During the grueling years of civil rights protests, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies often turned to their Christian faith for sustenance (Booker 2014). This fact is frequently raised by admirers and critics alike. While Christianity played a crucial role in movement’s pro–integration campaigns, contemporary discourses are often uncritical of Christian teachings that led to what King called ‘spiritual moribundity’ (Ferguson–Smith 2015), as well as pro–segregation activism (Evans 2006:147), anti–black violence and the ostracism of non-theistic partners. This essay puts forward a critical analysis of the role of Christian teachings (CT) in the civil rights movement.
Section I provides an analysis of the essay question. It argues that ‘Christian teachings’ is a nebulous concept that does not denote a unitary worldview, and therefore, must be analysed within distinct socio–political, cultural and economic contexts. The analysis of the main variable (i.e. CT) in the question is needed because it sets the stage for more nuanced and balanced analyses. Section II provides a general overview of the role of Christian teachings in the civil rights movement (CRM), concluding that such teachings, while important, proved insufficient. Section III examines the role of CT from the perspective of the progressive black church. Section IV does a similar examination from the viewpoint of predominantly white evangelicals (white church) who were described as the movement’s “fiercest critics” (Evans 2006). Section V briefly summarises the key points.
Christian Teachings and the Politics of Christianity
Interrogation of the Essay Question
Three decades after the Harlem Renaissance (HR) and first Great Migration of blacks to the north (Steward 2003:2010), America was once again engulfed in a debate about blacks’ civil rights. Several HR intellectuals became prominent leaders of 1950s civil rights campaigns. These leaders drew largely from what Cornel West (Hedges 2013) calls the ‘black prophetic tradition’. Their commitment to faith enabled them to marshal effective resistance to Jim Crow (Ferguson–Smith 2015) and secure advances in key areas where the HR failed. Ironically, this commitment to faith also gave credence to potent anti–civil rights detractors, especially white and black evangelicals (Scheller 2018).
In discussing the role of Christian teachings in the CRM, one must examine the teachings that propelled the movement, as well as those teachings that held it back (Booker 2014:215). Christian teachings are sometimes instructive (e.g. love your enemies—Matt. 5:38). Others encapsulate the worldviews (e.g. ‘only personal regeneration can end America’s race problems’) that govern varying factions of Christendom, as well as life outside the church. During the CRM, the black church’s (progressives) and white church’s (evangelicals) understanding of Christian doctrine was undergirded by their political postures. As such, Christian doctrine in the white church (WC) was used to concretise their socio–political hegemony. Calhoun–Brown (2000:169) describes the civil rights era WC as “the principal institution of oppression and racism in the country.” In many ways, the evolution of the black church (BC) was in direct response to the WCs’ domination.
I use the phrases black church and white church guardedly. Calhoun–Brown (2000:167) notes that “many (black) ministries refused to become involved (in the CRM)…the translation of black Christianity into a nonviolent political movement was by no means automatic.” This assertion is shared by Fairclough (1958:35), who notes that as many as “90% of black ministers shunned the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” in Birmingham. Equally, arguments in support of Jim Crow Laws did not receive the support of all white churches. Jim Crow was sanctified mainly by southern (white) evangelical theologies (Harvey 2016:4). Early progressive Christians’ (black church and white Protestants) interpretations of scripture were not only different from evangelicals’, they were also subversive in the ways they challenged status quo.
This shows that American Christianity has never been monolithic (Harrington 2007, Marsh 1997). Booker (2014:218) discusses Marsh’s (1997) observations regarding how varying interpretations of “Christian theologies pervade…stances towards civil rights” and led to the perpetuation of “social injustices”. Some black activists, including Fannie Lou Hamer, rejected scriptural edicts (e.g. ‘the meek will inherit the earth’) that suggested that they accept their lowly place in America (Hamer 1964).
Denominations choose to accentuate some teachings and de-emphasise others. Divergences in exegeses lead to varied commitments. Christian teachings, therefore, should not be viewed as a unitary concept but rather as a complex mix of conflicting injunctions and expectations, which should not be divorced from the culture in which they evolved. This culture, as well as being religious, is also economic and socio–political. To accurately examine the role Christian teachings played in the CRM, one must, therefore, also examine the ‘politics of Christianity’ at that time.
In examining the politics of Christianity in America, I’ll be able to more accurately highlight how similarities and differences in radical and mainstream Christian teachings led to the promotion and repudiation of civil rights (Harrington 2007:4). Some of these teachings around issues such as homosexuality and atheism resulted in the ostracism of some of the era’s most compelling voices (Thrasher 2013). Given the diversity and elasticity of the Christian Faith, the notion of Christian teachings becomes nebulous against the backdrop of hermeneutical differences that characterise the wide spectrum of American Christianity (Ross et al 2012:3616).
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