Religious Faith and the Village Atheists

jones/bhandari djones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Sun Nov 5 14:26:14 MST 1995


>Having once struggled through a period of time in which I tried to find some
>balance between political commitments and dissertation writing, 

I am obviously trying to balance dissertation writing and internet
participation right now.  I presume that Leo is taking the same jab at me
that Stu did.  I shall resist the temptation to prove or recount my
activism, but I am not, as Reed suggested about himself, involved in
politics at the present moment. The dissertation is full-time.  

>
>1. This notion that religious affiliation and involvement is depoliticizing
>is really some half-baked, vulgar version of Weberian sociology in which the
>progress of modernity is linked intrinsically to secularization. From it is
>obtained the thesis, expounded by Reed in his book of Jesse Jackson, that the
>persistence of religious forms and institutions in African-American communal
>life is somehow an expression of its backwardness, and that they must be
>replaced by secular communal/political forms.

Reed does not espouse communal forms.  Why does he argue in secular terms
that "dissent must be dissociated from the stigma of race treason, and the
principles of rational political argument and open participation must be
brought to bear on the relation between representatives and represented"?
What dangers does Reed see in "the long-standing antiparticpatory style of
organic spokesmen [which]has been reproduced among elective leadership"? 
Why does Reed conclude that the "main focus for practical political
activity within the black community in this context must be breaking down
the illusion of a single racial opinion"? 

We cannot assess Reed's argument against religious forms unless we
understand his answers to these questions.  

>leading strains of the African-American religious
>tradition and African-American churches have been developing theologies of
>liberation, and have been central resources in the actual freedom struggles.

Reed is discussing the role of the church in the civil rights movement, and
Leo's claim in this historical period is simply invalidated by the
empirical evidence which he makes no effort to refute. I have nothing to
add to Reed's marshalling of evidence.   

> perhaps some vulgar "materialists" may reject any
>moral component of a liberatory politics, but the equation of such a view
>with self-serving, opportunistic preachers is a 'bad faith' interpretation of
>West's views.

Perhaps I was thrown off by West's phrase "politics of conversion."  I
don't know why this makes me think of preachers.  Bad faith on my part? 

At any rate, my specific criticism is not Steinberg's in Turning Back: The
Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.   I do not deny
the problems of nihilism and even cultural degeneration; however, I do not
agree with their conceptualization in such a way that they become tractable
to what I think West means by a politics of conversion, which  suggests to
me  preachers  African Liberation Weekends and the MMM.  I do not know how
else this politics is to be institutionalized or concretized.     

Anyways, part of the problem is that it is impossible to understand what
West means.  "Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of
one's soul."
What does this mean, Leo?  How does one turn the  soul?  Again, I repeat
West's contribution is this idea of the politics of conversion, the
definition of which is vague at best.  One has to read into it.  At any
rate, he has nothing to add by way of an analysis of actual political
structures, the changing countours of the American economy, the class
contradictions which compromise the idea of racial organicism, the nature
of the electoral system, etc.  

Moreover,  Reed does not deny that there is a need for cultural
self-transformation (see in particular Jennifer Jordan's contribution to
the volume which he edited) :  "Should not leadership--most of all
leadership that bases its claims on moral authority--strive to inspire
constituents to transcend those of their practices and dispositions which
undermine the democratic values of autonomy and open community and which
leave them ill-equipped to face the challenges that confront them as
citizens?"  

The cultural self-transformation suggested here is that required for
ordinary  people to take initiative into their own hands, as Katha Pollitt
has eloquently argued in her recent Nation column on the MMM.  In Reed's
hands, criticism is of the limits (external and self-imposed)to such
initiative.  In West's hands criticism is  superficial and the solutions
offered near incomprehensible at best. At worst, he ends up finding
conversion and soul-turning the MMM, without being able to clarify the real
threat generated by the validation of Louis Farrakhan.

Rakesh



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