I still remember the anxiety I felt leaving for vacation during the oil crisis. The Nixon administration reiterated US support of Israel in response to a Saudi threat to halt oil shipments. An oil embargo ensued, gas prices soared and long lines at gas stations became part of our landscape.
Equipped with false optimism and a few experiences with finding gas stations with gas before lines formed, I set out despite the risk that I could get stranded. Throughout the trip, I watched for gas stations that looked abandoned. More often than even my optimism imagined, an empty station had gas available, but went undiscovered since the public looked for lines instead of open signs.
With each stop, a line formed by the time I finished pumping my gas.
The U.S. was coming down from an economic high that began after the Great Depression. And although I was driving a Mustang 2 with a stick, larger cars were still the norm. Princeton University historian Meg Jacobs summarizes the era this way. “Everybody was completely dependent and in love with their cars as a symbol of American triumph and freedom.”
An “energy crisis” coming on with no warning created a shockwave. The U.S. appetite for energy was huge and growing, creating a dependence on oil imported from the Middle East, in particular.
According to David Leonhardt, the energy crisis completed a perfect storm of pressures that unleashed businesses from the cross-checks that allowed most Americans to flourish.
The stage was set for Ronald Regan to win the presidency equipped with policies based on supply-side economics. His campaign platform emphasized lower taxes, deregulation, and free-market capitalism.
Although Regan never used the phrase “trickle down,” his speeches resonated with blue-collar workers and families hurt by increasing tax rates on incomes unable to keep up with rising costs.
The ideas are simple. Take away governmental controls, reducing cost and allowing U.S. companies to reap higher profits. Their success benefits everyone. Business leaders easily adopted a philosophy that higher incomes for themselves was good for America.
Another complicating factor contributed to the challenges facing most Americans. Immigration, during the boom years for American families, remained in the background. Immigration laws favored immigrants from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. Countries where their citizens were mostly not interested in leaving home.
Since immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries were not limited, corporate farms benefited from lower-cost labor without complication. Freer movement of people between borders benefited businesses by keeping labor rates down.
The idea of the U.S. being a melting pot of people from different cultures and national origin was only a footnote. With the help of a successful book by Senator John F. Kennedy, called A Nation of Immigrants, the notion became mainstream. Historian James Truslow Adams is credited with creating the phrase “American dream,” in telling the success story of an immigrant from Russia, Mary Antin, who later would end her memoir with “Mine is the shining future.”
President Johnson signed a new bill into law eliminating immigrant quotas by country and prioritizing family members of people who were already in the country and workers with high-level professional skills.
No one supporting the new immigration policies anticipated the impact the bill would have on the number of persons coming to the U.S. The bill did not count family members as part of the annual limits on new applicants, and the majority of immigrants looked for blue-collar jobs. In 1965, less than 5% of U.S. citizens were foreign born. Today, that number exceeds 14%.
Leonhardt reminds us of some of the prominent names whose parents came to the U.S. shortly before 1965: Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Just to name a few. “Immigrants are not a random subset of the population,” writes Leonhardt. “People who are willing to uproot their lives for better opportunities have more ambition and grit than an average person, and these qualities help them succeed.”
Research shows that our personal view of immigration may have more to do with our social location than with our political or cultural affiliations.
American psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues made this discovery through a research instrument known as the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Their research found that educated professionals are more likely to prioritize care for vulnerable persons and fairness.
But while people from the working-class share these same values, they’re more likely to prioritize respect for authority, appreciation of tradition, and loyalty to family and community. Values that mean less to professionals.
These priorities help explain why working-class households are more likely to give a greater percentage of their income to charity, particularly churches, than upper-income households.
Leonhardt argues that immigration policy represents a distillation of the tensions between these two worldviews. From one view, the government needs to limit immigration and prioritize its own citizens. On the other hand, national loyalties can be blinding. Immigration increases the global standard of living by allowing more people to share in our country’s prosperity.
The Lord protects the strangers who live in our land.
Regardless of your own view of these tradeoffs, we’re all part of God’s created world. And God loves us all without bias. Psalm 146 reminds us that the Lord protects the strangers who live in our land. Whether they’re a surgeon, farmhand, or in line at the soup kitchen.
And so should we.
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Parts of our series was inspired by David Leonhardt. Ours was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. New York: Penguin Random House, 2023.
Reis Thebault. “Long lines, high prices and fisticuffs: The 1970s gas shortages fueled bedlam in America.” © Washington Post, May 13, 2021. Retrieved from: link