Faith Race

Can people change?

I may be missing my audience with this post. I don’t have much hope many people will care about the later lives of two dead opponents of civil rights. But the stories of these two men are both not only fascinating to me as a microchasm of American race relations, but also inspire me to hope that people, myself included, can change. So, here’s an introduction to Governor George Wallace and Senator Robert Byrd in the 1960s.

George Wallace: Champion of Segregation

George Wallace came from a political family and was active in politics from a young age. At age 33, he was an Alabama Circuit Judge and issued an injunction against the federally-ordered removal of segregation signs from train stations. By 1962, he was elected Governor of Alabama. In his inaugural speech he used the line which often defines him:

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

In 1963, after integration of Alabama schools was ordered by a federal court judge to admit black students to the University of Alabama. Three students–Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery and James Hood— were admitted, but as Jones and Hood arrived to register, Governor Wallace personally blocked their entrance to Foster Auditorium, where registration took place. After federalizing the Alabama National Guard, John F. Kennedy ordered Wallace to step aside. After some bluster, he did.

Robert Byrd: Exalted Cyclops?

Robert Byrd’s first leadership roles were in the chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in his home town of Sophia, West Virginia. He eventually became the top official in the chapter (Exalted Cyclops). In 1946, at age 28, he wrote this gem to segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo:

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

In 1964, he joined other Democratic Senators in a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act.

Into every life…

By 1972, George Wallace had been elected Alabama governor twice and completed an unsuccessful 3rd party bid for President in 1968. While campaigning in a bid for President, he was shot 5 times. One bullet hit his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He would remain so for the rest of his life.

Robert Byrd, by his own account, experienced a crisis of faith in 1982 when his teen-aged grandson was killed in a traffic accident.

For both men, life taught them some things they didn’t know in their twenties and thirties. Byrd recalled that his experience with losing a grandson brought him to the realization that “African-Americans love their children, too.” Wallace describes being “born again” some time after his attempted assassination.

For both men, this new wisdom translated into markedly different public policy. For most of his later career, Senator Byrd’s voting record was dubbed perfect by the NAACP. In Wallace’s last term as governor, he made a record-setting number of appointments of Black men and women to state posts. Both men made concerted efforts both to distance themselves from racist groups, to encourage others to avoid their mistakes, and to make clear their remorse at their role in the oppression of Blacks. Wallace attended the 30th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, addressing the crowd and asking their forgiveness. “May your message be heard,” he said. “May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered.” How it must have pained Wallace to think of his name forever associated with bigotry and racial violence.


I sympathize with those who might express skepticism with this change of heart for both men. They each continued to make decisions which continued to reveal hints of racism or at least racial ignorance. It’s certainly possible that they’re simple opportunists whose views changed with public opinion. But Wallace and Byrd are both men who demonstrated their ability to take a bold stand against the popular tide. Byrd was the Senate’s staunchest opponent of the Iraq War. At the height of American anger and fear, he exhorted toward calm and care. Both have been outspoken advocates for progressive racial policies to audiences who did not welcome the message.

It would be a shame to let the behavior of these 30-somethings dictate our view of them for the rest of their lives. A nation that takes such pride in its Christian foundations, should rejoice at these stories of redemption and should emulate the example, especially of Governor Wallace, in admitting and seeking to rectify our mistakes at both a personal and a national level.




I love you, but your incessant atheo-splaining is tiresome.

I’ve been watching a bit of Bill Maher recently. I appreciate his wit when it comes to things like fiscal policy. But, like a junky, he can’t help but return to his true favorite compulsion–bagging on God. I’m not opposed to a sensible, respectful discussion of the merits of faith. What I object to is the constant strawman-ing wherein Bill first tells me what I believe, then tells me why that’s bad. A recent example is here. Bill tells Ross Douthat, conservative politico, NYT columnist and Catholic, that not believing all of the Bible is somehow cheating. The entire exchange is worth watching as Douthat articulates a very reasonable Christian position, but the exact wording from Maher is

If [the Bible is] not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.

Confronted with a Christian whose faith has room for things like evolution and a metaphorical interpretation of some of the Bible, Maher becomes suddenly desperate to put Douthat back into the comfortable box in which he’s used to putting theists. I’ve had a few of these conversations myself where I’m expected to defend, to an atheist friend or acquaintance, the faith of the last Christian she talked to. I know this is sometimes done in interest of time, because not many atheist have interest in the fine points of my faith. But I need you, atheist friends, to appreciate that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, etc.) are not a monolith. There’s staggering variety in the beliefs of Christians worldwide. For example, returning to Maher’s statement, even among Christians in the United States who report attending church every week, only 54% think every word of the Bible is literally true.

People of faith are also surprisingly self-aware. I recall one conversation with a colleague in graduate school. I studied experimental physics which occasionally left us some down time while various things heated up or cooled down or measured this or that. In one such lull, my colleague, who knew I was a Christian turned the conversation to religion. He did not believe in God and ventured, sheepishly, to ask, “Have you ever thought that…maybe…you only…um…believe in God because that’s how you were raised?” This question, stated with such hesitation is riotously funny to me. Only the non-religious could assume that someone pursuing a doctorate in physics at a prestigious university could have grown up in a religious home and never pondered this question. He is a good friend and was only trying to spare my tender feelings, but his question grows out of the assumption that theists like me only believe because we haven’t thought it through.

I’ve dealt with this enough to coin a new term for this phenomenon. Hitching a ride on the recently coined “mansplain” I submit

atheosplain \ˈā-thē-ō-ˌsplān\ v.t. To begin your conversation with a religious person by first educating them on the tenets of his or her own faith.

I think especially with faith, which is often something people have come to through very long, winding and difficult paths, it’s important to allow people to self-define. Respect the journey even if you’ve arrived at a different destination. This advice applies to religious people, too. We should respect that atheists are on a journey as well. Atheists, you may be underestimating the interpersonal connection you’ll make by asking questions of a believer about their faith. Let’s talk. I promise not to preach (again, I can’t speak for all Christians) and to listen equally respectfully to your explanation of the source of your morality and the meaning in your life, whatever that be. Then, you can proceed to tell me why I’m wrong. And so, for you, Mr. Maher:

New Rule. If you’re going to tell me why my belief is ridiculous, you first have to take five minutes to understand what I believe.

Faith Foreign Policy Obama

Leadership…it’s all about posture!

A special midweek stupidity update. I’m aware that not everyone reading this post is a Christian. But, a solid majority of people tweeting and retweeting this graphic are's about posture’s about posture

As a Christian myself, I’ll admit to being quite pleased with ThisWeekInStupid’s response below:

I think you may be right
I think you may be right


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