Rush Kidder and the Secular Souls

Recent political arguments over religion have turned light on a welter of anxieties about irreligiousness in the United States. As seen on the stump, Republican presidential hopefuls have taken to upbraiding unbelief, or what Newt Gingrich denounced last month as “the growing culture of radical secularism.” Less incendiary but equally worried assessments have come from even-tempered observers like Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon. She wrote earlier this month in America magazine that the “changing religious landscape in the United States … should set off alarm bells” together with what she considers the current assault on religious liberty. The landscape Glendon fears is one with fewer Americans, notably young people, claiming a religious affiliation.

In moments like this it’s useful to go back to first principles. Why should political leaders be so concerned about the growing presence of the undevout? What would be the compelling public interest in throttling back this trend?

One reasonable answer would be that a good society depends on good people, and organized religion has traditionally been the primary source of public virtue. True enough, but there are other sources as well, secular traditions of moral reasoning reflected in philosophical and common sense ethics (more on that in a moment). In any case, what the worriers fail to appreciate is that the secular souls are among us. They’re here to stay—perhaps in greater numbers than ever. This simple fact would seem to call for a more pastoral approach to the nonreligious, as distinct from demonization or handwringing.

One person who understood this better and earlier than anyone was Rushworth Kidder, writer, ethicist, and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine. Word came last week that this author of such popular books as How Good People Make Tough Choices died of natural causes, at age 67. I chatted with Rush a few times over the years and interviewed him at length for a 2007 book I did with Bob Abernethy. We titled the section including his remarks, “The Good, without God.”

Rush himself was not without religion—he was a Christian Scientist and one-time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor. But he was keenly responsive to the many people who seek the ethical life apart from religion and spirituality; he spent much of his time over many years with them, in seminars he offered for schools, businesses, and other groups. When we spoke, I asked him about those people who do not have religious reasons for wanting to reason morally. Here’s part of his reply.

It’s probably the oldest question in moral philosophy—why be moral? After all, the manifest advantages of the immoral life are lying all around us. If you want something, just steal it. Why bother to be truthful if you could lie?

Probably the oldest answer to that question is—because that’s what God wants. That was, for a long time, the accepted and rather standard answer in the United States….

Here, in the early twenty-first century, it is still a powerful answer for a lot of people…. But it is not and cannot be allowed to be the only answer. We’re not willing to assume that people who don’t have that framework not only aren’t ethical, but can’t be ethical or in some ways don’t deserve to be ethical. There’s too much of a polyglot and varying theology in this country today, and there are too many people who deliberately have no theology for us to rule them out and say, “Yes, we’re assuming that when you don’t have a god, you don’t have ethics.”

… There are three major ways in which individuals resolve ethical dilemmas, and at least two of these come straight out of the largely secular tradition of moral philosophy. When somebody says, “Look, I try to do what’s best for everybody—the greatest good for the greatest number,” that person is drawing on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy. Using a different principle, the teacher who says to a five-year-old kid, “Gosh, Johnny, if I let you do that, I have to let everybody do it,” is actually speaking a fairly pure form of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative—the idea that the only viable moral decision is one which universalizes what you’re doing, so that if you can’t say you’d want everybody in the world to do what you’re about to do, then you’re about to make an unethical decision. Third, there’s the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—which typically comes to us from a religious source but is as commonplace as the Native American adage, “Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”

Just observing the twenty-five thousand people who have gone through our seminars in the past fifteen years, we find them resorting to these three standards again and again. So whether they know it or not, there’s a structure in place, and you’ll notice that nearly everything we’re talking about here has no reference to religion. And we’ve noticed there isn’t any salient distinction between the moral reasoning capacities of people who are religious and those who are not religious.

