Democratizing the Churches:
Religion and Civil Rights in the Twenty-First Century
[Traditional Paper, 3490 Words]
Many churches in America and in other parts of the world today are functioning as obstacles to deepening democracy, just as they were in the days of mid-twentieth century civil rights struggle, when Martin Luther King’s mentor Howard Thurman called for a reconstruction of their fundamental religious understandings, as well as their institutional purposes and practices. Sharing Thurman’s critical confidence in the churches’ transformative potential, Walt Whitman suggested that contrary to such anti-democratic impacts, the various religions are the originary founts of the democratic impulse and are uniquely capable of guiding democracy’s development to full fruition. I will argue in this essay that the transformative effectiveness of the twentieth century’s great religion-grounded civil rights struggles in which Gandhi, King, and Tutu played crucial leadership roles, as well as the valuable contributions that some churches are making within contemporary struggles over who shall live as members of our community and on what terms, show that the churches can make valuable contributions to deepening democracy, but that this may entail their institutional reconstruction to redirect their self-understandings and to revise their institutional practices in light of a more deeply democratic ideal.
Democratizing the Churches:
Religion and Civil Rights in the Twenty-First Century
And, topping democracy, this most alluring record, that it alone can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family. It is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, her fond philosophers and poets. Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all. Both are to be vitalized by religion (sole worthiest elevator of man or State), breathing into the proud, material tissues, the breath of life. For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there. Nor may the scheme step forth, clothed in resplendent beauty and command, till these, bearing the best, the latest fruit, the spiritual, shall fully appear.
-- Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871: 337
I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ. It is a generation largely in revolt because of the general impression that Christianity is essentially an other-worldly religion, having as its motto: "Take all the world, but give me Jesus." The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis. to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like. It is true that this emphasis is germane to the religion of Jesus, but it has to be put into a context that will show its strength and vitality rather than its weakness and failure. For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.
-- Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), in A
Strange Freedom, 1998: 143 – 144
Anyone engaging in a pragmatic reconstruction of religion . . . must confess the irreducible, unprovable act of faith which undergirds this effort while at the same time striving to indicate what service and enrichment religion can or ought to bring to human life.
-- Eugene Fontinell, Toward a Reconstruction of Religion, 1970:
Many churches in America and in other parts of the world today are functioning as obstacles to deepening democracy, just as they were in the days of mid-twentieth century civil rights struggle, when Martin Luther King’s mentor Howard Thurman called for a reconstruction of their fundamental religious understandings, as well as their institutional purposes and practices. Some key areas in which many churches presently function as obstacles to a deeper democracy concern: (1) women’s role in societies in all parts of the globe, as well as the related status of gay and lesbian people, (2) the marginalization of members of certain "races" and the destruction of life-sustaining traditional cultures,
(3) silence about or even active support for economic injustice at home and abroad,
(4) continuing resort to war as the preferred means of "resolving" international conflicts, and (5) devastating impacts of modern human communities on our living ecosystems. These are terrible times in my own Roman Catholic Church, as the scandal of trusted priests sexually abusing children in their care, which was hushed up and in many ways compounded by leading bishops, undermines the credibility of all priests and inflaming the laity’s sense that the time for reserving leadership authority exclusively to a priestly hierarchy is long past. Moreover, one-sided pronouncements by a celebate, exclusively male priesthood on gender roles, sexuality, and reproductive decisions that give little weight to the importance and context of reproductive choices in women’s lives, that treat homosexuality per se as sinful, and that would effectively bar aid to developing countries if it is in any way linked to abortion or "artificial" birth control seem simply wrong to many American Catholics. In addition, most American Catholic parishes even in this twenty-first century tend to be de facto segregated mono-cultures in which little interracial, cross-cultural experience and exchange occurs, thereby implicitly reinforcing unacknowledged assumptions among both the laity and the clergy that their outlooks and social practices are "normal," instead of in need of interrogation and reform: this teaches them little about how much they can learn from other spiritualities and cultural traditions, including those they plan to evangelize, and poorly prepares them to work in cross-difference coalitions as liberatory agents of a more just, more inclusive society.
