Jesse Jackson turns 80
R. Albert Mohler Jr. | What his turns on abortion and other moral issues tell us about America
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Jesse Jackson celebrated his 80th birthday on Oct. 8, and the eight decades of his lifetime reveal an America that is utterly changed, and still changing. What does the life of Jesse Jackson tell us about our nation?
Jackson was born in Greenville, S.C., just weeks before the nation would be plunged into war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Born to an unmarried mother, Jackson was born into a nation that was brutally segregated by race. As a boy, he would know the harsh reality of Jim Crow America as found in the American South. He would also learn what it meant to grow up with the taunts of schoolmates, who made much of the fact that his mother was not married to his father.
As a young man, Jesse Jackson became involved in the civil rights movement and understood that leaders in the movement were drawn from the ranks of black pastors and preachers. Like many young black men of his generation, Jackson followed the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and went north for theological education, attending Chicago Theological Seminary, a liberal school tied to the United Church of Christ. He became an ordained minister but left seminary before graduating.
Returning to the South and to civil rights work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), Jackson became recognized as a master organizer. At the same time, he drew controversy due to what other leaders in the movement considered his endless self-promotion. Jackson became embroiled in a controversy when, immediately after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Jackson claimed that King had died in his arms. Others claimed that Jackson was not even on the same floor of the Lorraine Motel. In any event, Jackson soon founded his own organizations.
Many Americans would come to know the Rev. Jesse Jackson as founder and leader of movements known as Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition. Both organizations would be known for political and corporate activism, and for attracting controversy. But Jackson’s fame would escalate in the 1980s, when he made surprisingly strong runs for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1984 and 1988. He ran to the party’s left, with one of the most liberal platforms of any major candidate at the time.
After those runs for the White House, Jackson leveraged his influence through his organizations, especially the Rainbow Coalition. These days, he is largely in retirement and is known to be fighting Parkinson’s disease.
The life of Jesse Jackson must be understood against the background of America in radical change, the moral cause of the movement for civil rights, and the political maelstroms of the era. But the story of Jesse Jackson must also include two pivotal transformations in his own life and in the life of the nation. Both are essential to understanding today’s politics and battles over morality.
First, the issue of abortion. When he came onto the national stage, Jackson was a warrior for both civil rights and the right to life. In 1977, Jackson declared that the question of human life was “The Question of the twentieth century.” With specific respect to his abhorrence of abortion, Jackson wrote: “How we will respect and understand the nature of life itself is the over-riding moral issue, not of the Black race, but of the human race.”
Jackson went on to root his opposition to abortion in the fact that his unwed mother was counseled to abort when pregnant with Jesse. Speaking as a minister, Jackson declared: “Human life is the highest human good, and God is the supreme good because He is the giver of life. That is my philosophy. Everything I do proceeds from that religious and philosophical principle.”
Two years earlier Jackson helped to found the Christian Action Council, organized to oppose abortion. He joined an “Open Letter to Congress” opposing federal funding of abortion. In 1977, he even spoke at the national March for Life.
All that changed when Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. At that point, facing the reality that his liberal supporters demanded abortion rights, he reversed his position. Writing about the 1988 race, Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy noted: “No other candidate this season, fallen or still standing, has shifted positions as radically as Jackson on abortion. Nor has any reversal received less attention.”
Jesse Jackson’s moral shifts are not limited to abortion. He was an early advocate for the LGBTQ movement and a proponent of same-sex marriage. Liberal theology produces liberal morality. It’s just a matter of time.
Jesse Jackson’s transformation on abortion and LGBTQ issues is just another powerful sign of the power of the left in America. In the Democratic Party, you join the abortion and LGBTQ revolution or you get off the stage.
The second transformation is the shift from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. Jackson was off the main stage of politics by the time BLM came onto the scene. But we must recognize that BLM, founded by three black women, two of whom identified as “queer,” was a deliberate rejection of the clergy-dominated and church-based leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. As one observer noted, BLM is, in many ways, a “counterchurch.”
And so, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has turned 80, and few lives tell us as much about America today. He and I have squared off on any number of controversies over the years. We represent vastly different moralities and vastly divergent theologies. That is a given. But in every personal occasion, he has been gracious. Today, that is not a given. Happy birthday, Jesse.
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