Secularism, says Vincent Lloyd, "wants to give the police better training, to give soldiers humanitarian missions -- not abolish the police and the military.”
Ministers in Charlottesville preached and marched. They proclaimed that God stands in opposition to white supremacy, and they put their bodies on the line against white supremacy. Hundreds of Christian ethicists signed a statement proclaiming that the alt right is a Christian heresy. The University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department condemned “the intimidation, terror, and violence that convulsed and profaned our city and university.”
In short, middle class, multiracial religious communities did not hesitate to take a stand against American fascists. It is certainly noble to take a stand, and in pragmatic terms religious leadership can provide a useful bulwark against racist terror. But there is another, deeper sort of religiosity found in the black radical tradition of Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Malcolm X, and Albert Cleage.
The ways of the world are grotesquely wrong. To see justice prevail on earth, a dramatic transformation of individuals and society would be necessary. Our present habits of thinking, seeing, and acting must be uprooted. These truths are most evident to the most marginalized – in the contemporary United States, to poor blacks – and it is in the struggle of the most marginalized that we catch glimpses of what justice (and beauty, and goodness, and truth) looks like.
“Most black churches sat out the civil rights movement.”
These are insights shared by black religion, at its best, and the black left, at its best. They represent a commitment to transformation from the roots, even when the path from here to there is unclear, even when we are not sure what, exactly, is there. Saying no to white supremacy is necessary, but the more difficult, even more essential task is to say no to the belief that we have to choose between the options on the table -- between two political parties, or between unilateral military intervention and crippling economic sanctions, or between having an incarceration rate four times higher than other nations and an incarceration rate twice as high as other nations.
To refuse the ways of the world, the choices on the table, takes faith in things unseen. Some call it God, some call it revolution -- is there a difference?
Black religion has at times embraced a revolutionary faith. Huey Newton was the son of a Baptist preacher. Newton continually invoked Christian language and images to advance a black radical agenda -- including in his Christomorphically titled autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, and in the iconic image of Newton holding a gun and a spear with a halo-shaped wicker chair behind his head. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a widely circulated “Credo,” a statement of faith twinning belief in God with belief “in the Negro Race; in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth.” Black leaders from Frederick Douglass to Anna Julia Cooper invoked a higher law, God’s law, that runs counter to the laws of slavery and segregation and motivates political organizing.
“Huey Newton continually invoked Christian language and images to advance a black radical agenda.”
But many black religious leaders (and followers) have rejected a revolutionary attitude. In one way or another, they have embraced the ways of the world, meaning the ways of the ruling class -- much like much of the non-religious black middle class. Most black churches sat out the civil rights movement. Black Panther leader David Hilliard attacked black church leaders as “a bunch of bootlicking pimps” in 1970 even as the Panthers were running their free breakfast program out of church basements. The narrative of #BlackLivesMatter often includes the supersession of antiquated, spotlight-seeking black preachers.
Secularism is the name for this problem. It does not just mean rejecting or ignoring religion. Secularism means embracing the world as it is given to us (in medieval Europe saeculum meant “the world”). It means accepting the choices on the table, a table set by the ruling class. It wants to make health care more affordable -- not free. It wants to give the police better training, to give soldiers humanitarian missions -- not abolish the police and the military. It wants to make slavery, or wage slavery, more comfortable -- not bring them to an end.
Secularism can look religious: idolatry means worshipping worldly things. White supremacy certainly is idolatry. It treats one aspect of the world, whiteness, as having extraordinary value. But there can be forms of idolatry that look like religion as well: when preachers say that God wants us to be wealthy, or when they seek proximity to power, or when allegiance to supposedly traditional religion masks misogyny and homophobia.
“Secularism wants to make slavery, or wage slavery, more comfortable -- not bring them to an end.”
More and more young people of all races are keeping a distance from organized religion. Sometimes this manifests as a lack of interest or participation. Churches are thought too time-consuming, too stodgy, or too confining. Sometimes it manifests as a turn to the spiritual: to yoga or New Age practices or indigenous traditions. Spirituality is often understood as this-worldly rather than other-worldly, involving practices of care for the self rather than aimed at transforming the self and the world. Does this mean secularism is taking over -- and, politically, revolutionary consciousness is fading?
No. It just means we have to look elsewhere for black religion. We have to look in places that might not call themselves churches or use the language of spirituality, but that do decisively reject secularism. Consider the burgeoning prison abolition movement. Black abolitionist Mariame Kaba has developed a careful analysis of reforms that strengthen the prison system and non-reformist reforms that call attention to, and challenge, the prison system as such. This is the work of black religion: identifying and rejecting investment in the ways of the world in order to think and live otherwise. Prison abolitionists draw on the legacy of nineteenth century abolitionism, itself a thorough mix of religious and political organizing, to approach what we are told is impossible – and so make it plausible. Rejecting worldly necessities, they conjure a world of justice.
Certainly there are ordained Christian ministers today who represent this sort of black religious radicalism. Rev. Traci Blackmon of St. Louis, Rev. Leslie Callahan of Philadelphia, and the itinerant Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, to take but three examples, all blend grassroots community organizing with the critique of idolatry (that is, ideology). There are also organizers without religious affiliation or with spiritual inclinations standing in this tradition. What matters is not which religion box one checks on the questionnaire. What matters is whether one rejects secularism, the wisdom of the world, in practice. That means organizing at the grassroots level, guided by a suspicion of the choices that we are given, of the ideas of the ruling class.
“Prison abolitionists draw on the legacy of nineteenth century abolitionism, itself a thorough mix of religious and political organizing.”
When Rev. Albert Cleage invited Malcolm X to speak at his Detroit church in 1963, Malcolm was refining his critique of colonialism and imperialism. He was also developing his critique of secularism. In his “Message to the Grassroots,” he railed against those black leaders who sought proximity to power and its benefits. Some of these leaders were ministers, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell. Others were not, like Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins. According to Malcolm, they shared an investment in the ways of the world. Malcolm charged that they were willing to speak out against racism only within limits, only when their own comfort was not threatened.
In contrast, Malcolm recommended “old time religion,” “good religion,” “the one that Ma and Pa used to talk about.” This was not necessarily Islam, nor institutionalized religion as such. It was religion aligned with black revolution, religion committed to overthrowing the ways of the world, drawing on the wisdom of poor and working class blacks to name ideology as idolatry, made actionable through community organizing. Black religion at its best, for Malcolm, is religion of the field Negro, forever at odds with the secularism of the house Negro. In a world pervaded by racial and economic violence, and myriad mystifications, religion of the field Negro is what we need today.
Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He is the author of Religion of the Field Negro: On Black Secularism and Black Theology (Fordham, 2017). He co-edits the journal Political Theology.