Bernie and Black Southerners

The following post comes from Adele Oltman. Adele is the author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Georgia Press). 

Adele Oltman 

The most significant thing about Bernie Sanders is that without a billion-dollar war chest, a Super PAC, or the support of the Democratic Party establishment he has become a formidable political adversary to Hillary Clinton, who expected to waltz into the White House with all of the above. The second most significant thing about Bernie is that he’s accomplished this even as he unapologetically identifies as a democratic socialist. In every stump speech and debate he points to the fundamental unfairness of the top one-percent owning as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Not only does he support breaking up the big banks by reinstating the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, he would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal health care and free public education through graduate school. And the massive public works program that Sanders proposes would put people to work while at the same time fix this country’s crumbling infrastructure.

So what is it about Sanders’ redistributive agenda that black southerners don’t like?  Why did they vote for the candidate who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in speakers’ fees from Wall Street (and refuses to release transcripts so that voters would know exactly what she’s promised), and supported international trade agreements that have led inexorably to the loss of American jobs and devastated communities all over the country, including the South?  Why do they continue to vote for the candidate that has promised to make her husband a key advisor in a Clinton 2.0 White House, even though as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reminds us, he capitulated entirely to Ronald Reagan’s backlash against the civil rights movement when he pushed through his punitive agenda on crime, welfare, and taxes – which hurt black communities even more than Reagan himself?

The most obvious explanation, and one that progressives ought not to dismiss too quickly, was her central role in President Obama’s administration during his first term. For many black Americans, our first black president Obama is a (prophetic) symbol of racial equality and they see Clinton as an affirmation of that. But there may be another reason that Sanders hasn’t done well among black voters, especially in the South. It has to do with the history of southern black Christianity long after the end of slavery.

Like believers of every faith, southern black Christians interpret religious creed in ways that flow from their own experiences. The Christianity they forged during slavery emphasized the narratives of escape in the Hebrew Bible. Moses leading the persecuted from Pharaonic Egypt lives on in slave songs. After the destruction of slavery and during Reconstruction, freedmen not only voted, they elected some 2,000 black men to federal, state, and local public offices. The most resonant passages in the Bible corresponded to this new set of experiences. Now instead of dreaming of Exodus, black southern Christians began to imagine participation and inclusion in America’s body politic and its democratic ideals.

By the turn of the 20th century, Galatians (3:26-28) and Acts 2 (10:34-36), which emphasize the universality of salvation and the kinship of humanity under the sovereignty of God became the most resonant passages in black faith communities – and one could argue, as I have, beyond the church edifice. The idea of the kinship of humanity was a leveling impulse, a spiritual rejection of the racialized – and racist – social order so deeply embedded in southern culture. Taken together, these passages represented an ontology of inclusion and equality.

The thing about black Christian theology in the American South after Reconstruction is that it was never wholly a theology of liberation. Black Christian ministers inherited from their white Christian oppressors a theological conservatism. They proffered blatant critiques of the hypocrisy of a country that subjected black Americans to deplorable conditions while celebrating equality and claiming to be a harbinger of democracy for the rest of the world. If these kinds of reproaches are recognizable, much less familiar is the theological conservatism that also appeared in the first decades of the 20th century. Black southern Protestants formally acknowledged original sin. In 1923, Rev. N.M. Clarke, pastor of Beth Eden Baptist in Savannah, Georgia said, “Colored Baptists are Calvinistic in doctrine.” Four years later the Constitution of a local black Baptist association elaborated on this theme saying that all members believed in “human depravity” as it flowed from “the fall of Adam and the imputation of his sins to his posterity in the corruption of human nature, and to the impotency of man to recover himself from his lost estate.” These statements could have just as easily been written by the conservative white Southern Baptist Convention.

Notwithstanding these harsh declarations, African Americans’ collective experiences in slavery and freedom turned out to be a poor training ground for original sin. In 1918, Rev. R. J. Jackson declared, “The stringent written and unwritten laws, made solely for Negroes of this country, is an affront to God, an insult to Christianity.” That same year, Rev. R. R. Wright elaborated on this idea in an article about the task of black Christianity, which “is to interpret the Negro into the democracy of this nation and into the Christianity of America.” This was a social gospel that far from holding black Americans responsible for their own suffering had the noble goal of saving America from its sins of racial inequality and discrimination. These interpretations of Christianity lay claim to a social communalism and a worldliness that wasn’t always compatible with the radical individualism that supports the doctrine of the fall from grace. Even the Calvinist belief in  predestination  had a hollow ring when some Protestants who denied the humanity of others on the basis of skin color claimed to be among God’s chosen.

