Friday, November 18, 2022

Journalist Michael Gerson, Who Died Yesterday, Writing About One of the "Worst Errors of Moral Judgment" He Made as a Columnist

Michael Gerson, 18 January 2014, photo by AvianMaid, at Wikimedia

Journalist Michael Gerson died yesterday. He was 58 years old and died of kidney cancer. 

Michael Gerson stood out among white evangelicals and Republicans in opposing, from the start, the grossness of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. As an evangelical, he addressed quite specifically and repeatedly the glaring hypocrisy of the vast majority of white U.S. evangelicals, who, in lusting after Trump and the power he promised them, have been willing to throw away all the claims they have made for years now about being "values voters" and valuing integrity in political leaders.

Gerson was a Wheaton College graduate. Over the past few years, as I read his commentary, I valued his honest, committed perspective, as a white evangelical and Republican, about the huge disaster that Trump and MAGA represent for U.S. white evangelicalism, which has unmasked itself as an unsavory, morally vacuous, theologically twisted aberration of Christianity via its support of Trump. (For that matter, the more than half of white U.S. Christians across the board who voted for Trump twice have done the same.)

What I was never happy with in Gerson's commentary, however, is that he seemed, to my way of thinking, badly informed about the extent to which plain, bald racism has been driving the Republican party for years now, with its huge base of white evangelical Southerners who flocked to the GOP after the Democrats enacted civil rights legislation for people of color in the 1960s.

Gerson kept pushing the idea that there were, in the American past, "good" white evangelicals who did not buy into first slavery and then Jim Crow laws, and "good" Republicans who pushed against the party's overt racism and white supremacist ideology.

But as James Fallows says today in a eulogy of Gerson at his substack blog Breaking the News, look at what Gerson published in Washington Post less than a month before he died —  a statement Fallows regards as Gerson's own confessional eulogy, honest to the end, for himself as he approached death: writing about the resignation 20 years ago of former Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, after a pro-segregation “joke” Lott made, Gerson states, 

Though I supported Lott’s resignation at the time, when I was a White House staffer, I assumed that many such statements by Republicans were blunders, rooted in ignorance. Many GOP officials took a view of history that praised the Emancipation Proclamation and affirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while essentially skipping over white supremacists’ Redemption policy, lynching, routine police brutality and the injustice of over-incarceration. Republicans sometimes committed career-ending acts by falling into a historical memory hole. But the general goodwill of the GOP on racial issues could still be broadly assumed.

This is among the worst errors of moral judgment I have made as a columnist. I tended to view bigotry as one of America’s defects or failures. The historical works I read often tried to defend the best elements of the American ideal as dramatically outweighing the worst moments of its application.

The racism is systemic. It's inbuilt in American culture and has been inbuilt from the beginning. It is front and center today in the party that promotes white supremacy. Almost ALL white evangelicals, with rare exceptions, bought into it in the past and actively promoted it, as is true today. There were very few "good" white evangelicals.

As a white Southerner who grew up in a white evangelical household and white evangelical culture during the Civil Rights years, I knew all along that Gerson was fantasizing when he tried to depict a substantial slice of white U.S. evangelicals as champions of racial justice at various points in American history.

As Gerson's death neared, it appears he himself saw that he had gone down the wrong path in suggesting this and in lifting up a cadre of "good" Republicans in the Republican party of the latter half of the 20th century and up today — Republicans for whom the party's commitment to white supremacist racism was odious.

Unicorns may exist somewhere in the world.

But I doubt I'll ever see one.  

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