You may remember Carol M. Swain. She may go down in history as one of those who played it straight on a witness panel with comedian Stephen Colbert on Capitol Hill last year. She talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about some of what she was discussing that morning — immigration — as well as other controversial issues facing our country, topics covered in her recent book, Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “As one of twelve children living in the rural South in a four-room shack with no running water, I experienced poverty and racism,” you write. “Yet even when I was a high school dropout and teenage mother, I still trusted in the American Dream.” How? Could a kid in the equivalent situation today have the same dream?
CAROL M. SWAIN: I guess I was too naïve to know that the odds were stacked against me. Success starts with a dream. Any child can dream and sometimes those dreams meet with success. I think it is important that we don’t encourage young people to focus on the negative odds or to see themselves as helpless victims of oppression. The negativity can prove crippling to some people.
LOPEZ: How important is this upward-mobility dream and is it still a live one? Occupy Wall Street suggests that it isn’t, right?
SWAIN: The upward-mobility dream is essential for encouraging people to put in the sweat and tears that are essential for success. I don’t know about others, but I want America to continue to be a society where people who work hard can overcome the disadvantages of their birth. Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters strike me as elites who have done nothing but go to school and spend and borrow money for material things that they didn’t necessarily need. I agree with Rudy Giuliani, who suggested that they should go out and occupy a job. There is something transformative about hard work.
LOPEZ: Why did you write Be the People? Just how do we do that?
SWAIN: I wanted to wake up a segment of the American public to a deception that I believe comes from trusted authorities who have largely concealed political and social agendas. We can “be the people” once we reclaim the authority granted us under the Constitution. I want people to reflect on the fact that it is we the people who elect the politicians that enact policies and programs on our behalf. Therefore, we are responsible for the direction of the country and the failure of politicians to be responsive to our needs. To really “be the people” we must be transformed from the inside out. Our broken institutions are a reflection of the state of our minds and hearts.
LOPEZ: Why do you take offense when a politician ends his speech with “God bless America”?
SWAIN: Okay, I am cynical, and I think that most of the politicians are pandering to the public. I’m offended because, when I look at America, I see very little that I think would warrant God’s blessings. I would like nothing better than to see our political leaders become God-fearing and our nation blessed and restored to prosperity as a result.
#page#LOPEZ: How did you rediscover your “Christian roots in midlife” and why is that significant to more than just you personally?
SWAIN: I had a very dramatic conversion experience a few years after I earned tenure at Princeton University. It happened shortly before I moved to Nashville. It was transformative for me. My conversion experience shows that there is hope for people suffering from depression and disillusionment with society. I am also heartened by the fact that other middle-aged people around the world are having their own transformative experiences with God. I can truly say that I am not the person I used to be. God removed my fear of public speaking and gave me a message for the people.
LOPEZ: Can you “be the people” if you don’t believe in God? Or if you’re not of the Judeo-Christian tradition?
SWAIN: Absolutely! Being the people is about more than having faith in the Judeo-Christian God that I worship. Being the people is about rediscovering the roots of America by returning to foundational documents that helped shape the thinking of our ancestors. Americans need to ponder the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bible, because these foundational documents have helped shape and undergird our nation. Every culturally literate person needs to be familiar with the Bible because of its impact on Western civilization.
LOPEZ: “I was born in 1954 and grew up at a time when patriotism and respect for authority still mattered.” It doesn’t anymore?
SWAIN: When I talk with people under 30, I often don’t see the national pride and the civic awareness that helped shape my love of country. Civic education and national pride are essential for building national ties that transcend race and ethnicity.
LOPEZ: Do you want to turn back the clock?
SWAIN: C. S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” We are on the wrong road. Therefore, I wouldn’t mind turning the clock back to the era when we were not ashamed to be seen as God-fearing, patriotic Americans.
LOPEZ: “The recognized leaders of black America are liberal Democrats who endorse the very behaviors that are leading to the decimation of the population.” That’s quite the dramatic accusation. But who made them leaders?
SWAIN: The mainstream media and the Democratic establishment promote and defer to black leaders who support a liberal agenda that includes abortion, homosexuality, and the normalization of single-parent households. Black people need leaders who will tell them the truth about harmful aspects of the culture that hold us back. Black leaders are socializing black people to place their hopes in government, instead of the God that sustained generations of black people through slavery and Jim Crow racism.
#page#LOPEZ: Wasn’t Barack Obama supposed to change everything?
SWAIN: It will take more than slogans and lucky charms to change the condition of black Americans. I am afraid blacks traded their votes for an empty bag of promises. Obama’s background and his social agenda do not promote the betterment of black people.
LOPEZ: So what’s the state of race relations in America today? Is anyone telling the truth about it? Who is making it better and who is making it worse?
