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A Brief Word on Cultural Diversity

June 26, 2017 | (3,678 words)

It’s now been several decades since the slogan “our diversity is our strength” first became a popular refrain, and entered the vernacular as an accepted piece of wisdom. This is generally considered to be very bad news for those who are precariously clinging to the reigns of power. Demographers instruct us it is only a matter of time before white Christians lose their majority status in this country, and find themselves part of a brave new world in which they will no longer be calling all the shots. In anticipation of this paradigm shift, it has lately become fashionable to denigrate members of this group, more commonly referred to as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, for being a little too homogeneous. The rap against them is they make no attempt to appreciate the diversity of thought and custom that is to be found by interacting with others who come from different backgrounds, since they are known to avoid contact with anyone outside their own peer group.

The WASP influence in the United States is already clearly starting to wane, with their importance as arbiters of right and wrong no longer being of the first magnitude. The world searches for other voices, voices that have not previously had a chance to express themselves. To make way for all this fresh perspective, something has to be edited out of the conversation. And so it has come to pass that much like what happened to the British Empire a century ago, the public profile of the WASP elite in America is now in retrograde.

But downplaying the whole of Christianity in order to promote “diversity” is what might be called a major contradiction in terms. Christianity, or more specifically its initial iteration as Catholicism, has always embraced the customs and traditions of people from all over the globe. As some of you may recall from catechism class, the dictionary definition of “catholic” is “universal.” Go ahead, look it up:

cath-o-lic (kath’lik), adjective
(from the Greek: kata, completely + holos, whole)
1. Universal; all inclusive.
2. Broad in sympathies, etc.

So how has Christianity’s reputation in these parts deteriorated to the point of it now being the object of such open ridicule and scorn? By its unfortunate association with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, that’s how. There have always been negative ramifications to this etched-in-stone connection. But we have always side-stepped those ramifications by choosing not to confront the problematic views of the headliner WASPS who founded our country, on a wide range of moral issues. Though we are loath to admit any of this, their faulty logic on several key points undermines the premise of our cherished American Experiment.

These long-term lingering fissures are what have lately opened the door and allowed the champions of so-called diversity to assume the moral high ground in recent years, and paint Christianity as a woefully inadequate operating system in the process. We Christians have only ourselves to blame for this unwelcome turn of events, as we have lost our focus and allowed ourselves to be seduced by the things of this world. The true enemy is not the heathen who openly professes disdain for religious belief. That is simply a misguided soul in need of instruction and conversion. The true enemy is the professed Christian, particularly of the well-off, conservative variety, who has developed his own special take on what it means to be Christian. Today’s wild-eyed, decidedly anti-Christian contingent that we disagree with on specific points of action in the personal realm has historically shone a light on fundamental flaws in our accepted way of thinking in the economic realm, flaws we ourselves should have picked up on and done something about a long time ago.

Since what I am attempting to describe is not the typical cultural narrative put forth via the standard liberal-conservative media outlets, let’s take a moment to flesh out my admittedly off-beat frame of reference. When we hear cultural diversity invoked these days it is routinely interpreted as a threat to the dwindling number of believers in biblical values, who are portrayed as under siege from progressive forces promoting such things as reproductive rights and marriage equality. But I would suggest the only reason progressives have lately gained sway when it comes to such intimate personal matters is that believers in biblical values have allowed successful WASPs to dictate how one’s faith should be expressed in the public square, specifically as it regards the economic question. We now take our cue from conservative decision-makers and cultural arbiters who have reinterpreted Christianity so as to dispense with its preferential option for the poor, and the concern it has always demanded for the greater or common good.

This American problem is now almost two hundred and fifty years old, as our Protestant Founders made several serious errors in judgement right at the beginning of things. First and foremost was their adherence to an “individual conscience” version of Christian belief. Followed closely by their adherence to an unfettered, every-man-for-himself version of capitalism. The former allows for the pursuit of one’s bliss, ignoring any objective moral standard for personal behavior. This long and winding road has indirectly led us to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. The latter allows for the pursuit of one’s bliss via a wild-cat, ratcheting up of one’s material circumstances, which also strategically ignores any objective moral standard for public, economic behavior. This is directly responsible for the ever-widening gap in “equitable distribution.”

