Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, running a distant but respectable third behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies. When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience applauded as the credits rolled.
Loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, Lincoln is relentlessly historical. The Great Emancipator comes across as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of making the sixteenth president a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century. Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade, but that was as far as he was prepared to go.
In 1858, in the course of his ongoing debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln assured an audience in Charleston, Kentucky, that he had never suggested that whites and Negroes could, or should, live as equals:
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes (sic), nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together in terms of social and political equality.
In the middle of the 19th Century, that was as far as a senatorial candidate with presidential ambitions could go. There were radicals like Thaddeus Stevens (brilliantly portrayed in the Spielberg movie by Tommy Lee Jones) who did champion the full equality of white and black Americans, but that was very much a minority opinion.
Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in 1858 (and again in the presidential election of 1860), considered himself a moderate on the slavery issue. Unlike the Southern radicals who wished to see the peculiar institution established throughout the nation, Douglas believed that each state should decide the issue according to its own lights.
In the course of the Charleston debate, Douglas insisted that the authors of the Declaration of Independence never intended to define the Negro as the equal of the white man in any sense.
I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion this government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come.
As I watched Daniel Day Lewis’ masterful portrayal of President Lincoln it struck me that the nation is as divided in 2012 as it was in 1864, and along very similar lines.
I don’t wish to overstate the point. We have settled the equality issue in a rough and ready sort of way. If Mississippi voters were asked today whether African, Latino and Asian Americans should be considered the full equals of white Americans legally, politically and civilly, I am confident that a solid majority would vote in the affirmative.
But the white-minority divide is very much with us. Much has been said about the decisive nature of the youth vote in 2012, but white youth went for Romney by 7%, and among white males the margin of victory was 11%.
Those are national numbers; I imagine the Republican candidate won by a landslide among young Southern whites.
Of course, a vote for Obama’s rival hardly translates into neo-confederate sympathies. While ten or fifteen percent of the 65+ voters in the Deep South might still defend a state’s right to restrict the vote to white citizens, the proposition would find little support among the portion of the electorate born after the civil rights upheaval.
We have made great strides; but the recent election revealed an abiding white-minority divide. Having lost three-quarters of the growing Latino vote, many Republicans are rethinking their party’s harsh stance on immigration.
In a penetrating article in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza asks, “As immigration turns red states blue, how can Republicans transform their platform?”
Two very different answers are emerging from the electoral postmortem. Conservatives, like newly elected Texas State Senator Ted Cruz, argue that if Republicans stress the importance of hard work and family values they can win over Latino voters without changing their hard line immigration stance. Moderates, like Texas Republican Martinez de Vara, are calling for the GOP to abandon its current position on immigration in favor of the relatively moderate immigration policies advocated by George W. Bush.
Let us pray that the Republicans shed their close identification with the white electorate by framing policies minority voters can support. As Martinez de Vara argues in the New Yorker piece, America’s draconian immigration policy can’t be defended on conservative, small government grounds.
What are they proposing? A border wall? That’s massive confiscation of private property. We oppose that in every other context. It’s a big-government, big-spending project. We oppose that in every other context. Arming the government with greater police powers? We oppose that in every other context. This is big-government liberalism, and for conservatives it just makes no sense.
Can the faith community influence this emerging debate? It is generally assumed that, with parishioners on both sides of the red-blue spectrum, churches must avoid contentious political issues. But as Martinez de Vara suggests, liberal and conservative interests can align on immigration. When compassion and common sense join hands, liberal and conservative Christians can back the same policies, albeit for slightly different reasons.
The churches of America, whether white or minority, could solemnize this marriage of compassion and common sense apart from partisan polemics. Lord knows, the political world is in desperate need of moral guidance on the subject. White Christians, liberal and conservative, can stand in solidarity with their Latino brothers and sisters if they are willing to renounce the poisonous racial history that continues to frustrate the American experiment.