SWAIN: Race relations have worsened during the Obama years. There are a few brave souls outside the political arena who tell the truth. Bishop Harry Jackson comes to mind. Democrats worsen race relations by constantly stirring the pot and blaming Republicans for problems that are unrelated to race. The Obama Justice Department under Eric Holder has made decisions about race that have caused many white Americans to wince at the blatant double standards.
LOPEZ: Is it a good or bad thing that conservatives have defended Herman Cain against allegations of sexual harassment and assault on “black conservative” discrimination grounds?
SWAIN: I am proud that many conservatives have stood behind Herman Cain. Nothing Cain has been accused of rises to the level of the allegations against President Clinton. The timing of the attacks on Cain and questionable backgrounds of the two accusers we know about suggest a political motivation behind the leaks.
LOPEZ: Are you treated differently at Vanderbilt now that you do things like defend the Tea Party and appear on Hannity’s “Great American Panel”?
SWAIN: It is always difficult to be openly conservative in a liberal environment. I can honestly say that most of my colleagues have been supportive of my media activities. My appearing on Fox is good fit for my values and principles.
LOPEZ: Do you worry the Tea Party is averse to civic education? Is your book meant to be one for the relatively recently civicly engaged?
SWAIN: Wasn’t there a New York Times poll a couple of years ago that showed that tea partiers had higher education and income than average Americans? I like the fact that tea parties place a high emphasis on reading and understanding the Constitution and other founding documents. I wrote Be the People for concerned Americans who wanted to move to the next level of activism. That is why each chapter ends with concrete actions people can take. In addition, I offer a downloadable study guide on my website. I want to walk alongside everyday Americans as they take the steps necessary to reclaim their lost power.
LOPEZ: Why do you pick on Planned Parenthood?
SWAIN: I don’t like Planned Parenthood’s historical roots and its connection to eugenics and social engineering. I am also deeply troubled about the locations of their “family planning” clinics and how many minority lives they snuff out each year. I am also troubled by the inadequate information given to their clients about the likelihood of lasting medical and psychological consequences from the abortion procedure.
#page#LOPEZ: What do you make of the high numbers of black fetuses aborted in America?
SWAIN: The devaluing of black lives doesn’t start and end with the abortions. Just look at the black-on-black murder rate. It comes from our spiritual poverty as a people who respect and fear big government more than we fear a God who allows us to make choices and holds us accountable.
LOPEZ: How did you come to have an abortion?
SWAIN: I made a selfish decision out of convenience. It was legal and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I quickly came to regret my decision. My abortion taught me that legal actions can be morally incorrect.
LOPEZ: Why do you talk about regretting it?
SWAIN: I would like for people to understand that laws matter. Had abortion been illegal or more difficult, I would have chosen life for my unborn child. I was married at the time and chose to take the easy way out of a situation that I now believe I could have handled.
LOPEZ: Why do you connect marriage and economic prosperity? And why would you then go and deny the former to those who identify as homosexual?
SWAIN: Social science data show that two-parent households have less poverty and better outcomes for their offspring. Single-parent households help to account for high rates of poverty among blacks and Hispanics.
I see marriage as an institution ordained by God for the procreation of the species. All major religions, in their orthodox forms, have taken stances against homosexuality. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that homosexual marriages will strengthen our society or our social and political institutions. In fact, the crusade to normalize homosexuality has created unnecessary distractions for our society and led to the bullying of heterosexuals and orthodox Christians who refuse to agree that homosexual lifestyle choices are equally good.
LOPEZ: What is a realistic, humane, conservative immigration policy?
SWAIN: Enforcement of existing laws and policies is essential for maintaining the rule of law in America. It is inhumane for our politicians to avoid immigration reform and for our president to bypass the legislative process by using executive orders. It is realistic for the American people to expect law enforcement officials to enforce laws against illegal presence in the United States until Congress passes new laws. If the federal government doesn’t step up to the plate, then state governments should have the authority to pass their own laws, as long as their laws are not attempting to establish policies about entry and exit into the country.
LOPEZ: What’s the most significant point to come out of the immigration collection you edited?
SWAIN: High levels of immigration are not a win-win for the country. Most adversely impacted are poor whites, blacks, and legal immigrants with low skills. Lastly, one can be a compassionate Christian and still expect the government to enforce existing laws and policies.
LOPEZ: Here we are, a little less than a year from the Election Day that will decide our next president. What do you see?
SWAIN: I see a very scary situation where we could end up with four more years of the Obama administration. Unfortunately, that will be the outcome unless we stand up and “be the people” who will work diligently to reclaim our once great nation.
LOPEZ: What do you wish candidates would ask you to advise them on?
SWAIN: I would like to advise politicians on how to use commonsense solutions to address perennial problems. I don’t think governing requires rocket scientists.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.