By leading our nation away from a previously-held (Catholic) consensus regarding an objective moral order to the universe, both strains of Protestant expression have combined to severely undermine Christianity’s moral authority as a reliable guide for human action. Because, for one thing, the primary spokespeople arguing in favor of Christianity are confused to the point of having lost their compass on the subject, and know not of what they speak. The Protestant interpretation on economics, specifically, has created a false impression in the minds of the electorate that Christianity is monolithic in nature and defective in doctrine, since it now serves as little more than a prima facie rationalization for a small cadre of rich and powerful citizens. And so a most empathetic belief system initially founded on a desire to love one’s neighbor as oneself, that flourished first among the poor and the disadvantaged, is now spurned by the masses as the sworn enemy of cultural diversity.

While mainline society grapples with what appears to be a recent sea-change over our communal sense of what constitutes right-and-wrong in the realm of personal mores, we would submit the real cultural battle can be traced back through our Founding to the dawn of the modern era. We would further submit this battle remains just what it has always been: a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It is, at heart, a struggle for economic justice.

That this conflict has been raging since the beginning of time is beyond dispute. What is less clearly understood is how the rules of engagement changed irrevocably once the medieval era gave way to the modern age. Christianity’s (that is to say, Catholicism’s) insistence on the common good was replaced by Classical Liberalism’s promotion of the emancipation of the individual. By liberating the individual from the tight hold of authority, custom, and law, Classical Liberalism opened a can of worms regarding the conduct of human affairs. The intense ideological turmoil we are wrestling with now was initiated some five hundred years ago. Yet we mistakenly think the can of worms was only just recently opened, in the 1960’s. That’s because we are not used to tracing the radical influence of Classical Liberalism down through the centuries, all the way to our own time. The radical influence inspired the American Revolution in a special way, and is neatly encapsulated in two phrases every American has been taught to recite with pride: economic freedom, and religious freedom.

Though it is true our national model of two diametrically-opposed and adversarial political parities did undergo something of a seismic shift in the 1960’s. That’s when modern-day liberals compromised their traditional role of clamoring for economic justice, with a new focus on libertine personal behavior as the embodiment of “fulfillment” and “emancipation.” Conservatives, meanwhile, have stayed the course. They have always pursued their own version of libertine behavior in the public, economic arena throughout our country’s history. And they have always regarded this pursuit as the embodiment of the very same principles. Wait a minute, one might ask, how can two diametrically-opposed groups both espouse the same principles? Because despite certain superficial differences, the ones we content ourselves to wage pitched battles over, present-day liberals and their conservative counterparts both swear allegiance to the individual emancipation of Classical Liberalism, rather than the common good of Christianity.

The current conservative flag-waving about “freedom” and “flourishing” merely obscures our failure to resolve the fundamental economic question that represents the Achilles heel of the American Experiment, and of the ideology of Classical Liberalism upon which our Experiment is based. The recent progressive turn in favor of libertine personal behavior, though obviously quite disturbing, should not be allowed to distract us from the deeper intellectual flaw at the heart of our country’s founding.

According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, “classical liberalism (eventually) fell victim to ambivalence, torn between the great emancipating tendencies generated by the revolutions with which it was associated, and middle-class fears that a wide or universal franchise would undermine private property. Benjamin Franklin spoke for the Whig liberalism of the Founding Fathers when he stated:

‘As to those who had no landed property in a country, the allowing them to vote for legislators is an impropriety. They are transient inhabitants, and not connected with the welfare of the state, which they may quit when they please, as to qualify them properly for such a privilege.’”

One hates to break this news to Mr. Franklin, but all those “transient inhabitants” he and the equally revered John Adams express so much concern about in their writing would dearly love to change their status, then as now, and become somewhat less transient. But “owning landed property” is not a trick those with meager resources are able to pull off, despite having the desire to do so.

Our institutional memory downplays the reality that our Protestant Founders were, for the most part, rich white guys who were not exactly thrilled about having to pay taxes, and were not overly concerned with the welfare of their fellow colonists who lacked status. To say nothing of fellow colonists who also happened to lack certain necessities of life, as well. That same institutional memory has over-sold the idea that these well-off white guys were good Christian gentlemen. But how can one be a good Christian without demonstrating an overriding concern for the poor and the less fortunate?

