Wading Back in the Troubled Waters
A few notes on Katrina, religion, and the weird trifecta coincidence of Katrina, MLK’s speech in 1963, and Glenn Beck’s picnic on the mall.
First, the NYT has an interesting piece on the Katrina and black churches in New Orleans, focusing specifically on the Lower 9th. Of some 75 churches there before the storm, a great number have closed down, many likely for good. About a dozen struggle to remain, their tenuous hold a symbol for the tenuous hold of the recovery outside the touristed zones. Amid the more chipper pieces the paper ran on various pieces of good news about the recovery, this gives a piece of reality on the other side. The article chronicles the efforts of one pastor who is trying to fire up his congregation again, an uphill battle for sure. This article makes a nice accompaniment to the special issue of the Journal of Southern Religion, on religion through the storm. The issue includes (among many other goodies) Tulane professor Randy Sparks’s piece on religion and recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans. And it gave me a nice reminder about perhaps the single most compelling video production I’ve seen on Katrina, Trouble the Waters, which we’ve blogged about here before. And I mean no disrespect to Spike Lee’s outstanding efforts there in When the Levees Broke and, more recently, his revisit to New Orleans, timed for the Saints to march in and BP to spill its guts out. When the Levees Broke is a great film, but for total immersion viewing it’s hard to beat Trouble the Waters (plus it’s giving me the title for a book I hope to start to work on next year).
On Katrina, politics, and religion, my thunder has been stolen by Tenured Radical’s post today Five Years After Hurricane Katrina, What Would Jesus Do?, which comes with the added bonus of a Johnny Cash clip from YouTube (always a good thing). “Looking back over the last five years,” she concludes, “we need less God and more politics: by that I mean not less faith, and all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide, but we need to end the lie that you can substitute faith for politics.” This and much else at the post is so much better than what I was struggling to come up with that I’ll just point you there. To her post, I would only add the point that the most effective use of religious rhetoric in twentieth-century America has been to provide the spiritual inspiration necessary to move recalcitrant political institutions (hence the connection between the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Bill; or social Catholicism and the New Deal). But presumably that is what she means by “all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide.”
I was thinking along these lines today as I’m in the midst of reading Alison Greene’s excellent dissertation “No Depression in Heaven” (recently completed at Yale, under Glenda Gilmore), a searching history of religion and politics in Memphis and the Delta through the Depression years. The hapless rhetoric of evangelicals through that era was especially resonant given the same vapid speechifying at the Glenn Beck picnic this weekend. Also fascinating in her work is to see the churches basically cede authority to NGO’s (the Red Cross in particular) and, as the New Deal progressed, governmental agencies. The evangelicals basically said 1) the Depression just shows that we need a revival – that the nation needs to “turn back to God”; 2) in the meantime, don’t look to us for relief, because we ain’t got any; if you need food, go someplace else, because there’s too many of you to serve; 3) only God, not politics, can save us; 4) but Jesus is coming soon anyway. Obviously this applies to only part of the diverse religious formations through that time period, not (for example) to the religious left, and actually not to some of the premillennialist Pentecostals who had another agenda going on. But at the very least, these evangelicals implicitly understood that, for all their rhetoric about turning back to God, ultimately governing authorities might have answers, not to mention indispensable resources, that they just didn’t have. Perhaps they might have even given an ear to Tenured Radical’s conclusion:
What would Jesus do? Throw Glenn Beck and every money changer like him out of the temple, that's what, and get back to what government is supposed to do: help people take care of themselves, make politics a vehicle for loving one's neighbor (not blaming him, or seeing if she needs to be deported) and protecting Americans from those who prey on the simple, the weak and the vulnerable. Until we do, the waters will keep on rising.