Solidarity Under God

By Ray Waddle

The emergencies besetting America have not spared Christian institutions. They stand accused of either complicity or complacency in the dire struggles coursing through national life.

For years, with few exceptions, they had little to say about regressive tax policies that have worsened inequality. They seemed caught by surprise when the reckonings around sexual harassment and racial injustice finally detonated. Church leadership was often absent in righting wrongs of economic unfairness, voter suppression, gun slaughters, permanent wars, and oligarchic erosions of democracy.

Religion loses its way when it wanders away from the basic facts of the suffering of real people. When great daily effort is spent denying the humanity of others and the inhuman conditions of their circumstances, pathologies fill the void.

But that’s not the whole story. The faith has not been silent. It still imagines a better American future. Its theological principles and witness push the nation to dream those democratic dreams still.

The troubled question of a Christian response to daily social crisis is nothing new. It’s nothing new to African Americans, who’ve resisted centuries of Christian institutional failure to act against white supremacy and extreme economic disparity. When will the rest of the nation turn to them and learn from them?

A Black Social Gospel

Some 140 years ago Black clergy started forging a social gospel movementa new abolitionism to ensure African-American rights, personhood, dignity, full citizenship, a stake in the nation’s futureafter the wretched betrayals of Reconstruction. This social reform movement drew on the political progressivism of the era, but it was strongly based on Christian ideals, the sacred nobility of all human beings, an insistence that Christian faith is incompatible with racial bigotry. Adherents believed in the possibility of social salvation: institutions, not just individuals, are guilty of sin and can be reformed.

The movement had something in common with its better-known white-dominated social gospel counterpart. But the Black social gospel called on its own Exodus and Crucifixion, its own painful experience of biblical truth. And so with leaders such as Reverdy Ransom, George Woodbey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Ida B. Wells, and Nannie H. Burroughs, the civil rights movement began, not in the 1950s but in the 1880s. A line can be drawn that links that first group of pioneers to the 20th century achievement of Howard Thurman, Pauli Murray, Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond. This history, so often obscured or told piecemeal, is the subject of a recent comprehensive multi-volume study by social ethicist Gary Dorrien.[1]

Fear, Hatred, Deception

Later, in the 1930s, inspired by these forerunners, Howard Thurman started clarifying nascent thoughts about Christian nonviolent direct action against the racist segregation festering in America. His meeting in India with Mohandas Gandhi in 1935 was decisive. As Thurman came to see it, the religion of Jesus could liberate a suffering person from fear, hatred, and deception. It could liberate a society too. By the early 1950s, his ideas had reached Dr. King.

“Thurman’s Christianity embraced and transcended contradiction,” write Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. “He was a child of the South, but had his most crucial education in the North. He was close in the 1930s to the radical currents surging through progressive politics, but always based his politics on the need for the United States to live up to its democratic potential and make true citizenship a reality for all Americans. Thurman’s vision was capacious, seeing in the unity of God the necessity for the unity of all people. Only a Christianity that had been purged of racism and of historical divisions that had kept whites and blacks apart could be an instrument of social change.”[2]

Fear, hatred, deceptionthree words that characterize not only the 1930s and 40s when Thurman was writing but the 2020s … the internet disinformation, chaotic pandemic responses, seething political sectarianism, gullible voting blocs, institutional helplessness, and fragile mental health.

The Religion of Jesus

The religion of Jesus stands by, awaiting activation, and nonviolent social gospel strategies formidably carry on. William Barber and the Poor People Campaign are direct descendants. Their movement uses revivalist vocabulary and prophetic biblical teachings to oppose national illsstructural racism, extremist nationalism, poisonous water supplies, anti-poor housing policies, mass incarceration, the war economy. The first of the movement’s 12 Principles declares: “We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.”

White liberal evangelicals have drawn on some of the same visionthe person of Jesus and the politics of Matthew 25, seeing the face of Christ in people who are suffering and forgotten.[3] Reflecting Catholic social teaching, Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation names nonviolent Christian activism“critique of systems, organizing, speeches, boycotts, protests, and resistance against all forms of systemic injustice and deceit”as one of its thematic streams.[4]

Civil Religion Revisited

These moral arguments replenish a particular ethical vision of recent decadesthe American civil religion, an idea as old as the Founders, who envisioned the US not as a Christian nation or a secular citadel but a society based on biblical notions of prophetic justice and also Enlightenment ideas of civic republicanism. Yale sociology professor Philip Gorski argues that a viable national civil religion needs both traditions to ensure “prophetic republicanism” even if they are often in tension and forever falling short of their ideals.[5]

Much is at stake: the American democratic experiment itself hangs in the balance, as Gorski argues.[6] The centrist values of US civil religion, including freedom, equalitarianism, self-discipline, and a commitment to the common good across the generations, feed a vision that a pluralistic society can plausibly rally around.

It has been voiced by “civic theologians” Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Heschel, Dr. King, and many others. Its outcome is never guaranteed. Such centrism is assaulted on all sidesby religious nationalism, secular libertarianism, social Darwinism and other isms that sing the triumph of money, the glorification of strength, a tribal contempt for weakness, an embrace of extreme inequality, or a scorn for others’ constitutional rights and guarantees.

Spiritual Tenants of Political Sanity

After more than a century, the Black social gospel represents one of the few defiantly persistent religious movements that call out the culture’s culprits and adhere to ecumenically Christian notions long associated with the flowering of democracy. These are foundational to a workable civil religion:

• the sacredness of the soul bearing the image of God, which argues for individual liberty and equality as well as the freedom of religion.

• a doctrine of sin, underscoring the need for a balance of power in society (congregations, unions, representative government, voter access, civil disobedience) to stem oligarchy, concentrated power, and racial prejudice.

• the providence of God and the goodness of creation, which make partnerships imaginable and trustworthy between a free people and their institutions to work for consensus and public good.

• the Bible’s story of redemption, an unbroken earthly promise stretching from Old Testament times to the present day.

Black social gospelers have stayed the course by necessity, with an unavoidable focus on “people who stand with their backs against the wall,” as Thurman wrote. Religion loses its way when it wanders away from the facts of suffering of real people. In some American quarters today, great daily effort is spent denying the humanity of others and the inhuman conditions of their circumstances. When the facts of real-world suffering are ignored, pathologies fill the voidoverheated anxieties, rancid conspiracies, a feverish fear of the future. The salvation of American religion, and democracy too, and the white congregations, depends in no small way on opening its heart to the crucible-tested faith of Black churches.

[1] Dorrien’s The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel came out in 2016, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel in 2018. Both are published by Yale University Press.

[2] Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Beacon Press, 2011), p. xxiv.

[3] Christopher H. Evans, “The Social Gospel Movement and the Religious Left,” The Role of Religion in Public Policy, edited by Eamon Doyle (Greenhaven Publishing, 2019), p. 40.

[5] See Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Yale, 2017).

[6] Gorski, p. 220 ff.