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The Original Faith-based Initiative

Presently terms such as "prophetic" and "faith-based" are so tossed around and used and abused by both the Left and the Right that they have become meaningless. A certain poseur black public intellectual, for example, has made a career by using the former, while the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue deploys the latter as a means to supplant the government’s role in allocating funds to the poor. In these cynical times it is hard to grasp that the words once actually had some meaning, or that—in some quarters—they still do.

One historical example is the civil rights movement. In A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (North Carolina, 2004), David L. Chappell, a historian at the University of Arkansas, examines the intellectual and anti-intellectual origins of the black freedom movement’s assault on Southern segregation. Ostensibly an intellectual history of the ideas, passions, and faith that stirred the civil rights movement, Chappell’s work is "anti-intellectual" in that it examines the motivational role of religious faith, which is, in essence, irrational.

Chappell views the destruction of the Southern Way of Life as being rooted in certain cultural changes in that region which affected both black and whites, albeit differently and for different reasons. He asks questions about liberalism’s failure to achieve "anything substantial for black rights" in its heyday, the 1930s and 1940s. He wants to know how "black southerners [found] a philosophical inspiration to rebel" as well as how they sustained the "confidence, solidarity, and discipline" to win. Conversely, given their superior resources, how did white segregationists lose?

In a variety of ways, the answers lay in the galvanizing role of that "old-time religion."

In the first chapter of A Stone of Hope (a line borrowed from King’s momentous 1963 civil rights speech), the author looks at liberalism’s lack of faith. Prior to the emergence of the New Right, liberalism succeeded as a political movement because it answered the ravishes of the marketplace, and sought to reorganize society along more equitable lines in the aftermath of the Depression. Liberalism, a child of the Enlightenment, has always predicated itself on reason. However, this has left modern man, to use Max Weber’s term, "disenchanted" with the rational, scientific, organizational view of human existence. The magic of religion has been reduced in a world of science and acquisitive capitalism. Chappell treats intellectuals like Glenn Frank, Thurman Arnold, Walter Lippman, Rexford Tugwell, and John Dewey as exponents of various shades of liberalism, all of whom confronted the belief system’s essential hollowness.

Liberalism had no depth of faith that could bind men and women together to sacrifice for the common good. Dewey was the patron philosopher of independent liberals and sought to develop a secular faith, which he could not reconcile with the fact that a faith usually relied on the supernatural acting in the world. As a man of reason, Dewey also knew that knowledge and faith also cancelled each other out since knowledge was a rational drive toward certainty but faith accepted uncertainty but trusted in God’s will. Liberals, in Chappell’s view, had "pulpit envy" because they could never congeal a set of precepts and time-honored views of the world comparable to a religion—or to free-market conservatism.

Despite liberalism’s triumph in the post-WWII era and its association with civil rights, Chappell argues that liberals, especially cold warriors like Arthur Schlesinger and the Americans for Democratic Action, were behind the curve when it came to race. They just didn’t see it as a burning issue like foreign policy (read Communism) or labor. To them it was a back-burner issue that would work itself out because of education and the American can-do spirit of optimism, which was best exemplified by Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma , published in 1944. An American Dilemma argued that there was a disconnect between what Americans believed ("creed") and what they practiced, and if they could just get the two in sync the race problem would work itself out, and this was usually by education. Blacks, in other words, had to use their own resources and move on their own initiative.

However, liberals like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr were less sanguine. In his book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr didn’t think that the blessings of democratic institutions would necessarily lead to gradualist acceptance of blacks as full citizens. Any effort on behalf of the downtrodden (labor, blacks) would entail some form of "coercion" against the holders of power. Chappell writes:

Niebuhr criticized the naïve hope that a new system of education, or a revival of religion or any other human program, would make social conflict unnecessary in the future. Relations between groups, Niebuhr argued, must always be based on force.

The use of force, or coercion, by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement led to the defeat of segregation, but coercion was covered with the velvet glove of Gandhian non-violent resistance that was taught to King by Bayard Rustin. Often overlooked is that the liberation of India in 1947 began the de-colonization movement that swept through Africa and Asia, of which non-violent resistance to the British was the key tactic; some picked up the gun, others used faith and sacrifice. King, as an intellectual and activist, had fused aspects of Niebuhrian theology along with his background as a "prince" (i.e. son of a minister) in the black church. While being touted as "prophetic," the black church, however, had also accommodated itself to segregation as well as developed charismatic leaders who tended to be short on long-term organizational skills.

