Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oliver Gets it 1/2 Right

Too much work, too much travel, so little time to blog. But I wanted to be sure to highlight yesterday's post by Oliver Willis on the intersection between the Black Church and Democratic Politics from yesterday: The Old Hotness.

The money quote from it, to me, is this one:

Who is the American leader, in all of our history, who was most impactful at conjoining his religious beliefs and political action? It's not Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or any of the agents of intolerance on the right. It's Martin Luther King. That is, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I often imagine King and other leaders before and since in the black church (yes, including Sharpton and Jackson) saying "I've got your religious left right here".

I think its great so many groups popped up espousing progressive religion, but I fear too many of them are in the mold of trying to appeal to conservative evangelicals - mostly southerners - who would vote for Satan before they would vote for a Democrat (I take pride in the fact that the bulk of haters vote GOP). Instead of liberals going to the existing religious left who pioneered political action and faith decades ago and saying "guide us", people created brand new organizations that too often ain't fooling anybody (If I hear anyone else say "we have values too" or any other empty platitude I'll go postal) and aren't - ironically - preaching to anyone.

The black churches of America aren't as fashionable and sexy perhaps as these other new organizations, but they've been there, they've done the homework, and they've produced tangible results we see every day in our lives as Americans. If they die out or fade away as a political force, the Democratic party and liberalism is doomed. Ignoring them and what they've done is a travesty.

Oliver is certainly correct in asserting what I think he is saying: the pre-existing, highly successful model, of the religious political left (for want of a better term) is Black people, and the Black church. And yet, when it comes to the new dialogue of reaching out to liberal and progressive people of faith, people are creating new models instead of embracing and following the lead of the one that both already exists and has delivered electoral success to the Democratic Party over and over and over again.

Unfortunately, Oliver takes that central premise and makes some assumptions that I think miss the point of the debate that started, I guess, when Jim Wallis called out Markos (who then acted as if he didn't get it, as Markos often does in the middle of controversy generated by his words IMO, and let others front for him instead of him speaking for himself) over about the fact that oftentimes, on DailyKOS in particular but more generally on left-wing sites, there is active verbal disdain and insult levied at religion and those who hold religious belief.

Where Bro. Oliver gets it wrong is in allowing himself to fall victim to a common deflection technique I've seen on the left where religion (and other controversial subjects in which the mirror is held up to itself) is concerned: he sets up a strawman and then knocks it down when he says:

And yes, the idea of these mythical Democrats who persecute the religious that nobody can ever name stinks to high heaven).

The strawman is the idea that anyone has ever accused folks on the left of "persecuting" the religious. I follow religious discussions pretty closely on most of the left-wing sites, and nobody has ever made that accusation. Thus, Oliver's dismissal of the accusation is dismissing a phantom that he and others who are uncomfortable with confronting the problem of folks hating on religious folks on left-wing sites head-on simply made up. Nobody is claiming any movement, or any organized effort, to "persecute the religious."

What the complaint is, and always has been, is that too many on the left who despise religion for their own personal reasons -- and I'm using the word despise quite deliberately, because every time this issue comes up I'm accused of capping on atheists and while the group I'm referring to often refers to itself as atheists most atheists were raised right and do not engage in the juvenile behavior that is generating so much complaint on the left from religious people -- have been encouraged, rewarded with mojo on sites that hand it out, and not called to task for insulting the very intelligence and ability to think and reason of those who call themselves religious, even allies on the left. When words like "irrational" and "unable to reason" and "deluded" and "psychosis" regularly find themselves in a dialogue between supposed adults about religion over and over again, only someone who is either (a) an ostrich or (b) self-serving or (c) a liar can fail to see the injury and deliberate harm. And none of this harm is excused by the fact that folks are fighting the same political fight. It also isn't excused by the fact that someone feels hurt about what the Catholic Church did or did not do to them or someone they love, the fact that their families may have psychically injured them while claiming to be religious or even that God does not intervene to prevent individual or global human suffering -- all reasons that I have seen written by folks who not only disclaim belief in religion (a non-issue) but can't just stop there, but instead go to the well of insult.