A Question about the Future

At the end of the interview, Rush added this caveat to his otherwise hopeful assessment of secular moral reasoning:

For me, the question is: Is it possible to lead the ethical life apart from the religious or spiritual life, without simply continuing to drain down the reservoir. In other words, I wonder whether we are, in fact, living off the accumulated moral capital of the past. That capital was largely put into place in a theological context. Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to lead the ethical life now and to help others lead that ethical life. But will we be effective at creating entire cultures of integrity, rather than little pockets of character throughout society, if we try to do it absent a set of theological constructs that posit a divine purpose underlying human ethics? I don’t know the answer to that. …read more

The Man who Discovered Poverty

Michael Harrington

Interviewed by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien last month, Mitt Romney tried to make a point about the struggling middle class, first, by saying he’s not worried about the very rich (so far, so good), and then with this blooper: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” It took the Democratic National Committee all but a day to field an attack ad featuring the CNN spot. Few mentioned that Romney’s fumbled message has been more or less the Democratic Party’s mantra—We’re all about the middle class. You’d have to flip back quite a few pages of American political history to find a president who crisscrossed the country saying, We need to do something for the poor. That president was Lyndon Johnson, though he and many others at the time had a galvanizer—a man and a book.

In March 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States hit the bookstores with slim expectations of sales and influence. Almost instantly it became a publishing phenomenon, and less than two years later Business Week and other outlets were calling it a classic, as the historian Maurice Isserman recounts in the current issue of Dissent magazine. President Kennedy either read the book itself or a lengthy review of it published in the New Yorker in February 1963, and he was inspired to begin shaping a national response. This became, under Johnson, the War on Poverty.

Harrington’s book was a revelation to early-1960s America. It was an exposé of abject poverty in what many fancied as “the affluent society,” the title words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 book. Harrington introduced middle-class Americans to the “invisible land” of the poor, and the operative theme was their invisibility. “They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen,” he wrote.

The 50th anniversary of The Other America is attracting some attention this month, at a time of preoccupation with the economy but not with the poor. With the noteworthy exception of an upcoming conference at Holy Cross College (Harrington’s alma mater in Worcester, Massachusetts), probably less attention will be paid to Harrington’s moral and religious bearings. But these were the sensibilities that informed him, the sensibilities of a self-described Catholic atheist.

“Forever Backsliding”

Those words—“Catholic atheist”—reveal a taste for paradox that he absorbed from one of his favorite writers, the happy Catholic warrior G.K. Chesterton. Harrington was arguably the last influential American socialist; he died of cancer at age 61 in 1989. In his highly readable and probing biography The Other American (published in 2000), Isserman noted that Harrington could “never shed the influence” of Catholic teachings and habits of thought. It was Catholicism that gave the Marxist “a sense of moral gravity,” Isserman wrote.

Harrington was an only child of devout Irish Catholic parents who prospered in St. Louis (his father was a patent lawyer). As early as kindergarten, he would go hungry by slipping his lunch money into the missionary-donation box at St. Rose’s Parish, according to his biographer. But Catholics are “forever backsliding, de-converting,” Harrington observed in his 1988 autobiography The Long-Distance Runner. And so was he, though not forever.

In the late 1940s he lost his faith while studying literature in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He found it in New York during the early 1950s when he joined the Catholic Worker movement and became a favorite of its saintly founder, Dorothy Day. Harrington practiced voluntary poverty and ladled out soup to the Lower East Side’s homeless for a couple of years, before he concluded once and for all that he could not believe. He became a Marxist of the anticommunist variety, and remained one for the rest of his life.

Good-natured and uncommonly civil in ideological exchanges, Harrington had a lively intellect and a gift for the written and spoken words. He was able to “convey moral seriousness without lapsing into moralism,” Isserman notes in the Dissent piece. But his passions and talents were poorly spent on years of infighting in the terminally fractious socialist movement.

In 1972 he suffered a humiliating setback: a curious, pro-Vietnam War labor faction took over the Socialist Party, which Harrington headed. As Isserman points out, it might have been a good time for him to rethink his socialist commitments and strike out on his own as an independent social critic. Instead he chose to start all over again with a new democratic socialist organization. His explanation was oddly religious: “Protestants can, if need be, worship and serve God on their own; a Catholic needs infrastructure,” said Harrington, who raised two boys with his Jewish wife, Stephanie.

The Mumbling God

In The Long-Distance Runner, Harrington wrote that during his months of radiation treatment in 1985, he would hear an inner voice reciting Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord….” He said the voice even spoke in Latin: Magnificat anima me…. He reexamined his unbelief, but realized again that while he never stopped loving Catholicism and its rituals, he could not believe in God.

