How is it that, in a country founded on the separation of church and state, religious groups play such an important role in American political life?
As a young married woman in the 1960s, I knew that the Civil Rights Movement I admired had a religious element and that, while the Episcopal Church I attended in Harlem engaged in outreach to that neighborhood, the denomination as a whole showed no particular dedication to political concerns beyond those of the social class it represented.
I was a graduate student at Columbia University, getting my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and had just married Henry J. Pratt who was a research assistant to Reinhold Niebuhr, (a theologian famous for his writings on social justice) while he studied for his Ph.D. in Political Science.
In his thesis on the National Council of Churches Henry argued that while local churches tended to hold back from social justice issues, the Council had become, because it was a complex organization, a powerful actor in American Progressivism. In other words, and counterintuitively to the usual bromides about bureaucracies discouraging activism because of their very complexity, he proposed that it was precisely this high level of complexity that allowed them as bureaucracies to go into action. Using the National Council of Churches as a case study, he demonstrated that when religious groups form coalitions with each other, they become astonishingly effective forces for social justice.
On a side note: The result of those years was a book on The Liberalization of American Protestantism: A Case Study in Complex Organizations (Wayne State University Press, 1971). Many years later, after several other books on interest group politics, Henry returned to his original research to write Churches and Urban Government in Detroit and New York, 1895-1994 (Wayne State University Press, 2004). In 2000, when the book was very nearly completed, he died, very sadly, at age sixty-five. My daughter, Faith Hopp (like her father, a Professor at Wayne State University), Professor Ronald Brown of the Political Science Department, and I polished up the final draft.
The Civil Rights Movement in America: How it came about
The clearest example of inter-church and interfaith cooperation in our lifetimes has been the Civil Rights Movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The twentieth-century movement can be understood as a continuation of the Abolition Movement of the 19th century, which was similarly composed of a coalition of Christian denominations.
Starting with the Clapham Sect of Evangelical Anglicans in eighteenth-century England, the movement influenced activists in the United States, especially Unitarians, Protestant Evangelicals, and Quakers, to form the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
This white coalition joined forces with African American escapees from slavery, who were recruited and sheltered by a coalition of the Black Christian churches and their congregants which had always been a cohesive force in their communities. They published their harrowing stories in Abolition books and pamphlets and traveled from city to city to give stirring speeches.
One of the most famous was Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” on The Underground Railroad, a south-north escape route, consisting of a series of Quaker, Unitarian and Black churches and the homes of their congregants where “travelers” were protected on their journey. Another was Frederick Douglass, whose best-selling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) was a huge influence on the cause of abolition. Both Tubman and Douglass fought for women’s as well as Black rights and advocated for Women’s Suffrage in their speeches.
Fast forward to 1963, and we find that Bayard Rustin, a Black Quaker from the Pennsylvania community that fostered Harriet Tubman, was the principal organizer of the March on Washington. Adam Gopnik has a great article in the New Yorker about Rustin, whose leadership had to be hidden because he was gay. And Netflix just pushed out a film on his life which is a memorable tribute to his courage and determination to right wrongs:
As a Quaker, he knew how to unite a coalition of fractious groups around a common cause. After a visit to India in 1948, it was Rustin who brought the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to the Civil Rights Movement and combined them with his Quaker-based skills to reach consensus to organize the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
From the 1960s onward: The rocky road toward the institutionalization of the Movement
Meanwhile, back at the National Council of Churches, Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham jail excoriating the passivity of White Protestants led to the formation of the General Commission on Religion and Race (CORR), which went into action and recruited 60,000 white protestants (mainly clergy, including my brother) to join the 140,000 Black protestors for the August 28 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Amid considerable discomfort on the part of the Black leadership, the march turned into an integrated rather than an all-Black event.
Those of us who witnessed that era realized there was nothing “soft” about the non-violent method fostered by Dr. King’s coalition of Black Churches: it was militant and tough-minded and required extraordinary personal courage.
As Gandhi puts it, “It is not nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the hater is the most difficult of all.”
As white denominations fled cities after the urban race riots of the late 1960s and took far less interest in civil rights when it became clear that it was a northern and not just a southern issue, Black Churches allied with Black Nationalists to wield considerable political power.
Detroit’s 300-member Council of Black Clergy, for example, was effectively active in politics during four terms Coleman Young was the first Black Mayor of Detroit (1974-1994).
Black Churches and Social Reform
Meanwhile, Black Churches, as throughout their history, were deeply engaged in empowering their communities. For example, Detroit’s Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, with its famous pastor, Reverend Charles Gilchrist Adams who grew the congregation to 10,000 members, worked for practical improvements in its neighborhood.
A one-time aid to Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Adams had business savvy and a hands-on, strategic practicality that led to programs like meal deliveries for seniors, a Head Start program, and the rebuilding of an entire northwest Detroit neighborhood. With the enthusiastic cooperation of (white) mayor Mike Duggan and in alliance with Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, Adams saw to the purchase and revitalization of the Seven Mile Corridor and the development of a variety of new businesses, restaurants, and jobs. The keystone of this church-led social redevelopment project was Hartford Village, a senior housing community.
