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Religion And Civil Rights

Jon Chait's TRB this week has elicited a long response from Ross Douthat. Ross' post quotes Chait as follows:

Then we have the civil rights movement. This has become the social right's favorite example--a cuddly historical mascot for anti-secular politics. The argument is that, if you support Martin Luther King--and who doesn't these days?--you shouldn't have a problem with other kinds of faith-based politics.

It's certainly true that the civil rights movement was rooted in black churches and the language of religious liberation. But this was an artifact of a unique situation. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the one-party white supremacist character of Southern politics had destroyed every other possible outlet for African American politics other than the church. Civil rights activism took the form of preaching because that was the only form black politics could take.

To this Ross adds:

Chait’s argument is condescending and bizarre. It’s so kind of him to grant the civil rights movement permission to talk about Moses and the Promised Land, so gracious of him to let them appeal to their fellow Southerners’ Christian principles in making the case for human equality, so considerate of him to grant a special exception to the rule of secular politics. I wonder – just how many alternative political outlets would have had to be available to the civil rights movement to render MLK’s sermonizing speeches unseemly in Chait’s eyes? (Quite a few did exist, after all, starting with the NAACP – and of course as Christopher Hitchens never tires of pointing, there were atheists and Communists doing their part for civil rights as well.) More importantly, where does one apply for the special License to Commit Faith-Based Politics that Chait grants to King and Abernathy? Is there an Office of Causes So Desperate That It’s Okay To Invoke the Supreme Being? (Maybe pro-lifers should camp out there, in the hopes that some kindly bureaucrat will smile on them one day.)

Putting the tone of the above paragraph to one side, Ross' argument is a little mystifying. First of all, yes there were the atheists and the NAACP and the communists that Christopher Hitchens and others like to celebrate (and rightly so). But does Ross really think that a civil rights movement led solely by the Bayard Rustins of the world would have achieved anywhere near the level of success that Dr. King did? Moreover, it was hard enough for King himself to develop "credibility" while being smeared by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and other reactionary forces who thought he was nothing more than a communist. Surely the imprimatur of religious faith was of some help in creating the political space that civil rights leaders needed. It might be worth adding here that people with Ross' politics would perhaps not have been as open to ending segregation in the south if A. Philip Randolph had been the public face of the movement.

Moreover, Jon isn't arguing for what Ross sarcastically defines as a "special License"--he's simply making a claim about one of the few avenues that was available to those in favor of civil rights. I see nothing all that strange about an argument for taking faith out of the political arena--except in extreme circumstances. 

Ross concludes:

No, this won’t do. There’s no standard you can set that doesn’t fatally compromise the standing of religious Americans, and unduly privilege the interests (and prejudices) of their secular fellow citizens. Faith-based politics is often unwise and counterproductive, God knows. But it isn’t un-American; if anything, it’s more American than any purely-secular alternative. And so it should remain.

Sorry, but why is it necessarry to set a strict "standard"? And I don't think Jon ever said that religious influence is "un-American". Finally, one has to love that Ross' concern here is for the "prejudices" of secular Americans--a slightly unseemly formulation, I might add, considering that religion was used for hundreds of years to justify slavery. Ross himself notes that the language of religion had "appeal" to segregationists. I wonder why that was the case.

Isaac Chotiner