In Praise of Dead White Men

Wesley J. Smith
First Things
December 14, 2012
Link to Original Article

Upon entering my former church, the first things one noticed were ten framed photographs displayed in a line on the opposite wall. They were all of white men in clerical collars, displayed to honor every reverend who had pastored the parish since its founding in 1887. 

I always found it interesting to see the societal transitions reflected in the photos. Arranged in chronological order, the first was of a stiffly Victorian-looking fellow, with each subsequent pastor looking more casual than the last. The final photo, the only one in color, was of the current pastor, who has been leading the church since 1982.

When I arrived on the scene, circa 1995, the church was a vibrant and progressive parish with a strong outreach to the gay community and all others who felt wounded by what most viewed as the wrongful moralism of orthodox Christianity.

I was clearly the most conservative congregant, yet to my surprise, I was elected to the church council. One night, at the conclusion of an otherwise unremarkable meeting, the president asked if there was any new business. “Yes,” replied Beverly (let’s call her). “I move that the photos of all the former pastors be taken down from the narthex.”

When asked why she had made such a strange motion, Beverly explained that they were all white men. So much white maleness, she insisted, was patriarchal and unrepresentative of the parish’s current essence.

“If it weren’t for those ‘white men,’” I responded heatedly, “we wouldn’t have this beautiful church in which to meet. We wouldn’t enjoy solid finances. Heck, we wouldn’t even be a parish!” And I had a reasonable suggestion, which I regretfully stated in an unhelpful sarcastic tone: “Rather than putting the pastors in the closet, why not instead add photos of current members to show ‘who we are’?”

Beverly reacted in kind. Her voice dripping with disdain, she asked me, “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Good question, I thought. Her challenge forced me to finally admit that as my parish and the national church of which it is a part were moving rapidly to the moral and theological left, I was heading in the opposite direction. We had ceased to be a good fit. Within a year, I made the painful decision to join a more conservative parish. A few years after that, I converted out of the national church.

Since the recent election, I have been thinking of that old episode. In many ways it seems that the nation is following the same cultural road taken by my former parish. I can almost hear the refrain: Take those awful photos out of the narthex!

Once again, I dissent. Recall that white men issued the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” assertion of universal equality. Three hundred thousand white Union soldiers gave their lives to free the slaves. Having been convinced of the sheer moral righteousness of the Suffragette cause, white men amended the Constitution to grant women the franchise. White men also risked their safety, and sometimes shed their blood, in solidarity with people of color to bring down Jim Crow. In short, but for the acquiescence of—and societal reform by—white men, we wouldn’t have reached the current better day in which an African American was twice elected president and the current female Secretary of State is his heiress apparent.

To be sure, I am not at all pleased with many contemporary political and cultural trends. I believe too many conflate liberty with license and fear that some want to replace true equality with new categorically invidious divisions. Indeed, I worry that our society is in danger of turning away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s content-of-our-character Promised Land just when we have nearly reached the destination.

Which brings me back to the fateful evening when Beverly told me to take a hike. The question about my place in the parish was barely uttered when Pastor (as everyone called him) cut her off cold. Reiterating an oft-repeated homily theme, he firmly told her, “Everyone is welcome at this church! We are about creating unity in the midst of differences here, not giving in to discord. No one doesn’t belong.” Then he asked us both to calm down and shake hands. We did, and despite our continuing fundamental differences, we never shared another cross word.

A few years ago, I happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to stop by the church and say hello to the Pastor, whom I still hold in great affection. As I entered the narthex I was very gratified to see the past pastors still in their place of honor on the wall—a sign of continuity in the midst of dramatic change.

Our political, cultural, and social divisions look as if they will continue to widen. But they need not tear us apart. As Pastor always taught: We need to keep working at loving our neighbor because no one doesn’t belong.