Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Matt Kinnaman Column

Getting it Right - January 22, 2009
Mother Teresa and the Inauguration
By Matt Kinnaman

Thirty-six years ago today, on January 22, 1973, Lyndon Johnson died. Only ten years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had employed all his political muscle to move civil rights legislation through Congress, but was stonewalled by Representative Howard W. Smith, Democrat of Virginia, and Chairman of the House Rules Committee. Rep. Smith was adamant in his refusal to give the legislation a hearing in his committee.

According to materials published by the National Archives, Johnson pressured the Washington Post to run articles and editorials “every day, front page” to build a public case against Smith and other recalcitrant congressmen, forcing them to agree to a hearing. “We ought to say, ‘Here is the party of Lincoln. Here is the image of Lincoln, and whoever it is that is against a hearing and against a vote in the House of Representatives, is not a man who believes in giving humanity a fair shake…’” By January, 1964, Harold Smith allowed hearings in the Rules Committee, and on July 2, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Having placed his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, Barack Obama, in his first moments as president, affirmed “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Barack Obama’s inauguration put an exclamation point on Thomas Jefferson’s articulation of the unalienable civil rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, rights which Jefferson assured the people originated in “their Creator,” and on which Lyndon Johnson depended to shepherd his landmark legislative guarantee of America’s civil rights legacy forty-five years before.

On the day Johnson died, the Supreme Court handed down its 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade, holding that state laws prohibiting abortion violated an implied constitutional right to privacy protected by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.

One wonders what one of humanity’s greatest champions of civil rights, Mother Teresa, might say today, on the thirty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, if asked to comment on the high themes and promises of President Obama’s inaugural, including his admonition that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”

In February of 1994, speaking before Barack Obama’s Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton, she addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” said Mother Teresa. “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

The rhetoric of civil rights has grown more inclusive since abortion was declared an inviolate legal guarantee in all fifty states thirty-six years ago today, but the practice of civil rights has quantitatively decreased, measured by more than 40 million abortions performed in the intervening years.

Many will say that the complexities are too difficult and the costs are too high to change this. In his own words on Tuesday, President Obama, speaking of great American commitments, seemed to disagree. “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Citing the words of Scripture, Obama encouraged America to “choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation.” In spirit, he was echoing the words spoken by Mother Teresa near that same spot fifteen years earlier: “From here, a sign of care for the weakest of the weak— the unborn child—must go out to the world. If you become a burning light of justice and peace in the world, then really you will be true to what the founders of this country stood for.”

Today, how can those facing the uncertainties of unwanted childbirth confidently provide their unborn with “a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness?” President Obama provided an answer: “This is the source of our confidence,” he said, “the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

In this week of new beginnings celebrated alongside sad commemorations, few words speak more loudly.

Matt Kinnaman’s Getting it Right column appears every week in the Transcript