Incongruously perhaps, the atheist added that he was not afraid of meeting his Maker. “In case I did encounter God face-to-face,” Harrington recalled telling his cousin, a nun, “I was going to accuse Him (Her?) of mumbling to humankind.”

Revisiting Harrington’s legacy in his engaging Dissent essay, Isserman points out that 50 years after The Other America, “the poor are still among us—and in a testament to the lasting significance of Harrington’s work, not at all invisible.” I could quibble with “not at all,” but Isserman puts a finer point on the matter near the end of his article. “The poor never returned to the invisibility that had been their fate in the 1950s, before the publication of The Other America; but concern over their condition never returned to the list of national priorities, not even”—Isserman rightly specifies—“in years of Democratic political ascendancy.” …read more

The Exceptional American

In the United States, we the people cling to the idea that cherished values such as freedom and opportunity are somehow distinctively American. The accidental philosopher Yogi Berra expressed this sentiment beautifully in the late 1950s when he heard that the mayor of Dublin (as in Ireland, not Ohio) was Jewish. “Only in America!” he declared.

In many ways the role that religious faith plays in American politics is exceptional too. Unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, American presidents continue to routinely invoke the deity in their addresses to the nation. Of course leaders of theocracies do the same, but the U.S. presidential invokers of faith also preside over a government that is religiously neutral. That is a rare juxtaposition.

In the American tradition, though, there’s an exception within the exceptionalism on this count. If you look at religiously tinged oratory by presidents at key times in our history, you’ll see that nearly all of them have tried, subtly or unsubtly, to cast their causes in the singular light of divine favor. All except, notably, Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of assuming the God-is-on-our-side posture, Lincoln proclaims in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Instead of presuming to know the whole truth about the crisis at hand, Lincoln lays claim only to the partial truth that “God gives us to see …”

Lincoln is different.

God Talkers in Chief

I recently had occasion to dig through a well-chosen collection of ten major presidential speeches projecting religious themes, courtesy of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College Magazine (which asked me to report on a student-led “God Talk” seminar sponsored by the center). The Boisi staff, including associate director Erik Owens and doctoral candidate in political science Brenna Strauss, selected the items, which are available here.

One set of those texts relates to the theme of “National Crisis and War” and features oratory by FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in addition to Lincoln.

In one entry, Roosevelt delivers a radio message from the White House to a nation still somewhat unalarmed by the Nazi threat. It’s May 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He warns that the Nazis worship no god other than Hitler and that our freedom of worship is at stake: “What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, of the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and Fifth Columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods?”

Similarly, primal religious emotions are painted on our struggles with foes in other commander-in-chief messages. These include Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address in 1953 (he sees “the watchfulness of a Divine Providence” over America at the height of the Cold War), Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon.

Lincoln’s Ineffable God

And then there’s Lincoln, who was born 203 years ago on February 12. He’s the warrior-in-chief against the Confederacy, but there’s no Divine Providence watching preferentially over the Union, in his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), which is, as many have described, theologically intense. There’s no casting of political nets around God as Lincoln speaks of North and South:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Lincoln holds out the possibility that North and South alike might continue to pay, and rightly so, for America’s original sin—slavery.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

He concludes:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s 703-word Second Inaugural is by far the oldest item in Boisi’s “National Crisis and War” packet, and yet, it’s the most modern in its outlook. Theologically, it is freighted with uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of moral tragedy (even our deepest convictions cannot capture the truth), but as he probes the divine nature with soberness and humility, Lincoln arrives at a clear-eyed affirmation of religious faith and American purpose. Yes, Lincoln is different. Lincoln is now. …read more

Inspecting the “Anti-Religious Bigotry of Elites”

Richard Dawkins: "Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It’s easy to pick apart claims by some presidential contenders that America is facing an assault from within by adamant secularists, by the elite purveyors of “anti-religious bigotry,” as Newt Gingrich pronounced in his victory speech after the South Carolina primary.

The accusation is often aimed at President Obama, who is, according to former contender Rick Perry, waging a “war on religion,” and who is, according to cooler heads, a theologically serious and sober Protestant. And let’s not overlook a supremely elite institution: the 538-member U.S. Congress, in which there is, by most tallies, one person who goes so far as to label himself a nonbeliever. He is Democratic California representative Pete Stark.

