COMMENTARY: Race, class, sex , religion and … | Bernardsville News Opinion Columns


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Editor’s note: This is an opinion column. The writer, of Tewksbury Township, is a trustee of Bloomfield College, a predominately minority institution located in Bloomfield, and a retired lawyer. He was state Commissioner of Banking from 1990 to 1994 under Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. He can be reached at geoffconn70@yahoo.com.

Politics used to be about economic issues: government programs and how to pay for them. But today, cultural issues are almost as important if not more so.

Not one to avoid controversy, in this article I will discuss race, class, sex and religion, leaving a surprise fifth category for the end.

Many people are talking these days about the “1619 Project,” which is an initiative to re-write American history to more accurately reflect the role of slavery and racism in our country’s development.

The year 1619 was chosen because it was the year that slavery was introduced into English Virginia by Dutch slave traders. The reason the Dutch brought a shipment of African slaves to Virginia in 1619 was that they were unable to sell them elsewhere and so they decided to see if they could open a new market.

Until the Dutch arrived, the English in Virginia relied on White indentured servants to perform heavy labor. As that form of labor proved to be unsatisfactory, the Virginia landowners agreed to give slavery a try.

The results were spectacular in terms of prosperity for the Whites. Thanks to the large-scale cultivation of tobacco and later in other states of rice and cotton Virginia and later the rest of the South went from poverty to a wealthy land of beautiful plantations, making leisure possible for the slave-owning class.

Many rich slave owners and their children then had the opportunity to acquire a higher education as well as luxury goods and had the time to devote themselves to public service if they wished.

This privileged group included Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, Jackson, Harrison, Polk and Taylor and Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall.

Many signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were slave owners seemingly having no problem declaring that “all men are created equal” while holding innocent human beings in involuntary bondage.

American history as my generation was taught it portrayed these individuals as high-minded men of principle and accomplishment. The 1619 Project holds otherwise. It portrays slave-owning landowners as men running agricultural prison camps with kidnapped forced labor condemned to multi-generational workforces even though they were entirely innocent of any crime. It was their owners who were the criminals.

So where do we go from here? The Board of Education in San Francisco wants to take the names of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson etc. off of their schools.

That’s one approach. Another is to preserve our history rather than trying to erase it but to interpret events in their historical context, presenting negative facts as well as positive accomplishments. After all, it was slave owners who purchased Louisiana and conquered Florida, Texas and the west, including California.

Without the efforts of slave owners there would be no United States of America as we know it.

On to the next cultural war, which deals with church and state. There is a progressive movement to require adoption agencies run by religious groups to place children into homes headed by same-sex couples.

While I personally have no problem with a same-sex couple adopting a child provided they can provide a stable, loving home environment, there are religious groups which feel that children should only be adopted by opposite-sex couples.

Assuming public policy is to allow same-sex marriage and adoption, does the government have the right to force that point of view on religious groups? What does the First Amendment to our Constitution have to say about that?

It provides in part: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

Much is said about the separation of church and state and that ours is a secular nation. France is also a secular nation, but there is a difference.

The French seek to protect the state from religion. The United States seeks to protect religion from the state. The state cannot therefore “prohibit the free exercise thereof” by imposing its will on religious groups. It cannot force religious groups to facilitate same-sex adoption if those groups feel such activity is prohibited by their beliefs.

Do cultural wars stop with race, class, and sex? “No”. There is another group almost entirely overlooked by the politically correct and that is veterans.

It usually surprises progressives to learn that veterans are protected by the Civil Rights Act, but we are. Some people are surprised that so many veterans took part in the riot at Congress on Jan. 6th of this year.

Many veterans, particularly those wounded in combat, live in poverty and are beholden to the much-maligned Veterans Administration and the hospitals and other programs it runs. Why can’t indigent veterans be given access to the better-run private sector hospitals? Why is the military increasingly alienated from the civilian population they serve and protect?

Being marginalized and somewhat removed from the mainstream, some veterans were more likely to believe “the former guy,” as President Biden calls him, when he claimed that he, not Biden, won the presidential election by a landslide. “The former guy” asked his supporters to help prevent the final “phony” vote count in Congress on Jan. 6th.

The veterans among that group sincerely believed that their commander-in-chief wanted them to invade Congress and stop the final presidential vote tally.

Now many of these “patriots” are being criminally prosecuted while “the former guy” plays golf. Not surprisingly, they feel betrayed.

Yes, we have cultural wars, and not always ones progressives favor and reactionaries oppose. Each of us is entitled to our rights as citizens and to be treated with the dignity we deserve as children of God.

History should be truthfully presented but not forgotten or erased. Sincere religious views should be freely exercised. And men and women who fought for their country at risk to their own lives should be honored and helped to realize fulfillment and respect in civilian society rather than being treated shabbily.