Some pundits have made fun of Jim Webb's deep interest in his Scotch-Irish ancestry, which manifested itself most fully in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.
But in addition to getting people talking about the almost-forgotten group again, and helping establish him as a candidate in one of the most Scotch-Irish states, the book stands as one of the best explorations of the roots of "red state" values. As a North Carolinian whose family tree is largely Scotch-Irish, it offered one "oh, that's
where that came from" after another about familiar political and cultural values, some of them what you would call conservative values, but many of them purely apolitical things. (Here
's a post from back when Webb won the Virginia primary).
It's not hard to see strains of Born Fighting
in Webb's political career. In fact, one could describe his first term in the Senate as an experiment in adapting what he sees as core Scotch-Irish values into Democratic policy stances. As the title suggests, much of the book involves the key role military service has played in Scotch-Irish culture (and the key role the Scotch-Irish have played in the military); in 2008, Webb was the lead sponsor of the revamped GI bill
. Born Fighting
emphasizes the group's salt of the earth egalitarianism and hatred of elitism; in his 2007 response
to the State of the Union, Webb lamented that corporate CEO pay had risen from 20 times that of the average worker 40 years ago to 400 times that today. Finally, Born Fighting
discussed widespread opposition to affirmative action programs among Appalachian whites, on the grounds that most of their ancestors never owned slaves; last month, he sparked a controversy by calling
for an end to race-based affirmative action, and advocating for a class-based system in its place (that's a loaded issue, and I'm going to abstain from further comment now, except to note that Webb's op-ed did
say that America still owed a debt to African-Americans).
The current controversy over the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks from ground zero provides Webb with his best opportunity yet to frame a policy stance in the context of Scotch-Irish history. Religious discrimination was one of the major root causes of the Protestant migration
from Ulster to North America during the 1700's. Although the Penal Laws
imposed by the British were designed primarily to disenfranchise Ireland's Catholic majority, they also discriminated against the Protestants in Ulster, the vast majority of whom were Presbyterian. By the late 1720's, Protestants were barred from voting and holding office, and only marriages performed by the Church of England were legally recognized, meaning that Presbyterian ministers could not wed members of their own congregations. That decade saw the first major Protestant migration from Ulster to the American colonies, which promised religious freedom and economic opportunity. One sermon
given to a ship departing Ulster stated the reasons for leaving as follows: "To avoid oppression and cruel bondage; to shun persecution and designed ruin; to withdraw from the communion of idolators; to have opportunity to worship God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of his word." By the end of the century, approximately 300,000
Ulster Protestants had left for the American colonies, filling in the western parts of the Mid-Atlantic states and then moving south and westward.
As far as I can tell, Senator Webb has not made any public statements about the mosque debate. If he does decide to comment on the issue, he could provide a strong defense of religious freedom by hearkening back to the discrimination against his Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ancestors in Ulster, and their subsequent migration to the American frontier. Referencing the religious discrimination against his own ancestors could help reframe the debate as a matter of core American values dating back to, and actually before, our Nation's founding - not merely a matter of political correctness, as many conservatives see it. And it might even remind a few American Protestants, especially those of us from the South or Appalachia, that some of our ancestors have been on the other side of the coin before.