Our country has always had a broad swatch of ambivalence running right down the middle of it. We see ourselves as a land of opportunity, since we have made it possible for everyone to get out there, fend for themselves, and “make it happen.” The Federalist admiringly refers to this positive condition as an “absence of obstacles.” By clearing the decks in this way, we assume the demands of social justice have been met. But not everyone has it in them to be a mover and shaker who takes advantage of an absence of obstacles. Not everyone is a go-getter in the popular sense, and not everyone can successfully fend for themselves in an open economic competition. It’s just not in their DNA.

Therefore, as we read in Catholic social teaching, the basic functioning of the economy must provide for a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth generated by the proportional efforts of the great unwashed masses. But exerting any institutional energy in the direction of establishing that more equitable distribution runs counter to our founding philosophy of “individual liberty, economic freedom, and limited government.” As patriotic Americans we keep insisting the market will take care of everything, even though as decent human beings we know it won’t. This is the source of our ambivalence.

Our Popes keep reminding us the little people must be paid a “living wage” that can support a family, and make possible their continued development in the cultural and social realms of human existence. We cannot allow the strong to dominate in a Darwinian struggle for economic survival, leaving everyone else with an assortment of cheap consumer goods as a rather empty consolation prize. The simple folk who would rather expend their energy in life on something other than getting ahead on a grand scale deserve to be treated with the same measure of dignity afforded the high and mighty.

Too many believers in biblical values have allowed themselves, and their Christian faith, to be co-opted by the lure of prosperity that is a hallmark of the great American economic free-for-all. While this free-for-all may have done right by you and yours, it has left too many of our fellow citizens with too little to show for their workplace efforts. Economic injustice is the source of, and inspiration for, every other form of injustice.

And here’s where the present-day connection between economic injustice and the poison fruit of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage is made visible: Having triumphantly marched into the land of milk and honey, the privileged among us forget that those left behind have nowhere else to turn at this point with their economic complaint. So out of sheer desperation they have joined forces with the ones who have succeeded in turning public opinion in favor of infanticide and homosexuality. It is the libertines, for the most part, and not the economically disenfranchised, who are presently storming the barricades, and who have misappropriated the otherwise legitimate concept of cultural diversity to justify their deviant inclinations.

Properly deciphering this subject is a matter of not letting the cultural arbiters, on either the left or the right, define the terms of debate for the rest of us. If we can extricate ourselves from the tight hold of the liberal/conservative dialectic, we’ll see that today’s raging controversy over diversity is a red herring. As Catholics, cultural diversity should be our calling card, our stock in trade. After all, we welcome saints from every nation on earth and all walks of life, who have shown through their example the different paths available for those who wish to imitate Christ.

That so many otherwise good Christians have come to align themselves with the forces of economic exploitation is a tragedy, of course. But it’s also a measure of how confused we are, how unaware of our own heritage we are. If we were paying proper attention we would realize that in the present context of non-stop consumption and striving for monopoly profits, the introduction of a little cultural diversity, in the form of anything that re-instates the dignity of the human person over the dictates of the corporation, could be a very good thing.

Fortunately, not all white Christians have been created equal. In the sense that not all of us have been subsumed into the mindset of what might be described as the “Industrial Aristocracy,” that now rules over what the late Catholic theologian Michael Novak would for some mysterious reason favorably refer to as our “Commercial Republic.” Take this white Christian, for instance, whose words you are reading now. In retrospect, it was my decidedly humble, Catholic-infused upbringing that would serve to inoculate me from the great diaspora that was to come. That upbringing was conducted under the auspices of salt-of-the-earth Catholics who never had two nickels to rub together, and were not overly concerned with that penurious state of affairs. (Early in my modest career as an entrepreneur, my father had the unmitigated gall to announce: “I never tried to make a lot of money.” As an eager, money-obsessed American, I practically disowned him on the spot. But eventually, many years later, I quite unexpectedly came around to his way of thinking.)

Born in the mid-1920s, my parents were each a prototypical Child of the Depression, and came of age before the first great wave of consumer consumption swept over our nation in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Raising six children on the income of one middle manager, they never saw themselves as chasing the American Dream, nor did they identify as being participants in the American Experiment. Though I grant they may not have phrased it just that way at the time.

