Religion and African-American Politics

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sun Nov 5 14:49:32 MST 1995

The difficulties at communication on this list are exemplified by the fact
that I express some commisseration with Rakesh concerning writing a
dissertation (anyone who has done it knows what a trial it can be) and he
assumes I am trying to take some kind of slap at me. Oh well; maybe I just
give up with expressions of human feeling.

On the substantive issues, if Rakesh wants to join Reed in finding convincing
some extraordinary sloppy and contrived empiricist sociology that
African-American religion played no role in the civil rights movement, then
there is not much that I or anyone else could do that would convince him
otherwise. For my own part, I can only say that the evidence of an important
religious role in the civil rights movement, from its cultural expressions
(the music) to its organizational forms (for god's -- whoops -- for pete's
sake, read a history of SCLC or SNCC), from its leadership to its
rank-and-file base, is so overwhelming as to make this discussion absolutely
bizarre. It is the equivalent of having to defend the proposition that the
philosophy of non-violence and civil disobedience (both of which owed a
considerable debt to African-American religious tradition) played a role in
the civil rights movement.

I don't see what Reed's comments about the need to allow for legitimate
dissent within the African-American community and to break with the idea of
an homogeneous and uniform African-American community have any necessary
relation to the role of religion in African-American politics. These notions
that the African-American church is somehow instrinsically anti-democratic,
hostile to dissent and heterogeneous views, seem to me to be based on nothing
more that an uninformed, anti-clerical prejudice against all religious
traditions. The unexceptionable arguments in support of the right to dissent
and the need for heterogeneity are hardly unique to Reed, or to the
anti-religious left. (Indeed, it is fascinating to watch someone like Ralph
savage a Skip Gates on the one hand and praise Adolph Reed on the other hand,
while casually ignoring that Gates had been outspoken is his opposition to
the anti-Semitism of the NOI and its fellow travellers -- long before and far
more publicly than Reed's little sallies. Apparently Gates has the misfortune
of being "a premature anti-fascist and opponent of anti-Semitism.") Dressing
up Reed's anti-clericalism in the garb of values any intelligent democrat
would support does _not_ constitute a very compelling defense of this
hostility to all religion.

W.E.B. DuBois once made the argument that the structure of slavery and Jim
Crow segregation had created a world in which the minister functioned as the
"organic intellectual" (the term is Gramsci's; the content is DuBois') of the
African-American community. Any analysis of power relations within that
community, and of how it has organized itself in its freedom struggles, must
come to grips with that role in a way that Reed's anti-clericalism and
parasitic employment of bourgeois sociology simply will not do.

Politics of cultural transformation are, by their very nature, considerably
greater in scope and more diffuse than a particular political or economic
program. The  black power movements of the 1960s could hardly be reduced to
the ten point program of the Black Panthers (and to call this collection of
rhetorical flourishes a program was surely stretching the plain meaning of
the term.) Campaigns against police brutality were important expressions of
that movement, but the movement was a great deal more. Rakesh may dislike the
rhetoric of the soul and conversion, as is his right, but it is simply
narrow-sighted to ignore the larger moral dimensions of any politics of
cultural transformation.

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