But it’s also worth noting that anti-religious elites do exist and their eschewal of all things spiritual may run deeper than even Gingrich suggested.

One of the most unequivocal among them is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He not only constantly upbraids the faithful but also serves up an entertainingly bleak and nihilistic view of human existence and the cosmos. Dawkins writes that there is, at bottom, in the universe, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” He forgot to say, Have a nice day!

As a New Yorker by birth and attitude, I feel more at peace with Woody Allen’s old quip that there is in fact meaning in the universe—except for certain parts of New Jersey. (And it was a mere quip. Allen the film director would seem to drift more toward Dawkins’s almost cartoonish view of the cosmic condition.)

Beyond Matter and Motion

The Gingrich forces would be right if all they were saying is that there’s a recently influential cadre of hard-core atheists, who have turned out some lively, readable books like The God Delusion (Dawkins), The End of Faith (Sam Harris), and God is Not Great (by the late great Christopher Hitchens). There does seem to be a brassy challenge to religion and theology issuing from these precincts. The result in recent years has been, for the first time in a long while in the United States, a real debate about faith. Not necessarily about religious conservatives or radical Islam or this or that religious movement, but about faith as such—whether there’s a God, whether there’s a transcendent reality, whether there’s anything in the universe besides matter and motion.

Still, the “New Atheists,” as Dawkins and the gang are dubbed, have been more provocative than they’ve been proliferative.

Many casual observers point to the growing numbers of Americans who don’t identify with any faith tradition; these Americans now comprise about 16 percent of the adult population, according to the most authoritative surveys. But a little over a third of these people affirm that they’re religious even though they’re religiously unaffiliated, and most of the others could be classified as “spiritual but not religious.” Most say they pray regularly or from time to time, as reported in studies such as the Pew Forum’s 2010 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. These aren’t the shock troops of the New Atheism.

What’s left is a trifling four percent of Americans who see themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to Pew. Maybe they’re the elites who are allegedly subverting our culture, purging religion from public schools and cracking down on religious freedom. But my guess is that not even most of these people would belong to the ranks of religion haters. Besides, the anti-secular warriors are firing mostly in other directions, at Obama and the Democrats, at the schoolteachers and journalists, and others. There are multitudes of believers in all of those directions.

Popular Reruns

Gingrich and others have some real grievances.

They have an argument to make about public school policies that at times go overboard in limiting religious expression. They can point to federal edicts like the Obama administration’s recent move to insist that Catholic colleges, for example, include free contraception services in their healthcare plans for employees. These, however, aren’t skirmishes in the final battle between good and evil. These involve legitimate questions about how to negotiate lines between church and state, between faith and society, between personal conscience and public policy.

Most people know this, but there’s an appreciative audience for the depictions of “war on religion” and “the growing anti-religious bigotry of elites.” We could expect to see those cartoons replayed for much of the presidential primary season. …read more

The Mormon Difference, and Romney’s Other Church

Thomas Jefferson once vowed that he would never “bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.” During this election season, pollsters have repeatedly inquired into the religious opinions of voters, especially evangelical ones, to find out just how many of them are genuflecting specifically at the altar of intolerance toward Mormons, who include in their fold the Republican presidential frontrunner. The polling and analyses could use a little redemption.

The pivotal question in those surveys is whether Mormons should be considered Christians. And the casual assumption, among too many pollsters and pundits, has been that people who say “no” are probably disposed against Mormonism as well as a former Mormon bishop named Mitt Romney. (In the Mormon Church, a bishop is the leader of a local congregation.)

The approach undoubtedly ferrets out some bigots, but it’s a crude device. I’m not sure what I’d say if I were rung up for such a survey. In my mind I’d probably start enumerating the breaking points between Mormon and Christian theologies. But my answer would be off the subject of who I think is qualified to lead the United States.

This question of whether Mormonism is Christian or a different religion really needs to be spun off from the question of religious intolerance.

Bill Tammeus, in his always perceptive Faith Matters blog, spoke wisely when he wrote last week, referring to the Mormon/Christian matter: “I suspect there will always be this kind of divide about Mormonism in America. What there should not be is fear of and prejudice against Mormons because of their religious beliefs—even if a majority of Americans would describe some of those beliefs as unbelievable.”