Nonetheless, some churches today work actively against these obstacles, seeking to deepen democracy, as Walt Whitman envisioned only they could, and as Howard Thurman insisted their founding imperatives required that they should. Is it possible to reconstruct the churches into agencies of a deeper democracy? If so what will this require? What are the prospects for success? I will argue in this essay that the transformative effectiveness of the twentieth century’s great religion-grounded civil rights struggles in which Gandhi, King, and Tutu played crucial leadership roles, as well as the valuable contributions that some churches are making within contemporary struggles over who shall live as members of our community and on what terms, show that the churches can make valuable contributions to deepening democracy, but that this may entail their institutional reconstruction to redirect their self-understandings and to revise their institutional practices in light of a more deeply democratic ideal.
Why should we attempt to democratize the churches, rather than simply tolerating them and attempting to marginalize or contain them within a "private sphere"? In America and in many other global contexts, the churches are among our most powerful social institutions, influencing most people’s interpretation of basic values and actively advocating on matters of public policy. Thus, their present social location and sphere of influence is not purely "private," even when they address individuals and families as their primary audiences. In America, the frequent references to divinity in speeches, at patriotic events, and in framing or justifying public policy proposals functions as code language to refer their audiences back to the churches as interpreters of metaphysical significance and arbiters of public values.
The great civil rights issues of our day are among those that are influenced by the churches, thereby shaping the terms of public discourse and helping to determine who will participate in it in the future, and on what terms. In America, hierarchical heterosexual gender norms enforced by many of our churches still shape expectations that our top leaders will be men, that women are weak vessels in matters of intellect, judgment, and spiritual insight, that homosexuality is a moral perversion constituting a disqualification for positions of trust, and that committed homosexual love does not offer a basis for marriage and family life like that recognized by our laws and our common social practices in respect to committed heterosexual couples. At the same time, few American churches address and rebuke racial bigotry and unquestioned racial privilege as major moral failings; many feel justified in their culturally narrow evangelical fervor to actively undermine life-sustaining spiritual practices and communal traditions of other cultures in our country and abroad, including those of Native Americans, for whom loss of indigenous spiritualities, interpretive traditions, and communal bonds is directly associated with high levels of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and suicide.
For those who are active members of such undemocratic churches, the symbolic system operative within interpretation of texts, leadership of ritual practices, and processes of determination of church policies and activities sets up norms of aspiration and appropriateness that rival, and may even replace, those within democratic governance and community life, generating dissonance and even pressures to displace democratic norms with undemocratic ones. Thus, we find many of the churches playing an active role in fostering some of their members’ self-silencing, in framing expectations that authoritarian decision-makers or small coteries are the most effective, or most efficient, or most authentic sources of judgment on important matters, and that real interchange of significantly differing views and opinions is odd, dangerous, perhaps deserving to be shouted down or otherwise terminated. Since September 11, the churches have become active forums for debate of issues of war and peace; public arguments about what justice requires in this unstable, dangerous international climate have frequently evoked the moral teachings of the churches, though selectively and with little depth of understanding. My own church’s clear teachings against war have been swamped by its current scandal, and its more widely known and widely rejected positions on other great social issues of our day have drowned out this smaller voice of peaceful witness for life.
Nonetheless, because the churches are among our most ancient, holistic, and value-formative of social institutions, there is little probability that they will be displaced anytime soon from their positions of social and thus public influence, even if modern democratic nations are careful in their attempts to avoid "establishing" any particular one of them. Separation of church and state is possible only in formal proceedings, documents, and civic rituals, not in the underlying social processes of forming values, habits, and opinion.