A recent series about Black Churches Today on Detroit’s Public Television details the continuing influence of Black church organizations on urban policy.
The series lists two principal Detroit Black Church goals for 2024 as getting out the vote (“getting souls to the polls”), and the elimination of gun violence.
A national crusade for theocracy: The end to the separation of church and state?
Constitutional restraints regarding the separation of church and state prohibit a church or a pastor from endorsing a particular candidate for public office but allow positions on policy issues. One of our political parties, however, has tragically abandoned compliance to the U.S. Constitution: Christian Evangelical Denominations promoting American Theocracy constitute the most important supporters of Donald Trump’s run for a second term.
It isn’t only that these right-wing Evangelicals approve his nomination of three Supreme Court Justices that led to the abandonment of abortion rights, as well as support his positions against homosexuality and immigration: many of them believe him to be “ordained by God” and identify him with a Messiah (they have put out a 3-minute video promoting this idea) or Jesus himself. Although Trump practices no religion that I know of, he plays up those identities, equating his court cases with the crucifixion (“I am going through this for you”).
Even worse, most Trump supporters (including the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson) identify themselves as “Christian Nationalists” who (mistakenly) believe that America was founded as a White Christian Nationalist State. As Representative Jared Huffman of California puts it,
I really want to underscore the violence [associated with Christian nationalism]. No one should confuse the Christian nationalist movement…as just a bunch of people of faith that want to practice their faith. It is the opposite of that. These are people who want power and control over others. They want to take over our government. They want to eliminate the separation of church and state and impose a biblically sanctioned theocracy.
Although in the Iowa Republican Primary, the large population of Christian Evangelicals delivered the vote for Trump, Christian Nationalists make up only a relatively small percentage of American voters as a whole. A survey conducted last year (February 2023) by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 10% of Americans are avowed Christian nationalists, while an additional 19% are sympathetic to Christian nationalist ideals.
This adds up to 29%, not an insignificant percentage by any means, yet it is impossible to know whether being “sympathetic” implies the kind of unconditional support for Trump that Christian Nationalists display. The survey concluded that more than half Republicans identify as Christian nationalists or sympathizers and that is a matter of concern
All “souls to the polls”: The fight for democracy and freedom from authoritarian theocracy
Meanwhile, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are allying with secular organizations against this unconstitutional crusade for a national theocracy.
With its 37 member communions and 30 million individuals, the National Council of Churches remains an effective counterforce and is vocal in its opposition.
After the January 6, 2021 insurrection, faith leaders from a variety of American religions came up with a 75-page report titled “All of US: Organizing to Counter White Christian Nationalism and Build a Pro-Democracy Society.” As Jack Jenkins writes in “Christian Nationalist’s Opponents are Getting Organized.” Their report is but the latest in an intensifying effort to challenge Christian nationalism and its influence on U.S. politics.
Numerous denominations are condemning the ideology. Local faith leaders are launching awareness campaigns. Clergy and secular groups are teaming up to strategize ways to combat Christian nationalism ahead of the 2024 elections.
In the video: Bishop Vashti McKenzie during the Poor People’s Campaign’s congressional briefing on Sept. 22, 2022, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington
Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), who recently condemned Christian nationalism in testimony before Congress, along with others, has partnered with groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF, an Atheist group), producing a BJC-FFRF joint report on the role Christian nationalism played in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
In the United States, religion clearly remains a political force to be reckoned with, whether for good or ill. Although Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans, we are faced in the upcoming 2024 elections with the dismaying fact that a large swath of the Republican Party is convinced that the last Presidential election was fraudulent, that their candidate is above the law, and that constitutional democracy should be replaced with “strong man” fascism.
What can we hope for?
First, cases brought by Maine, Illinois and Colorado banning Trump from candidacy on the basis of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should be heard by the Supreme Court in February. The Amendment bans anyone who has engaged in insurrection or rebellion from holding Federal Office. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will apply the straightforward constitutional rule and keep Trump from running for office on a nationwide basis.
Secondly, Trump has been indicted in four cases:
- State Indictment on Business Charges in New York
- Federal Indictment on Obstruction of Justice Charges in Georgia
- Federal Indictment on Classified Documents Charges in Florida.
- Federal Indictment for Conspiracy to Defraud the United States by overturning the election process on and before January 6, 2021.
Although Trump is using every legal play he can come up with to delay these trials until he is elected President and can pardon himself, there is a good chance that special prosecutor Jack Smith will be able to bring the January 6 charge to trial this spring. A good number of his supporters have said that they will not vote for him if he has been proven guilty.
So, it will be all “souls to the polls” for our thriving Black churches and every means possible of getting out the vote for the rest of us since all we can do is to put all that we have into preserving our fragile, beloved democracy.
We cannot let the lights go out in the “city upon the hill”. Since World War II, America has always led the fight for democracy around the world, presenting a model of a desirable (if not perfect) democracy. The stakes are high, they have never been higher, as the eyes of the world are upon the American elections this year.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 Credit: TapTheForwardAssist (cc)