Oliver Willis, presumably knowing some Black religious folks, knows that our people wouldn't put up with that shit, in our churches or in our political movements, and would drop-kick someone with both barrels of the Lord (metaphorically) for one reason and one reason only: no matter what folks believe personally, coming in with such talk is inherently *disrespectful* to the majority of our people and our church communities which have proven their political worth. It is only in the white-dominated blogosphere that it is even tolerated, based on my experience. Maybe it's the perception of critical mass, maybe it's the sense that in their real lives they are frustrated having to conform to the social rules of etiquette when talking about religion, who knows. Whatever the reason, the left too often empowers folks who believe that their disdain of religion makes them superior intellects, reasoners and thinkers and that they therefore have license to ignore social convention when making their arguments.

By writing the above, Oliver essentially gives this type of person and this type of behavior a pass even as he rightfully seems to highlight that the blogosphere routinely ignores Black religious political movements when assessing and deciding upon strategic approaches to reaching "the religious left."

The other place where Oliver gets it 1/2 wrong is by assuming that

I think its great so many groups popped up espousing progressive religion, but I fear too many of them are in the mold of trying to appeal to conservative evangelicals - mostly southerners - who would vote for Satan before they would vote for a Democrat (I take pride in the fact that the bulk of haters vote GOP).

As a regular reader, even if not participant, in one of the sites he links to (Street Prophets) this fear has no merit. It is an as-yet statistically untested assumption that "conservative evangelicals" would vote for Satan before a Democrat. It may be a "truth" on the left, but there is no actual evidence of it. But more importantly, such a statement undermines Oliver's own thesis: It is inarguable by anyone who spends any time in Black churches that these same churches that Oliver rightfully points out have routinely brought political success to the Democratic Party ARE "conservative evangelical churches." They are evangelical in the traditional meaning of the term: they see their role as spreading the Good News. They are definitely "conservative" - you will not find a lot of emotional support for things that those of us on the left believe are issues the black church SHOULD support, the equal human worth of gays and lesbians at the top of the list IMO. Many lifelong Black churchgoers abhor abortion rights, for example -- indeed, the majority of African-Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in most if not all circumstances, even as Black folks disproportionately access the abortion right. They have reached a quiet consensus that it is a necessary evil. Acceptance of Premarital sex, particuarly amongst minors? They may accept the reality of it -- and indeed, when the babies come, as they often do, they embrace them and the mother, for religious reasons, but you'd be hard pressed to find any Black "conservative evangelical churches" that don't regularly make the immorality of it a topic for Sunday service Gay marriage? Nope. Patriarchy? You just don't want to know. You don't get much more "conservative" or "evangelical" than most Black churches - Especially in the South.

So Oliver's worry, such as it is, furthers the very thing that he is complaining about: ignoring the role of Black churches and Black churchgoers, by equating them to what (I think) he is really complaining about: white right-wing fundamentalists who claim to be acting out of religious belief. Those are not the same thing. I agree that anyone wasting his time on that group thinking that coalition can exist with it will see that group vote for Satan before a Democrat. But that group is a tiny minority of "conservative evangelical churches", and any argument that advocates less emphasis on trying to sway "conservative evangelical voters" necessarily gives them far more importance in the political process than they deserve.

The real skill will come in the left again learning how to discern the differences, and to work with religion as a tool for progressive political change, not merely against it as a coopted (by those who wouldn't know God if he showed up on their lawns with business cards) tool of progressive political harm.


At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Carmen said...

Dear Shannikah and the Dah

I am contacting you regarding a blog survey I am conducting. I am a Ph.D. candidate in Mass Communication at Penn State and my dissertation project consists of a survey that looks at bloggers’ perceived motivations for and effects of their blogging.

I am sending the survey to a number of bloggers, and I would like to invite you to participate in it as well. Participation should take approximately 15 minutes of your time. I would appreciate it tremendously if you would be willing to take the survey. If you decide to do so, please follow the link below:

I would be very happy to share the findings of my study with you once it is completed!

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Thank you in advance,



Post a Comment

<< Home