Moreover, the churches themselves offer resources and models for change as well as for conservation within their traditions. As Eugene Fontinell has pointed out, the international Christian movement that eventually gave birth to the Christian churches began as a change movement within Judaism; its self-understandings and its practices have continued to change over the centuries through reflective, critical, and self-consciously transformative processes in which core insights are separated from problematic accretions, new calls are heard and answered, and new meanings are perceived and created (Fontinell 1970). The same is true of the birth and development of Islam from indigenous Middle Eastern religions, of Buddhism from older Hindu roots, and the on-going development of Judaism, Hinduism, and Native American spiritualities.
Finally, religious geniuses, church communities, and international religious movements have shown themselves capable of inspiring and supporting democratic aspirations among downtrodden people that have led to profound transformations in their local circumstances, and eventually in whole civilizations. By claiming and changing the churches into places for reflection, deep aspiration, communal deliberation, and collaborative action, people have initiated individual and communal careers of progressive growth, transactional empowerment, and eventual efficacy in shaping social-historical contexts in which the lives they choose and shape have meaning and value within what Josiah Royce called "communities of memory and of hope" (Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 1916).
Thus, it simply will not work to try to confine the influences of the churches to a "private sphere." Nor will it be possible much longer to legitimate authoritarianism, hierarchical gendered dualisms, "racial" exclusions, cultural erasures, economic anti-egalitarianism, and war-mongering within contexts deemed "religious," because these symbolic patterns, interpretive processes, and practices in living inevitably spill over into all areas of life as foes of their democratic alternatives. Therefore, if we are to experience deep democracy in social living, and to unfold in our human becoming in ways that reflect such deeply democratic experience, we must challenge the churches to become sources and sites of deep democracy.
In spite of Richard Rorty’s characterization of Whitman as anti-God and anti-religion (Achieving Our Country, 1998), the passage from Democratic Vistas quoted as an epigraph above makes it clear that this genius of democracy both recognized the genesis of the democratic impulse in the eons-long yet still incomplete developmental process of diverse religious traditions, and looked to future phases of their holistic, profoundly interconnective, and world transformative progress as wells of insight and as vital communities of committed agents for the further deepening of democracy. Of course, Whitman practices both historical selectivity and critical-creative intelligence in making these claims for the past contributions and the future democratic potentials of religions; though he could no foresee the perverse use of religion in igniting the Holocaust, he was well aware of the Inquisition, of American chattel slavery’s reliance on a Christian religious justification, and of the perverse, rival employments of religion in motivating the carnage of America’s civil war. Thus, we must read his remarks as implying a distinction between the anti-democratic beliefs and actual practices of many of the churches, on the one hand, and deeper religious insights and impulses that have moved the best thinkers and communities of worship within the various traditions to make their permanent deposits within our democratic imaginations in the past, as they will continue to expand and transform this democratic heritage in the future.
What does Whitman mean when he says, "For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there"? I think he does not intend to focus our attention on a justification of authority or an external conformity to law and tradition, but rather on attention to what William James suggests we may experience at the "fringes" of consciousness, a sense of larger powers and processes in motion, a sense of relatedness to a whole surrounding environment, a sense of "not yet, but perhaps," a sense of the importance of the inward eye, of the just heart, of the generous act (James, Principles of Psychology, Varieties of Religious Experience). In these matters, he sees what Eugene Fontinell calls "a convergence" among all the great world religions as dreamed into being by spiritual geniuses, and as thoughtfully interpreted in living by their most insightful, imaginative, and courageous inheritors. It is the core insight and impulse of this area of convergence—not uniformity or unanimity, but what Alain Locke called "unity in diversity"—that Whitman sees as the basic yet incomplete impulse toward democracy, not in the sense of some minimal constitutional framework, but in the sense of an approach to living that implies an intelligent change process within cultures, directing them toward what John Dewey called "a more complete realization of democracy than the world has ever known." Though the American churches are presently a mixed bag including both obstacles and way-makers, they offer special promise as collective agencies for this intelligent rethinking of religious belief and recommitment to transformative action because of the characteristic angle of vision with which the larger American culture and the prophetic witness of their own histories on their best days invests them. As John J. McDermott has suggested, "Over against the doctrine of obsolescence in which the history of man waits patiently for a paradisiacal Deus ex machina, the American temper points to a temporalized eschatology in which the Spirit manifests itself generation by generation and all counts to the end" (McDermott, The American Angle of Vision, 1966: 86).