Yet, to cast southern black Protestants as theological liberals would be a stretch. I have written about the interlocking networks of black church, business and social groups that produced a sacralized black civil life in Savannah in the early 20th century. During Jim Crow black southerners had no choice but to turn inward and rely on their own resources no matter how materialistically meager those resources were. While my work focused mostly on black Baptists -- they outnumbered by a longshot the other black denominations across the urban and rural landscape – other Christian denominations contributed to the civil and religious culture.

Like their white southern brethren, black Protestants rejected the theology of the American-born and German-educated Walter Rauschenbusch, a key figure in the social gospel movement that took hold in some northern cities during the Gilded Age before the turn of the 20th century. Black southern Christians disagreed fervently with Rauschenbusch’s Marxist analysis of capitalism because they perceived it as foreign to American creed. When the United States entered World War I they joined with mainstream Americans and the Wilson administration's Committee on Public Information in criticizing all things German. In a fundraising appeal for a seminary for black Baptists before the white Southern Baptist Convention, the legendary African American preacher, Rev. C.T. Walker, equated “Kaiserism” with Rauschenbusch’s theology: both represented “Godlessness,” he said.
Even though it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a southern Christian who embraced Rauschenbusch and his social gospel during the Progressive Era, there was some conceptual compatibility with his Marxist-inspired Christian gospel and black Baptist theology. Like evangelicals everywhere, black southern Baptists believed that lost souls could be saved and that sinners need not remain forever in a condition of moral turpitude. Even though they never stopped paying homage to original sin, their faith claims were in fact remarkably optimistic. In 1918 Rev. D.D. Crawford, a leader in Georgia’s (black) General Missionary Baptist Association preached about “the principles and truth of God” as “character builders and life givers.” The unrelenting struggle for certainty, he said, “produces individuals and . . . .nations [that] are growing more and more like Christ.” This was a message of progressive revelation in which the earthly Kingdom becomes better over time. The interesting thing about Crawford was that he wasn’t only concerned with individual salvation. In his view society was broken and it needed to be repaired. Counseling patience, he said, “it takes a long time to renovate the world.” Even as Crawford rejected the German-educated radical Rauschenbusch -- and socialism itself -- he shared the social gospeler’s millennial optimism.  

We are living in a second Gilded Age, which like the first, is characterized by corruption in politics, unfettered political and economic power of corporations that control the managers of both political parties, and the creation of enormous wealth for a few and the impoverishment of the many. When I watched the election returns – especially from the Bible Belt -- I couldn’t help but wonder if black voters did not come out for Sanders because he’s a proud and unrepentant democratic socialist. Could it be that just like their forebears a hundred years ago, today when black Christians hear “socialism,” they think it’s foreign, un-American, and maybe even a little bit “godless?”

I think it’s a mistake when secular liberals and leftists scorn evangelicalism, writing it off as belonging only to far-right politicians like Ted Cruz. Evangelicalism means nothing more or less than Spreading the Word of Jesus; and Jesus represents all manner of theological leanings. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an evangelical (as was Rauschenbusch before him). I have argued elsewhere that King, while born into the black Christian South in many important ways was not of that same world. Not only did some of King’s key advisors come from the Communist Party, he preached from the pulpit against racial and social inequality during a time when many black church leaders were uncomfortable with church involvement in overt political activity. Black churches have gotten more credit for generating local leadership of the movement than it deserves because people look at the movement’s national leaders. In I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne writes about SNCC activists prodding ministers to come to meetings and support organizing efforts in the Mississippi Delta well into the 1960s. The SCLC’s Rev. Wyatt T. Walker said that only ten percent of black ministers supported the Birmingham campaign in 1963, which the documentary Eyes on the Prize made indelible in our minds’ eyes with footage of black Christians kneeling in prayer before Bull Connors’ fire hoses.

Today you would be hard-pressed to find many African American southerners who do not count themselves as evangelicals. While many hold conservative social positions on things like family values (whatever that means), school prayer, and maybe even a measure of discomfort with Roe v. Wade, for more than a hundred years they have crafted potent theological criticisms of racial hierarchies that result in social and economic inequalities. Organizing for the political revolution that goes beyond the White House, as Bernie likes to say, will require bridging a cultural divide. Black southerners have a long history of welcoming northerners into their midst to help fight the tyranny of the local. Today that tyranny is national, too, and the implications of this election cut to the core of democracy. Instead of using the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision as a constitutional hook upon which a movement can hang its struggles for political democracy, our task is to overturn several key Supreme Court decisions themselves; if political democracy will ever be within reach.

For this nascent political revolution to gain real traction beyond the presidential election secularist Bernie supporters in the North will need to find a way to express their candidate’s prophetic promise of a redistributive agenda without dissing evangelical millennial optimism.


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