Also contrary to conventional wisdom, some of us older white Christians of the Catholic persuasion have benefited from dramatic encounters with cultural diversity, starting at a very young age. One reality in the world of Catholic secondary education is that parochial high schools have always been regional in nature. Unlike their public school counterparts, Catholic high schools are forced to draw from a much wider geographic territory, which can end up encompassing a diverse set of neighborhoods, in order to generate the necessary student body count to support a building and a faculty and the related grounds. In my own case, that regional entity was Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County, on the western fringe of the city of Philadelphia, where I matriculated from 1968 to 1972.

To be a hayseed from Saint Anastasia parish in bucolic Newtown Square, where golden waves of grain are blown by a gentle breeze, and be thrown in with the rough crowd that hailed from places closer to the city like Our Lady of Fatima parish in Secane, was a jarring experience, to say the least. It felt like being dropped into that famous nighttime playground fight sequence between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story. Compared to us country mice, the Secane crowd we initially encountered that first semester struck us as street-wise hoodlums. They weren’t, of course. They were just kids, like us. But those guys came across as the most culturally diverse set of youths one could possibly imagine. A different world, to be sure, with a completely different set of rules.

There were other kids from other far away, more city-like places. Like one Charlie Lallo, who hailed from Sacred Heart parish in Havertown. It was the first few weeks of freshman year, and there was a fight in the cafeteria one morning. It’s now fifty years later, and the memory of classmates being forcibly shoved against lockers and loud threats being made still resonates. At one point in the proceedings somebody shouted, “Calm down, Charlie, don’t get so mad.” To which young Mr. Lallo responded at the top of his lungs, “I’m not mad…” Or, in the interest of accuracy it was more like, “I’M NOT MAD…” The rage of this young Italian male was epic, as memory serves. His Havertown cohorts cheerfully taunted him for months afterward with their take-away epitaph, “hey, Charlie, I’m not mad…”

Ah, yes, the Italians. Members of this culturally diverse group played a special role introducing yours truly to the concept of diversity in an up close and personal way. Have any of you, dear readers, ever met any Italians? They are quite an interesting bunch, and as exotic to one’s own way of living as can possibly be imagined. My first exposure to this breed came very early in life. My dear old Da, you see, chose to marry a woman from this foreign tribe, and, as previously noted, went on to raise six children with her. Have any of you, dear friends, ever lived with a female Italian? The prudent recommendation would be to avoid such an arrangement at all costs. In my own case, there were nineteen long, impressionable years spent living under the same roof with an inscrutable Italian lady. To this day, the six of us hold this forced inculcation against the memory of our late father. The man was oblivious to the level of cultural diversity being inflicted on us, while he was conveniently tucked away at work each day. But to give the feisty little pisan her due, she did raise us all as if we were her own, and she did model unconditional love in a most convincing manner.

My father’s inexplicable choice in marital partners also exposed his innocent children to years of regularly scheduled meetings with a wide array of colorful aunts and uncles on his wife’s side of the family, each of whom seemed more unconventional than the next. There were two uncles in particular, older brothers of the woman who raised us, who were renowned for having played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, once upon a time. Now in the twilight of their years, their glory days firmly in the rear view mirror, each continued to teach a select group of students who had, we were solemnly informed, “already mastered their instruments.”

These two elderly gents never broke from their stoic artistic demeanor, except for brief moments of uncharacteristic glee when they would enthusiastically pinch the cheeks of chubby little nephews. It drove us nuts whenever it happened, which of course was every time we greeted them. Oddly enough, though, there are nothing but fond memories of all these culturally diverse aunts and uncles, flawed but endearing human beings, now that each has left this mortal coil.

Through all these early life experiences, certain older white Christians of a Catholic orientation long ago came to embrace the many splendid joys of cultural diversity. No one I have encountered since – from various and sundry ports of call and from all sorts of backgrounds – could possibly match the jarring impact of contemporaries from Secane, or the likes of Charlie Lallo from Havertown, when one was only fourteen years old. Or the seasonal visits with what struck us at the time as the most idiosyncratic of in-law relatives, as one was growing up. Or the lifetime spent ruminating on the many lessons lovingly shared by an oh-so-culturally diverse mother who went by the name of Rita.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 26, 2017

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