Tammeus was commenting on the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that one-third of all American adults don’t look upon their Mormon neighbors as Christians, and another 17 percent aren’t sure if they’re Christians. My guess is that the ranks of the religiously intolerant are thinner than that. And, as other polls have indicated, scarcely few of those adults would be so theologically vigilant as to slight the Mormon Romney in a matchup with the Protestant Christian Barack Obama.

The Theological Divide

One theological perspective often described as a deal-breaker between Mormonism and Christianity has to do with God and Jesus. Mormons do not consider Jesus to partake in the same being as God; Jesus is seen as physically separate from the Godhead. In other words, Mormonism doesn’t really uphold the Christian Trinity, the “Three in One.”

As a Christian who would prefer to see a tad more daylight between God and Christ, in popular faith discourse if not theological commentaries, I wouldn’t be inclined to enlist in a jihad against Mormonism on this point of difference. Still, it is an essential difference that could lead someone without a bigoted bone in his body to conclude that Mormonism isn’t Christian.

Then there’s the lesser cosmic distance that Mormons place between God and humans. According to authoritative accounts of the Mormon faith, the divine and the human are of the same species. God is himself a flesh-and-blood man with a wife in heaven. (Jesus was his literal son.) Many Christian scholars, liberal and conservative, cannot square this doctrine with their sense of the chasm between the Creator and the creature.

True, the Mormon view could make it harder to contemplate the utter transcendence of God, the One who is beyond our ken, beyond human grasp. Then again, a lot of Christians, too, don’t seem to fully appreciate the Otherness and ineffability of God. I’m thinking, for example, of Christians who speak as though they know with certainty what God thinks about Obama-care, and what God had for lunch today. They and others would appear to be worshiping the Most Effable One.

What does all this say about Mormons as citizens and contributors to the general good? Nothing I could think of. In a Jeffersonian spirit, I’d wish the questions about Mormon theology weren’t even surfacing in the public square (or, to be specific, in the context of one candidate’s qualifications). But they are. See the New York Times article this past Sunday, “The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease With Romney.”

In the past few days, with the South Carolina primary upon us, attention has turned from Romney’s Mormon faith to another church in which he is an active communicant. It is the Church of the One Percent, which holds, among its many influential doctrines, that fabulously wealthy people like him deserve to pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.

Now that is a belief worthy of intense theological inquiry in the public square. …read more

Speaking of the Devil

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Most people would agree that a political conversation is probably skidding downhill when one participant accuses another of channeling demons. One person who would beg to differ is the political firebrand Ann Coulter, who lives pretty far down that hill and whose latest book is Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

According to her, liberals and Democrats are literally demonic because they foster a “mob mentality,” which they’ve done since the civil rights movement— “the first mob,” Coulter calls it. Left-leaning activists including environmentalists and unionists are the principal horn-wearers in this book. They are cast as both demonically possessed and as the evil spirits themselves—which raises the metaphysical conundrum of demons possessed by demons.

Of course Coulter is hardly the first to see the Prince of Darkness behind causes unpalatable to her. Many opponents of civil rights conducted a brisk trade in such imagery during the 1960s, and still do—if the deluge of Google results for “Martin Lucifer King” is any guide. Christian antinuclear protesters have proclaimed a mission to “expel the demons” from those who countenance the stockpiling of such weapons.

I’d be happy to leave Satan out of any and all political discussions. But now comes a different tack on the subject by one of my favorite scholars of antiquity, Luke Timothy Johnson, whose probing article in the October 7 edition of Commonweal magazine is titled “Powers and Principalities: The Devil is No Joke.”

Johnson points to a general inclination among reasonable people to see the Devil as an amusing topic—rendered as the man in red tights, for instance, or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. In contrast, he makes an authoritative case that the New Testament writers and early Christian theologians, not to mention the Greco-Roman world and Jewish thinkers, used the language of demons and evil spirits fluently. And they did so in all seriousness.

A professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he asks: “Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?”

Johnson argues soundly that in our time the language of social science has proved inadequate to the task of explaining such unspeakable evil as the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. For such behavior, he writes, “It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.”

A Call for Reticence

Perhaps, but Johnson is quick to acknowledge the downside. He grants that demon language has a checkered history of “misapplication, overextension, and trivialization,” notably among Christians (as evidenced in the polemics against Jews, heretics, and many others). People of faith should exercise “reticence and linguistic discipline” as they seek to rehabilitate Devil talk, he advises.

