Friday, November 17, 2006

Religion and politics

Sandy Levinson

I have just finished a truly stunning book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, King's Last Campaign, by Michael K. Honey. It will be published by Norton in January. Based on remarkable archival work, Honey, a labor historian who has lived in Memphis, tells the story of the 1968 sanitation worker's strike in Memphis. Though long (some 600 pages), the book is illuminating about both the world of the time and, by contrast, the world of our own, when it is, among other things, unthinkable that national attention would be focused on a strike by sanitation workers. Today George W. Bush has the effrontery to take part in the ceremony marking the placement of a statue of King on the Washington Mall without the slightest understanding of what King was actually about, not only with regard to his pacificism but, in this context, to his militant devotion to economic justice and helping those at the bottom of the ladder.

But that's not the primary motivation for this posting. Almost every single chapter of Honey's book makes clear, once more, the absolute centrality of churches to the civil rights (and labor) movement in Memphis. This is most obvious with regard to African-American churches. King was only the most famous "reverend" to play a key role in the Movement. But there are also the white clergy (and rabbi); usually, they were pusillanimous and hesitant to move more than a step or two beyond their conservative members, most of whom supported the egregious Jew-turned-Episcopalian Mayor Henry Loeb, who rivals in obduracy George W. Bush. Still, it was their own turning against the Mayor, plus the consequences of the assassination of King, that ultimately led to the ending of the strike. There is simply no way of writing a history of Southern politics (especially) without paying lots of attention to religion.

Political liberals and secularists, like myself, have to wrestle with the meaning of this aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the "culture wars" of which Brian writes in his most recent posting, many, perhaps most, political liberal-secularists have been busy denouncing the role played by religion in American politics. But consider that the Catholic Bishops, who have, from my perspective, unfortunately concentrated their energies on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, have also engaged in eloquent criticism of American actions in the Iraq War, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is among the most important groups that still support the idea of a vigorous welfare state. One could obviously present other examples, including the attempts of Jim Wallis and others to present a more politically progressive version of Evangelical politics.

This is not a question of learning to talk about "values" or professing one's own religiosity. I remain a thoroughly secular Jew, with the operative word, when all is said and done, being the adjective. Rather, it is how "we" who have no religious "faith" manifest our respect for and make alliances with those who do have very deep religious commitments and are, as with King, quite literally willing to put their lives on the line in behalf of the most fundamental values of instantiating "equal concern and respect" even for those who pick up our garbage. (Jesse Jackson, who is too often derided, is surely the most eloquent speaker in the country today in behalf of King's late-60's commitment to what he called the "Poor People's Campaign" (which, of course, utterly failed, and not only because he was assassinated).)

I note, for the record, that the number eight and number fourteen books on this weeks New York Times Book Review non-fiction best seller list are, respectively, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation. (Number #23 is Newt Gingrich's Rediscovering God in America.) I suspect that I am in substantial sympathy with the arguments that are made by Dawkins and Harris, neither one of which I've yet read. But I also suspect that their function, at this moment, is simply to reinforce the chasm between secular (almost inevitably) liberals and all persons of religious faith. "Deluded" or not, the people who are described in Honey's great book have a moral stature that is overwhelming. The title of the book, incidentally, comes from the tale of the Good Samaritan, who was walking on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and stopped to help the stranger. One need not be religious to be a Good Samaritan, and one need not even believe that those who are religious are more likely to be Good Samaritans. But many Good Samaritans are religious, and we need to integrate that fact into any practical political strategy for bringing about a better American future.


I'm sharing your post with my old friend, Henry Loeb, Jr.

There are many ideas from religion that seem to me have equal validity for a secularist.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" appears to have as much sense whether or not you are religious. There is even the more colloquial, "what goes around comes around."

One must understand the sustaining effect of religious belief for someone who is struggling against oppression. Take Thurgood Marshall - he is now being considered for being named a saint in the US Episcopal Church. He is reported to have said that his Episcopal faith informed his efforts. This was the only time I had ever heard any religiosity associated with Marshall's work - it seemed to be secular effort. These realities of secular and religious synchronicity - just like Doctor King and all the rest of the openly religious advocates for social and economic justice - should not amaze us or surprise us. It is just old fashion coalition building along common lines of interests, goals and objectives. One should not make a place for the other but rather both should make space for each other.


Part of what is so maddening about the Evangelical (et alia) is their blatant disregard for biblical stories. like the Good Samaritan, the Rich Young Man, The Prodigal, The Harlot, etc.

As a secularist myself, it seems I find these stories of keener interst than "people of faith" (or, at least, the Evanglical kind).

An Evangelical friend of mine does not like, much less understand, the Beatitudes. What? What is not to understand? Why aren't they a central credo? Isn't it the central statement of Christian virtue, like humility, meekness, peaceableness, righteousness, etc?

It would seem that I, a secularist, appreciate Christian wisdom better than the Evangelical, who cares not a wit for the Gospel (preferring Saint Paul). So what does he believe? Those parables don't speak to him?

In fact, no! Once one is "born again" one moves on to Paul and, in order to understand Paul, the OT. The Gospel is not only not central, it's not consulted after one "gets Jesus." It's sole purpose is to "get Jesus" and then move on!

Am I the only one who finds this "logic" incredible? But it does explain why, "When I was hungry, you fed me, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, ...." isn't a part of the Evangelical's consciousness. Why not, I cannot fathom. Did I miss something about 19th C. Evangelicalism that decided to throw Jesus overboard once one is reborn?

A subsidiary observation: Vatican II was remarkable for being the first to engage the "world," not just tenets of faith. One of its greatest documents, Gaudium et spes, ["Church in the Modern World"] was among the first to herald a Christian communitarianism. It offers a decidedly anthropological and sociological perspective through the lens of Christian faith. Even the non-believer has to be impressed with its scope and focus, as a blueprint for a Christian society.

