In 1920, a talented American rower named Jack Kelly applied to race in the British Henley Royal Regatta. The most prestigious rowing event in the world, the Henley seemed a natural fit for Kelly, who had already been the U.S. national rowing champion.
Yet he never got to row: Kelly, a bricklayer, was told that his background in manual work disqualified him. According to the then-rules of the Henley, no one “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer” would be allowed to compete.
This effete classism is contrary to America’s founding charter and its fundamental presupposition: that God has made all men equal, and endowed all of us with certain rights that should be protected by government.
Terms like “middle class” are, in a sense, un-American. Although often used to describe people whose income falls within the median range, the use of the term “class” infers social stratification and various levels of rank.
“Class” is a European concept, one grounded in the belief that some people are born inferior, their temporal value more limited than others who merit special consideration with respect to economic station, education, perceived social ranking, etc.
This notion is repulsive to the founding principles of our republic. Our belief in our equality before our Creator has given us men and women whose modest or even impoverished backgrounds have not thwarted their rise to leadership, wealth or esteem.
Recently presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum made the same point. In his words, “There are no classes in America. We are a country that (does not) allow for titles. We don’t put people in classes. There may be middle-income people, but the idea that somehow or another we’re going to buy into the class-warfare arguments … is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon.” I would alter one word in the senator’s wise comments: “Class” should not be part of the American lexicon.
Isolating people into “class” groups (whether they are professional, occupational, ethnic, etc.) is a convenient way of simplifying the complexities, and enormous potential, that characterize each person. How neat, how easy to dismiss someone by saying, “Oh, he comes from the country,” or, “Did you see that he’s wearing Dockers?” Or, worse yet, “Don’t bother with his opinion — he doesn’t have a degree.”
The concept of class invites stereotyping, arrogance, discrimination, a socially acceptable form of bigotry. Understood properly, it is intrinsically in opposition to Judeo-Christian moral teaching.
None of this is to suggest that some people are not more capable, virtuous or prudent than others, or that the prosperous should not enjoy prosperity’s fruits. It is to suggest that because one’s father was a merchant does not mean his son cannot become an attorney. Nor does it mean that someone’s occupation defines his whole being: A cabdriver can love and understand Dostoevsky as well or better than a professor of literature. A grocer can appreciate opera. And a Ph.D. can be a fool.
Abraham Lincoln called the equality of men the “central idea” of American politics. Like few before or since, the 16th president grasped that persons possessing value before the God of the universe deserve just and equal treatment under law and adequate opportunities to compete in society.
This idea is not uniquely American, but it is none too common in our world. In 2006, I spent extensive time in India. While there, the horribly stark contrasts between the destitute and the rich were raw. When I asked one of my Indian colleagues how more well-off Indians could pass by people whose needs were so great, he said that in Hindu theology, those in the lower castes were getting what they deserve — reincarnational justice, or “karma,” at work.
Thus, the moral sense of duty to help the poor was vitiated. As a result, Indian society remains broken, its layers determined by nothing but accident of birth.
In an 1826 letter to Roger Weightman — the last note he ever penned — Thomas Jefferson quoted the British rebel Richard Rumbold, one of Cromwell’s men, when he wrote: “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has ‘not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them’ legitimately, by the grace of God.”
Jack Kelly might never have rowed in the Henley, but he won three Olympic gold medals for rowing thereafter. Reportedly, he mailed his 1920 Olympic racing cap to King George V with the note, “Greetings from a bricklayer.”
Kelly’s daughter Grace became an actress and later the Princess of Monaco. I hope that, as royalty, her husband was willing to shake her father’s hand. Personally, I’d have been proud to.
Robert Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.