The essential element of the prophetic tradition, from the Hebrew Scriptures, is to speak truth to power; in this view, society—i.e. man—is corrupt. For Chappell, the lives and thoughts of such activists as James Lawson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Modjeska Simkins were examples of the different tendencies within the prophetic tradition. However, the radical difference for the movement activists was to include both "action" as well as the power of the black preacher, ordained or lay. Chappell writes:

"The high moral tone of the Baptist preacher," said Rustin, "well suited the movement…. The movement needed an emotional dimension to whip up the enthusiasm of people who might soon be forced to face economic hardships or physical danger. And no one could bring a crowd to an emotional pitch like the black preacher."

African Americans posed outside of church, 1899 or 1900, from Negro life in Georgia, U.S.A., compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo courtesy Daniel Murray Collection (Library of Congress).
African Americans posed outside of church, 1899 or 1900, from Negro life in Georgia, U.S.A., compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo courtesy Daniel Murray Collection (Library of Congress).

One of Chappell’s more radical interpretations is that while southern blacks were fortified by their prophetic beliefs and sense of realism, the walls of segregation came tumbling down because white religious leaders and other members of the southern intelligentsia could no longer provide an adequate rationalization for white supremacy. The Solid South—the Solid White South—was a chimera. Despite thousands of southerners fighting and dying in the Civil War and benefiting from Jim Crow, it could no longer maintain itself against blacks, who were better organized and more motivated to win their freedom. According to Chappell,

Black civil rights activists focused on divisions within the so-called white community…They did not threaten total humiliation and enslavement of the white population, but a complicated improvisation of compromises that might offend some white folk but offered others a more orderly, more peaceful social life than one disrupted by boycotts….

Or, in the case of the North, by riots.

Put another way, southern civil rights activists didn’t engage in a scorched earth policy, as did the Union Army during the Civil War, or impose a Carthaginian peace, as the Radical Republicans did in the Reconstruction era. The flip side was that the southern blacks knew their white folks better than their white folks knew them. When average whites saw what was going on they may have grumbled about their way of life ending but there were "not enough committed segregationists willing to sacrifice themselves in perpetual war with black activists." What should also be noted is that segregation notwithstanding, blacks and whites were already on the most intimate terms with one another, which is why the South has always been a schizophrenic region in terms of race, as Lillian Smith pointed out in her classic book, Killers of the Dream (1949). There people lived together, played the same songs, ate the same food, worshipped at the same level of intensity (albeit for different reasons), and were probably closer to being "one people" more than most black and white Americans were in other parts of the country. The major difference, of course, was that blacks were restricted to a regime of humiliation and political disenfranchisement.

At the heart of A Stone of Hope is the examination of an irrational factor, namely religion, and how a prophetic faith among a band of brothers and sisters made them able to tackle what appeared to be a monolith. Historically, religion has a bad reputation, and rightly so, but it has been able to inspire solidarity, sacrifice and commitment more than either liberalism or Marxism, which became a secular religion without the spirituality of Christianity. Marxism, as practiced in the former USSR and ilk states, was arid and vastly disenchanting; it was the kind of dry "religion" that drove people to opium, and made some desirous of rock ’n’ roll and/or ready to engage in consumer goods idol worship. In postwar America, however, religion helped black southerners with "different philosophical roots" than white liberals "seiz[e] the initiative, and gai[n] a degree of influence over civil rights policy."

While Chappell makes some interesting observations about post-civil rights white religious conservatism (which is proactive against everything except for race), he doesn’t have much to say about what happened to post-civil rights black prophetic Christianity. Granted, one of the reasons that it petered out was that its greatest exponent was assassinated in Memphis. Black prophetic Christianity is charismatic and very much dependent on exceptional individuals to inspire "ordinary" people to take exceptional risks. A drawback, however, is that black prophetic Christianity doesn’t build strong institutions or organizations to help people confront mundane and/or complicated political issues. Despite the victory over segregation, blacks also became absorbed into the Democratic Party, thus negating the civil rights movement’s independent power.

Today, the black church, despite its past role of heroic inspiration during the civil rights era, has generally returned to a disheartening quietism. Nary a peep is heard from it regarding issues that directly affect blacks or on other national debates. Perhaps a study of the contemporary church may be Chappell’s next project. He claims to be an atheist, but he does seem to understand that while religion may well be the opiate of the people, it is also the sigh of the oppressed in a heartless world.

Norman Kelley’s The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Death of Black Politics (Nation Books) is due out in June.


Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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