities and excused by a liberal press that regularly rationalized the violence. Even the sitting Vice President of the United States, the civil rights hero of my youth, Hubert Humphrey, said that if he had to face the injustices faced by minority citizens, he, too, would lead a riot. That was probably the worst thing Hubert ever said.
What happened in those burned-out cities was a national tragedy. Small business owners--black and white--fled to the suburbs. They left a hollowed-out core in many cities. Unemployment, crime and blight wrecked the hopes of millions in what came to be called "Inner Cities." Detroit had already been scarred--in 1967--by a terrible riot. But more and more American towns began to look like Detroit as a result of the King Assassination riots.
Photographs of the U.S. Capitol taken forty-five years ago this week showed the dome wreathed in smoke. It looked like St. Paul's Cathedral in London under the Nazi blitz of 1940. But the terrible difference was that in this case, the flames were ignited by our own people.
The year 1968 has been aptly called an Annus Horribilis. America was then embroiled in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson was the commander-in-chief. His own record had been one of physical cowardice in the South Pacific in World War II and in besieged West Berlin in 1961 But he drafted thousands of young men and sent them to fight in a war he could not defend, and from which he had no plans for disengagement. Weekly battle deaths averaged 280 under the misrule of LBJ.
Johnson was reviled by members of his own party. Four years earlier, he had been nominated for a full term at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. The convention hall was draped with huge portraits of Johnson, the kind usually reserved for Communist bosses in May Day parades. But in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson was chased out of the presidential race and dared not even attend his party's nominating convention. So hated was the president that anti-war protesters regularly chanted "Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many boys have you killed today?"
When Dr. King was assassinated, one of the greatest speeches of tribute and most eloquent calls for restraint came from Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, then running for president. Bobby Kennedy would himself be gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist in Los Angeles, just two months after King.
Conservatives today are often accused of wanting to "turn back the clock." Liberals charge us with being on "the wrong side of history." They want us to believe that all their ideas must be accepted as "progress" and all their initiatives must fulfill some plan of historical inevitability. (And they wonder why we charge them with being Marxists!)
Millions of Americans alive today remember those terrible days. We need to recall them too when placing the bad policies of today in proper perspective--the better to gain the agreement of our fellow citizens.
And we should remember what one of my favorite college profs taught us at University of Virginia in 1968. Norman A. Graebner noted the mood of profound pessimism among the young, the widespread belief that the United States was headed for collapse. "America," he said, "is like the boxer Joe Louis. America has power to spare."
I didn't fully understand Mr. Graebner then. Economic power? Yes. Political and military power? That, too. But "Graebner the Great" as we called this star lecturer was a regular communicant of his local Lutheran congregation. I cannot imagine he did not include spiritual power in his Joe Louis comparison. Let's never forget that.