Thursday, September 3, 2020

Equal Results

Over at First Things, Bob Benne spoke of the change from equal opportunity to equal results.  He mentioned how this was first posited in the 1970s, how he dismissed it, and how now, he fears, he should have paid more attention.  According to Benne, Since the ’70s our country has been working to ensure that women, blacks, and other minorities are represented in every facet of our society according to their rough percentage in society.  He is, of course, absolutely accurate.  The ground has changed and it is no longer enough to offer equal opportunity, an equal playing field, if you will.  Now, the score must be rigged to provide the programmed results.  In days gone by this would illegal in every other setting, from sports to academics.  Not today.  We have seen protests and protests turn into riots and political outrage and political pandering all with the idea that the past, whatever that past might be, justifies a set outcome in education, business, culture, and religion.

The political and cultural side of this is somebody else's domain for comment but the educational and religious side of it directly affects me as a pastor, a Lutheran, and a Christian.  And if you are one of the three, it will affect you, also.  Benne rehearses the sad state of a quota system engineered for the brand new church body to make sure this was not your grandfather's church.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was born of this mindset and, though it has struggled to achieve its goals, is even more white than the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (a church body a great deal more content to be known as grandpa's church).  It did not matter who was the better candidate, for the ELCA fifty percent of every committee, division, and representation had to be women; 10 percent had to be people of color (representation five times the number of people of color in the denomination).  While the LCMS has never had those goals, we are still sensitive to the imagery and the charge of white supremacy.  We have shared a concern about making our publications, pictures, and church as racially diverse as we are able.  We are still licking our wounds about closing the only Lutheran historically Black college in America -- even though it bled red ink for decades, had a marginal Lutheran student population, and was failing academically as well.  We know how things look and we don't want to look bad -- especially in this age of guaranteed results and not just opportunity.

While this may have reached a fevered pitch in colleges and universities historically associated with the ELCA, it would be hard to find any institution of higher education that has not given preference to the recruitment and retention of women, Blacks, Hispanics, those with the gender du jour and as faculty, staff, and students.  Missouri finds itself either alone or attempts to accommodate the same ends without violating the school's historic ties and public confession as part of the LCMS.  To a certain extent this accusation has been made against Missouri and may play a part in some legal troubles with the closing of one of the Concordias (but a court is sorting that one out).  When institutions are accused of institutional racism and prejudice and when this is said to be systemic, it is no longer enough to prove equal opportunity.  The loudest voices are clamoring for more, marching for more, and threatening to get more.  They want guaranteed results.

As churches, we will face this no only on the level of colleges and universities directly tied to our national church bodies or historically connected, we will meet this battleground in our preschools, elementary schools, and high schools.  Many of those institutions have already been weakened by the lack of Lutheran babies, financial uncertainty, and the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic.  It will not take much more to make those fighting for religious schools to think about throwing in the towel when the schools will be judged not simply by fair opportunity but by diverse results.

Racism is abhorrent in all its forms.  Our nation's past has not been without its shameful moments.  No one but an idiot or zealot would try to argue against the sins of our past or to excuse them.  Yet the reality today is that America has improved and the opportunities available to all citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion are better than they have ever been.  Of course, that does not mean we should stop working to improve things.  But guaranteeing results will benefit no one and lumping the churches together under the charge of institutional and systemic racism betrays the reality of history.  In 1958 when the parish I serve was writing its first church constitution, the mostly Northern European founders insisted that this congregation be integrated when the schools and businesses of this Southern small city were most definitely not.  No, it has not resulted in our membership numbers reflective of the racial breakdown of the community around us but no one notices race or ethnicity here. 

Racism should be called out and prejudice should be denounced but when the pursuit of equality insists that the outcomes must be equalized, a new prejudice is born.  Liberalism and progressivism have not increased tolerance but have increased the noise and threat when their narrative and history do not match.  We do not have a great history at either inclusion or solving the problems of racial and ethnic divide but we have made progress and we have among the most diverse populations in the world.  Yes, there are many places where poverty, crime, poor schools, broken families, gangs, neighborhood decay, and a host of other conditions work against our goals.  Children born into such conditions have an unfair disadvantage, to be sure.  But the answer lies not with developing a system in which outcomes are engineered.  Equal opportunity remains the goal and the conscience of America will not be at peace until we work to improve the conditions the prevent a fair and equal chance for all.

Perhaps the one area where churches can help is to provide educational opportunities that better prepare youth at risk to compete.  Rather than harming our churches educational institutions or dismiss them and the churches themselves as being hopelessly prejudiced and systemically racist, a partnership between religion and education would be in the best interest of both.  Now, if only we could convince the rest of the nation that vouchers could and should be used to benefit those so disadvantaged, we might see this partnership flourish even more.  But no one will gain by stripping away the constitutional protections placed upon the free exercise of religion or by insisting that our voices be silenced in the public square.  That is its own prejudice.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful article. Thinking anecdotally about my own extended and church family, those who made it through the educational system before the changes in the 1970s all had successful careers, marriages, and houses with minimal college degrees. You could get a well paid computer programming or engineering job with an Associate’s Degree. The highest educated man in our relatively well off congregation was a dentist. All of their children, however, have largely struggled, regardless of the expectation for this generation of attaining at least one, if not multiple college degrees. The lengthier time spent in school and fewer opportunities upon graduation diminished marriage and childbirth rates, as well as the ability to purchase homes. We now live in what’s called a “gig” economy, where a pastor may have a side job in a tech support call center, for example, to get by. Nothing is “permanent,” and the spectre of unemployment is fearful. Work consumes all.

Carl Vehse said...

It is a contradiction to advocate Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the same time.