This could be the first weekend of the Trump administration in which the country has not experienced a major protest march of one form or another. As I write this on Saturday morning, the weekend is still young. But I doubt that we will let our impulse for social reform get in the way of the Super Bowl. After all, this is the United States. 🙂
All of these protests–the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the spontaneous gatherings in American airports to protest Trump’s immigration ban–all had one thing in common. They were, in one way or another, defenses of human dignity. In this sense, they were inextricably linked.
Protests and marches of this nature have a long history in the United States. Think about the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Tea Party, the Whiskey Rebellion, the New York City Draft Riots, women’s suffrage parades and marches, the Bonus Army, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam Movement, Stonewall, labor protests, the movement to stop globalization, the Million Man March, the present-day Tea Party Movement, and Occupy Wall Street. (And this list only scratches the surface). We can debate to what extent these historic protests brought real social change, but we cannot argue with the fact that such activity is part of the American tradition of free speech, freedom of assembly, and the defense of human rights and dignity.
The American protest tradition was at its best on Saturday, January 21, 2017, one day after Trump was inaugurated, when women took to the streets in major and minor cities all over the United States. On the Monday following the women’s march, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that “a lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and [were] not against anything.” I realize that Spicer’s job is to spin events in favor of Donald Trump, but anyone who attended one of these rallies or watched the coverage on television knows that the people present that day were “against” something. They were against the Trump presidency. The day was a stunning rebuke to the new administration.
Spicer, however, is correct when he says that women (and some men) came to Washington for a host of different reasons. As I watched the march unfold on my television screen, it became clear that the movement lacked any focus beyond the fact that everyone opposed Donald Trump. People were there to unleash their frustrations. Only time will tell if the march translates into real political gain. I have my doubts.
I was saddened to see the organizers of the Women’s March try to separate themselves from women who opposed abortion. I think it was a missed opportunity to find common ground and show that Trump’s degradation of women transcends the debate over abortion. I know pro-life women who attended and felt a sense of solidarity. I also know many who did not attend and who were troubled by this kind of exclusion.
Which leads us to the March for Life on January 28, 2017.
The Pro-Life Movement has a long history in the United States. As Daniel K. Williams has argued in his excellent book Defenders of the Unborn (you can listen to our podcast interview with him here-Episode 2), the movement was once embedded within the Democratic Party. Liberals such as Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Bill Clinton, Paul Simon, Dick Durbin, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Herbert Humphrey, Joe Biden, Ed Muskie, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Bob Casey, Daniel Berrigan, Jimmy Carter, Thomas Eagleton, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, and Mario Cuomo were pro-life politicians. Many of them, as David Swartz notes in his book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, “flipped to a pro-choice position under party pressure.”
The history of this so-called “flip” is complicated and I would recommend reading Williams’s book (or listen to our interview with him) to understand it in context. But I think it is fair to say that Democrats of a previous generation saw very little tension between their political convictions and their opposition to abortion. Democrats have always been concerned about protecting the most vulnerable human beings in American society. This is a core tenet of the modern Democratic Party.
Back in September 2015 I turned to the pages of USA Today to challenge then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to say something about reducing abortions in America. I wrote: “aborted fetuses are alive, they are vulnerable and they need protection.” I did something similar, albeit in a more indirect way, in a piece I published in the Harrisburg Partiot-News about Hillary Clinton’s failure to reach out to evangelicals on the issue of abortion.
Democrats and Republicans, men and women, convened in Washington to march for life. The march was not as large as the Women’s March the week before, but it was just as powerful. Bishop Vincent Matthews Jr., a bishop in the largest Black denomination in the United States, was perhaps the most inspiring speaker. As I wrote about last week, his speech connected the pro-life movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Jesse Jackson could have delivered the same speech in 1977. In that year, as Williams notes in Defenders of the Unborn (p.171), Jackson wrote an article for Life News linking his opposition to abortion to his defense of social justice, poverty, and black personhood.
My only critique of the event was the way it politicized a great social sin. The problems with abortion should be addressed in an apolitical way. The Pro-Life Movement transcends Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and the Republican Party. Speeches by Conway and Pence gave the march a political flavor that distracted from the day’s message.
Finally, protest swirled on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Americans arrived at airports by the thousands to defend the human rights of immigrants and refugees who were detained by the Trump administration. They also cried out against the targeting of immigrants from a specific religious group.
The constitutionality of Trump’s executive order can be debated. After doing a little reading it appears that certain parts of the order seem to be OK. But after reading it a few times there seems to be no way around the fact that this order discriminates based on religion. We will need to let the courts decide if such discrimination in cases of immigration is indeed unconstitutional.
Section 5b reads:
Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality. Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization.
The order states that “minority religions” in these Muslim countries will get priority. How can this be read as anything but an attempt by Trump (and probably Steve Bannon) to favor Christians (and other non-Muslim faiths) and discriminate against Muslims?
America has been here before.
In 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse, best known in American history for inventing the telegraph, was one of the nation’s foremost opponents of Catholic immigration. He saw Catholics as a threat to American democracy and wrote about them as both a political and religious movement. In 1911, the Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization with a mission to deny all Asian immigrants access to the United States, described Asians as a people whose “ways are not as our ways” and whose “gods are not our God, and never will be.” The members of the League argued that Asian men and women “profane this Christian land by erecting here among us their pagan shrines, set up their idols and practice their shocking heathen religious ceremonies.”
The difference between Donald Trump and Morse, the Asiatic Exclusion League, and other attempts in U.S. history to restrict immigration, is that Donald Trump is the President of the United States. I am not a scholar of immigration history (although I do occasionally teach a class on the subject), but I cannot think of another case in which a POTUS tried to overtly stop immigrants to the United States based on their religious faith. Some Presidents may have secretly wanted to do this, but they never acted on it in the way that Donald Trump has done. The closest thing I can think of is the government’s decision in 1939 to turn away 937 European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, but this decision was not overtly framed in a religious way. (I welcome anyone who can think of an example of a POTUS doing this).
American immigration and refugee policy has always been at its best when it respects the human dignity of all men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. Those who flooded American airports last Sunday were protesting the failure of the Trump administration to live up to these ideals.
Three protest marches. Three defenses of human dignity. Three signs of hope in an imperfect world and an imperfect country.