Over on Slacktivist Fred Clark has done a short series discussing the historic disruption of progressive causes in America from their religious roots. It’s a good series; you should go read it. While I was reading through it, I was struck by the story of the conflict between the American Bible Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society. The abolitionists, citing the recurring motifs of emancipation and freedom that appear throughout the narratives collected in the Bible, felt that facilitating slaves’ access to the Bible was an essential part of promoting the cause of abolition. They petitioned repeatedly for the American Bible Society to help provide Bibles to slaves in the South, but the Society demurred because they were afraid of upsetting their southern slaveholding membership who also recognized these motifs in the Bible. The long and short of it is that through a confluence of events and the pressures of slaveholders, the organization that had as its central mission the spread of access to the Bible helped to withhold it from people living in slavery and, at the same time, declared itself the true champion of the Bible’s centrality to Christian life.
They were so insistent in this messaging that it has been a central feature of socially conservative white Christianity in America ever since. This point has been so thoroughly conceded to conservatives that any expression of faith is automatically assumed to carry with it a sort of anti-progressiveness. It’s a major part of white evangelical identity, with subcultural markers like denying the science of evolution, insisting that nonviable zygotes and fetuses are equivalent to human beings, declaring monogamous heterosexual marriage to be the only marriage ordained by God, and clinging to gender norms that arose in Victorian England all stemming from a belief that these are necessary parts of any kind of walk of faith. This idea is so deeply ingrained that even progressives often cop to a secular stance on social issues, assuming that the socially conservative position coincides with the religious one.
This has been a difficult paradigm to live within as I’ve left white evangelicalism and become significantly more politically liberal. White Christian traditions in America, and in the South especially, don’t have a lot of room for people with liberal politics. It’s a risky thing to participate in a church community, especially one where the group demands that you profess their core beliefs uniformly before you can officially belong, and be open about political opinions that run counter to the established narrative. You’re viewed as an odd Christian, someone who’s not doing well with their spiritual walk. A robust faith is defined by adherence to the Republican party line.
The result of this cultural narrative is that even when I understand implicitly that my political opinions don’t negate my ability to participate in my faith, the lack of faith communities that would affirm my combination of political and religious identities forces one or the other to atrophy. Politics are easily reinforced, so that aspect of myself has grown stronger, but I haven’t had the same nurturance on the religious side. Every passing year makes my identity as a Christian feel less and less secure, and I’m not happy that this is the case. The love of social justice that has come with my becoming more liberal has always been rooted in my faith; I see in Jesus’ life and teachings a model for better treatment of my fellow human beings. It’s just become so difficult to take hold of the imagination of faith in the pursuit of justice.
That’s why I’ve been really moved by the series at Slacktivist. In the second entry, Clark provides a quote from Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” which seizes on that imagination in a way that I’ve rarely seen it expressed:
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.
That’s heady stuff, though it’s nowhere near the entirety of Douglass’s critique of American Christianity. He follows with a quote from the book of Isaiah that underlines the hypocrisy of which the American church stands accused:
“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”
This is the call for justice that gets so often undermined in the white American church. This is the message that I want infused into my faith, married to the drive for positive action.
I’ve thought on and off that if I’m looking for this expression of faith, I should seriously consider going back to doing regular Bible study. This was one of those activities you just did in the white evangelical subculture, and after my break from that tradition I set it aside; part of it was wanting that time for other things, and part of it was needing distance from stuff that served as a reminder of the subculture I left. I think there’s been enough time now that a lot of the really hurt parts have healed, so I might get back into reading the Bible.
One surprising place where I have been seeing this element of social justice married with genuine expressions of faith is in the fiction I’ve been reading by Muslim authors. I’m an unapologetic fan of G Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel comic, and one of the major reasons I love it so much is that an important dimension of Kamala’s motivation as a superhero is her desire to express her faith in a way that genuinely helps others. One of the ongoing threads of the series is that Kamala’s struggling to balance her superheroics with her regular life, and in more recent issues she’s doing that with the support of her mother, who has figured out her secret identity. Also (and this one is more recent), I’ve been reading Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is a second world fantasy with a setting that’s heavily based on Arabic cultures. Though the characters aren’t explicitly Muslim, it’s clear that faith is a significant part of everyone’s lives regardless of their perspectives on social issues (there’s a wonderful contrast between the ghul hunter Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, who’s world-weary and less concerned with standing on ceremony, and his assistant Raseed bas Raseed, a young man living as an ascetic who still believes strongly in the rightness of social hierarchies; both are portrayed as devout men despite their differing worldviews). These characters who belong to different faith traditions and seek out social justice appear so much more vibrant than what I’ve seen depicted in American Christianity, progressive or otherwise.
The more I’ve been reflecting on this lack of progressive Christian exemplars (and the broader problem of liberalism being viewed as a more secular social tradition), the more angry I’ve found myself becoming. When I first converted to Christianity, I felt like I had found something that helped make my life seem more complete. I’m a generally pessimistic person, and I’ve always had difficulty coping with the possibility of a meaningless universe. Nihilism’s not my bag, and existentialism’s really poor comfort, so learning to adhere to a philosophy that has a supernatural foundation was a major part of helping me manage those dark moments that I suspect everyone has periodically. Christianity is a great comfort in that regard, but the poisonous sanctimony of white evangelicalism makes it hard to maintain any faith that’s even adjacent to that tradition.
There was a period a couple years ago, right after I started becoming liberal, when I felt strongly that it’s important to stake out a claim in Christianity as a progressive, to declare as loudly as possible that Jesus is not just for pearl-clutching, homophobic, white supremacist anti-abortionists. I went rounds with people on the internet arguing this fact, and in at least one case that I still recall vividly, I was denied the title of Christian by another believer.
That incident hurt a lot. I wrote a pretty extensive series (“Walk Humbly” and its subsequent posts) dissecting the conversation in question because I wanted to process what had happened. I’d never been accused of heresy before, and it was not a pleasant feeling. In a lot of ways, that experience severely damaged my connection with Christianity; it absolutely broke my affinity for evangelicalism. I was angry for a long time, and then eventually the anger was replaced with a desire just to not be associated with the source of all that toxicity. I hadn’t been attending a church at that point (it’s just hard to find one that’s not socially conservative in the South), but afterwards I actively avoided it. The rare occasions when I needed to go, usually when visiting with friends who were still evangelical, I felt nothing but unease.
These days I don’t think much about the fact that I’m not active in a Christian community. That’s just how my life has been shaped. It used to be that when the thought did cross my mind it was mostly tinged with sadness; I’d think of white evangelicalism as toxic, but that was something endemic to the subculture, not something its members were actively choosing. These days, the sadness is turning more to anger; like many people, my mind’s just never that far from American politics, and I remember that it’s white evangelicals who screwed the rest of the country over, and I remember that they chose this, and I remember that they refuse to let anyone else claim Christianity.
I don’t know what to do with my faith anymore; it’s this precious, fragile thing that I keep stowed away for fear of any more damage coming to it. But faith without works is useless, isn’t it?