What does Whitman mean when he suggests, "Nor may the scheme step forth, clothed in resplendent beauty and command, till these, bearing the best, the latest fruit, the spiritual, shall fully appear"? The scheme in question is this deeper, more fully democratic way of living than had been achieved in his own lifetime, and than has yet been achieved in America or anywhere else in the twenty-first century. Such a deep democracy makes no arbitrary and unsustainable distinctions between public and private spheres, but rather holistically includes all aspects of human personality and extends to all humanity a spirit of active familial connection, caring, and motivation to collaboratively create supportive conditions for individual and mutual flourishing within constantly new conditions that require continuous reconstruction of beliefs and practices to open up new opportunities, to meet new needs, and to acknowledge new sources of contribution and achievements of excellence hitherto unimagined, Whitman looked to a fuller flowering of the religious traditions that had given rise to the dream of democracy to advance its progress into this deeper and more expansive stage. In this he foresaw what Eugene Fontinell has described as a particular kind of "convergence" in the religious visions of the various churches: "It cannot be convergence toward some transcendent end, some omega point, already fully realized. The unity which is to be achieved as well as the means to this unity are both in process and must both be created by man. This does not, however, exclude the possibility or the belief that we are creating "in and through and with" the Spirit. Further, the "kingdom of God" may well be a fit symbol for that which is in process of being created—a community of men unified in God through love for one another" (Fontinell, Toward a Reconstruction of Religion, 1970: 246).
Writing in the years of social upheaval following World War II, when African American troops who had fought for their country and eventually experienced limited integration in the armed services returned home to segregation and lynching, Thurman could no longer tolerate an other-worldly orientation in the American churches. Moreover, having had to justify to revolutionary religious and political leaders in Africa and Asia his continued adherence to Christianity in spite of its involvement with chattel slavery and racial, Thurman felt a personal urgency to intelligently reconstruct Christian churches’ teachings and moral witness to transform them into active agencies of social transformation. Thus, when Thurman called for a new understanding of the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, he had a specific vision in mind, both of the contextual-historical methods that must be applied to dissolve the self-serving misinterpretations that those who controlled the institutional churches had layered over its radical originary vision, and of the core meaning that such methods would reveal; "Living in a climate of deep insecurity, Jesus, faced with so narrow a margin of civil guarantees, had to find some other basis upon which to establish a sense of well-being. He knew that the goals of religion as he understood them could never be worked out within the then-established order. Deep from within that order he projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all and no man would be a threat to his brother. ‘The kingdom of God is within.’"(Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), in A Strange Freedom, 1998: 147).
As the passage from Jesus and the Disinherited quoted as the second epigram for this essay makes clear, Thurman’s reading of the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth’s famous slogan, "The kingdom of heaven is within," treats it neither as other-worldly nor as a call to patient acceptance of denial of one’s human dignity and civil rights by the imperial powers of the day. Instead, Thurman treats it first of all as a proclamation of the profound worth of each individual person—"somebodiness" in King’s public language—regardless of one’s society’s failure to acknowledge that worth in acknowledged civil rights. Secondly, Thurman treats it as a coded message about the kind of world-transforming strategy such persons may and must employ in order to bring about an end to their own and others’ oppression, so that all may experience the fullness of life and grow into the full measure of their gifts: we must treat liberating the full depth and best potentials of each person as the goal of religious struggle—political liberation of the nation is not sufficient nor even the heart of the matter. The potential means for achieving this goal lie within human personality, waiting to be brought forth through a powerful alchemy of faith, divine grace, and loving communal transactions that strive collaboratively to bring into being an experience of living framed and illuminated by the values of the beatitudes: individual humility infused with the confidence of being an equal child of God, mercy intertwined with a thirst for justice, peacemaking empowered by consistent and irresistible love.