Saturday, April 15

Um, No

Andrew Sullivan:
I should address a point made by Ross Douthat about the intersection of religion and politics. Ross equates what the Republican party has been doing for some time with the civil rights movement. He argues that just as the civil rights movement was inspired by faith, so too is the religious tenor of the current GOP. Surely, you can't praise one and dismiss the other? Here's what I'd say. The civil rights movement was indeed a fundamentally religious phenomenon, and you cannot understand it without understanding that. It was also multi-denominational and included Democrats and Republicans. Its core religious principle was non-violence, and it drew enormous inspiration from Gandhi. It included Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, atheists and agnostics. And it never, in King's time, became a vehicle for one political party to win elections. Never. And in so far as it subsequently did, in so far as people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton used religion to buttress a partisan machine, what was left of the civil rights movement lost moral authority. And deserved to.

Far be it from me to minimize the contribution of people of faith, and of faith itself, to the Civil Rights movement, but despite the addition of multiple denominations, Jews and Muslims, atheists and agnostics, this is just another easy substitution of King hagiography for actual history. "You cannot understand the movement without understanding it as a fundamentally religious phenomenon"? All we can do is try.

Apart from a single praeteritio, we'll ignore what both Sullivan and Douthat ignore with motives opposite to mine: the slave holders of the 19th Century and the segregationists of the 20th had their own churches and quoted the Bible quite expertly. But let's begin with the easy part: the Civil Rights movement did not begin with Martin Luther King, Jr. And while it's true that the Abolitionist movement opposed slavery as a sin. there was no opportunity to oppose it from a legal standpoint; the Constitution was clear, and the Congress enacted a gag rule prohibiting anti-slavery legislation. Once the issue reached the level of civil war the abolitionists pushed for a military solution to slavery, and at its end a legal one in the 14th and 15th Amendments. With the re-installation of legalized racism at the collapse of the Reconstruction, and the second wave under Wilson, came the rise of the NAACP, which led the battle for civil rights for five decades, seeking legal redress through the courts, culminating in the Brown decision of 1954. I don't understand any of those to be fundamentally religious propositions.

It was the NAACP that organized the Montgomery bus boycott (Rosa Parks was the local chapter secretary). The state of Alabama responded by effectively banning the organization. The ban was later overturned by the Supreme Court, but in the interim the local churches, the closest thing to free black organizations in the segregated South, and of which King and Ralph Abernathy were the two most prominent leaders, took up the slack.

Out of that success came the Southern Christian Leadership Council with King at its head. The NAACP wanted to pursue legal solutions to segregation; the SCLU, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, favored direct confrontation. King and Ralph Wilkins battled for years, though they aided each other as well. The NAACP's approach fell out of favor for its slow, legalistic, and some felt overly solicitous of white America, approach.

Non-violence for Dr. King was a political method, not a religious tenet, a distinction he made explicit in interviews. The part of the movement he led wasn't Gandhian by creed, but rather by pragmatism. SNCC later advocated violence in self-defense, and later as part of revolutionary violence.

So, no, Andrew, I don't have to conceded the movement was fundamentally religious in order to understand it. In fact it's just the opposite. Religious conviction, and people of faith, were a fundamental part of a movement which was about civil rights for the disenfranchised. It was not a fifteen-year revival meeting. It was a 150-year slog through ugly and violent repression.

Sorry, too, but the bipartisanship of the movement is somewhat overplayed. It's true that both Republicans and Democrats fought on both sides. It's true that Dr. King was carefully non-partisan. But to say the movement "never became a vehicle for one political party to win elections" in King's time is a latter-day sugar-coating, largely of Republican party actions. The movement was used as a negative factor to gain votes. The Eisenhower administration did all it could to distance itself from Brown, for fear that the Republican party would be seen as the party of integration. Eisenhower, who supported voting rights but was personally opposed to integration, sent troops into Little Rock in support of the rule of law. He didn't send in the Airborne when Arkansas closed all public schools a year later.

After LBJ dared risk the wrath of racist voters by doing what was right, Goldwater sealed the deal in '64 by kicking Southern blacks--who had been voting Republican when they could for a hundred years--out of the party in order to attract the racists to his side, a process which would be completed under Reagan. The suggestion that "people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton used religion to buttress a partisan machine" is a prime example of the willful failure to understand the history, as well as an insult to people's intelligence. African-Americans don't vote overwhelmingly Democratic because they've been hoodwinked by a couple of Republican bugbears, and furthermore, they understand what is meant when people suggest they do. The movement may have lost its force after thousands risked and sacrificed much for important gains, but it hasn't lost its moral authority. We just have one party full of professional deniers these days.


Anonymous said...

Oh, my God. I can't believe he even wrote that.
I'm speechless.

Glad you're not.

Anonymous said...

Me, too.

I fear that the way things are going history texts 100 years from now will describe the courage of the GOP (under the valiant leadership of God, Nixon and Reagan) in bringing civil rights to black Americans suffering under the yoke of the Kennedys and liberal Democrats, whose forebears instituted slavery to stifle free-market capitalism... or something like that.