Two other observations: (1) what happened to that vision that got lost for contraception, abortion, and homosexuality? (2)ecumenical councils are meant to be foundational, so #1 is even more odd for the loss. One rarely hears or reads much about this document, which was clearly a central statement. Not even in Catholic publications!

Yes, bishops still address some social and political issues, but without any particular grounding other than their own intuition. The Church Fathers at Vatican II were far more specific and particularized than recent "pronouncements" might suggest. What happened? Is everyone lost in the forest for a single tree? Or is Modernity that overwhelming?

I don't understand this post: it would seem that the author, a secularist, has no understanding of how King truly thought or felt. So how can the author criticize George Bush?

But what the heck. In the faculty lounge, "Down with Bush" is always the right answer, and no one stops to demand logical thought as long as you have the right answer.

I've been chewing on Sean's response for a while. I know it refers to the portion of Sandy's post that isn't the crux of the matter, but something about it was bothering me.

Put aside the bizarre claim that secularists as such can't understand how a religious leader thinks or feels. Put aside the metonymic swipe at the faculty lounge.

There is still an important question here: why chastise Bush for participating in the ceremony marking the placement of the King statue?

I understand that George W. Bush is out of place in such a ceremony. Certainly his policies have run against the spirit of King's movement, and certainly his speech deftly avoids any depth in the area of economic justice. His aggressive stance against affirmative action, for instance, puts him in direct opposition to a course of action King was involved with on the ground level. Politically, they just aren't compatible, and the presence of George W. Bush--a man clearly working at odds with King's methods, if not his goals--at the ceremony may for that reason feel like an "effrontery."

However, if we agree to build a national memorial to a great American leader, shouldn't the President, as our elected head of state, be in attendance? The President's attendance should not be contingent upon the harmony between his own policies and those embodied in the person being honored, but rather upon the importance of the honored person to American society and its development.

It would be an outrage if Bush did not attend the ceremony for King's statue, regardless of how incongruous his personal presence there may be. So, I find I can't agree that his presence is an "effrontery," although I wholeheartedly agree that it is politically incongruous.

I have no idea (other than the presently unpublished book he has been given advance copy review of) how Sandy Levinson reaches his conclusions and nonobjective observations about 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. A truer source of information than Levinson’s comments is simply going to archives of Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal ( and getting its reiteration of events and strike chronology, which includes details of the court injunction against this illegal strike under Tennessee law then and which is more precisely codified and in force now, local philanthropist’s financial donation that bridged the final budgetary impasse, specifics of my father conducting his legal obligations (not inclusive of Dad’s personal faith motivation) as twice popularly elected Mayor of Memphis, etceteras. Dad was always burdened with the related death and violence of 1968, but he felt the facts and events that transpired were self-explanatory to anyone with open minded historical perspective. If we can put aside the secular like Memphis’ top credit rating when Dad was mayor versus how it registers now or the way municipal unions had brought cities like New York and Philadelphia to their knees of near bankruptcy in the 60’s, and their present day illogic of garbage collectors being much better paid than public grade and high school teachers, perhaps Levinson and I agree on the present day need of many more Good Samaritans. If he came to Memphis and did his own research instead of “practical political strategy” he evidently reads, he could come across thousands of individuals that would tell him, my old man always tried to be the Good Samaritan to any individual or group that needed to see him and had dire need of job, advice, loan, roll up his sleeve help, funds, mediation, fund raising for all denominations and charities, and on & on.

Henry G. Loeb

Religion as such is not as important as an understanding of community. It's possible to be a secularist and not an individualist, but that notion is foreign to this country, or at least it's philosophical history.

Communitarianism is an intellectual's dream of individuals choosing to working together, but it ignores the fact that individuals are only distinguishable as varieties of a common form. American political/intellctual life sees itself as separate from and superior to American cultural life.
Philosophers want to imagine themselves as scientists; and the left are called 'progressives.'
It's all crap.

That's about all I'm capable of at the moment.

I can obviously understand why Henry Loeb, Jr., would wish to defend his father,. I must say, though, that the Memphis Commercial-Appeal is portrayed by Prof. Honey as a systematically biased source of information, part and parcel of the old guard that was determined to repress the movement for human dignity instantiated in the sanitation workers' strike. I would be more impressed if Mr. Loeb could cite other scholarly examinations of the Memphis strike--I am sure they exist and that Prof. Honey, however excellent his book may be, is not necessarily the definitive authority on what happened--that are more generous to his father with regard to the specific issue of the strike and whether it could have been settled weeks earlier (and, thus, without the assassination of Martin Luther King) had he not been so obdurate. (To be sure, he had the support of what is portrayed as a cowardly city council that was willing to defer to him, in part because he had indeed been elected twice as mayor and had almost overwhelming support from white Memphis for his obduracy.)

Throughout much of western history, many advances in civilisation have been motivated by the religious faith of the individuals leading them. To name just a few: abolitionist William Wilberforce; prison reformer Elizabeth Fry; founder of modern nursing Grace Nightingale; and more recently Dr King in the US and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa.

At the same time, their fiercest opponents have also often portrayed themselves (not always hypocritically) as being motivated by faith as they understood it. So where does that leave us? In the end, all we can really conclude is that there are many different forms of religious belief and interpretation, with differing social consequences.

The difficulty with this analysis is that it forgets two facts: (1) the civil rights movement had many leaders and adherents who were not religious believers (Schwerner and Goodman, for two) and (2) the anti-civil rights movement contained a large number of religious leaders. Remember that King addressed his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to fellow clergy from the mainstream churches who were advocating a "go slow" policy.

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
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