The Corner

Natural-Law and Religious Argumentation in the 1950s


Kevin J. Schultz, a professor of history and Catholic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a fascinating book coming out in April about the rise of social acceptance of minority religions in 1950s America. The book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, tells an interesting story and is a treasure trove of fascinating vignettes from that period in cultural and religious history. One such has to do with the response of the state of Virginia to the Brown desegregation decision. A concerned parent wrote Virginia governor Thomas B. Stanley that if integration were permitted, “in less than ten years we will face the problem of intermarriage” — proving conclusively not only that the “slippery slope” antedates the era of color TV, but also that Virginians could be remarkably prescient.

Another citizen raised the same issue — “The integration of the races in our public schools will result in intermarriage of the negro and white races, and I am sure that the NAACP will next try to have the law repealed prohibiting intermarriage” — and made a natural-law argument for why this situation is highly undesirable: “I believe that the Lord would have made us all one color if he had intended that we be one race.” Do not be misled by the phrase “the Lord” into believing that this is a religious argument. The writer is appealing not to a sacred text or to a sectarian mandate, but to the teleology of natural reality; the same way Jefferson spoke of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This is the way things are designed — different races, different colors, different treatment — and to change them is a violation of the basic truth of the things. Now the standing problem with natural-law argumentation is that even those who consider themselves believers in natural law can come to dramatically different conclusions about what it actually is and what can properly be deduced from it. I believe in purpose in the universe, in a teleology designed by God; and yet I’m darned if I can see how the specific natural-law argumentation used by this writer is valid. I can question his/her definition of what “race” and “color” are, and then further question what meaning for our social attitudes could or should be unpacked from those concepts.

As a religious believer, I have considerably more confidence in revealed dogma than in natural law as a source of important truths. But another 1950s writer quoted by Schultz shows that sometimes even appeal to Scripture can’t cut the Gordian knot, because Scripture stands in need of understanding and interpretation: “Having attended my beloved little county church from infancy I believe I know the fundamentals of the teachings of God’s Holy Word. . . . Nowhere can I find anything to convince me that God intended us living together as one big family in schools, churches and other public places.” It would take a churlish person indeed to question this writer’s assertion of his/her Biblical literacy, and I have no evidence that this assertion of expertise is false; because, in fact, I too, after having spent decades reading the Bible, cannot myself remember any verse that specifically requires a desegregation of the kind the writer is describing. And yet: I question the conclusion the writer draws from that argumentum ex silentio.

I am not going to discuss parallels — if, in fact, there are any legitimate ones — between these arguments and the arguments in any issue of current controversy. (Others may, of course, do so, if they believe such parallels exist. But I personally am not up for another endless merry-go-round of “You’re like the 1950s racists!” and “No, I’m not! You’re a liar!”) I note merely that this is a great American success story: Contrary to the picture of bigotry and ignorance painted by atheist propagandists, there are few if any religious conservatives in America today who would endorse the views and arguments of the writers quoted above. I have met many hundreds of religious conservatives, and been on rather intimate terms with some of them; I have encountered virtually nil who harbor any nostalgia for segregation. Part of the mandate of religion is a continuing openness to truth, and to a greater fullness of understanding; I am grateful that America’s religious conservatives came to such a greater fullness of understanding on this particular issue, and helped impart it to me. It speaks well for their character that they are willing to admit mistakes, and this should make their voice listened to more seriously — even (perhaps especially?) on current issues on which you or I may disagree with their conclusions.


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