At the same time he sees ample signs of demonic pull—for example, in the “systems of addiction” that enslave people and destroy families. In addition, Johnson (whose most recent book is Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity) applauds the liberation theologians for speaking of the Evil One when critiquing structures of oppression.

Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed…. The act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans.

Johnson’s cautions and caveats are welcomed, but there’s still cause for wariness. He might see a huge difference between demonizing an oppressive social system (which can be problematic enough), and demonizing one’s political opponents (as Coulter does with aplomb). Unfortunately the distinction can be a quick casualty in the ideological crossfire.

What might help is the sensibility of St. Augustine. The theologian and philosopher understood evil, which is why he believed the use of deadly force against an aggressor could be (in theory) morally justified. But he also wrestled with his internal demons and wrote about them more than 1600 years ago in his Confessions, the first and most celebrated spiritual autobiography.

One lesson from Augustine is that no one should ever fight evil as though it were completely outside of himself or herself. Or, to paraphrase a modern-day conservationist slogan: We have seen the Devil, and he is, all too frequently, us. …read more

“The Beloved Community”: A Pulse Check

In the spring of 1963, African American children were laying their little bodies on the line in Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of them, as young as six years old, strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown—several times during one of the most chaotic and brutal episodes of the civil rights movement.

During a surreal scene in May, elusive bands of schoolchildren skittered down streets almost playfully—chased by police with batons and dogs. Eventually they and many other nonviolent resisters were clubbed or smacked down by high-powered fire hoses or just dragged into paddy wagons off to jail. Breaking through the bedlam, through the singing and screaming and blaring of sirens, was what biographer Stephen B. Oates framed as the “haunting voice” of Dr. Martin Luther King:

We must say to our white brothers all over the South who try to keep us down: We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you…. Do to us what you will. Threaten our children and we will still love you…. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.

King projected through his megaphone not only a resoluteness, but also a longing for what he limned on other occasions as “the beloved community.” This vision of social communion is usually gleaned from his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, but King invoked the concept as early as 1955. At the time he declared that the purpose of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was nothing less than “reconciliation … redemption … the creation of the beloved community.”

A Movement’s Theology

Before King came along, the theme had kicked around Protestant theology for decades, more or less as a shibboleth of theological optimism. King gave the idea a certain soberness, and as University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh notes, he infused it with moral urgency.

In his hands, the beloved community became the “realization of divine love in lived social relation,” in Marsh’s words—never fully realized but always an object of human striving. Marsh (his 2005 book is The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today) and other writers have shown how the motif threaded through King’s writings and speeches until the end. It gave the freedom struggle its theological trajectory.

King had rooted the principle partly in what he considered a fact of human existence, that we are social by nature, interdependent with one another. “The solidarity of the human family” were words he frequently spoke in this vein, Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zep observed in their 1974 book Search for the Beloved Community.

He could see the obstacles ahead. While battling legal segregation, King contemplated a future, subtler enemy: “spiritual segregation,” the mistrust and distance between blacks and whites that would continue to forestall a beloved community.

Not even racial harmony would usher in the great community, in his mind (as he made clear in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?). A further requirement was economic justice, a bridging of chasms between rich and poor.

Fast Forward

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute released the results of an opinion poll casting light on simmering resentments in the body politic.

For instance, a (slim) majority of white Americans polled—51 percent—agreed with the statement, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Among those who say Fox News is their most trusted source of information, 70 percent held the same view.

What lies behind this myopia might be hard to pinpoint. Economic anxiety? An African American president? Recollections of purely race-based affirmative action? Or simply, the unrealized dream of a beloved community.

King himself seemed to think this community would always be not yet. At times he made it sound like a spiritual construct to be made flesh in the Kingdom of God. He also wielded the phrase when preaching about the endless struggle against evil, in which God ultimately prevails, as Smith and Zepp pointed out.

Less cosmically, King had faith in the human capacity to approximate the beloved community, here and now. He saw the civil rights movement, spanning racial lines, as a microcosm of the ideal.

Detecting a Pulse

Where are the signs of such approximation today?

Earlier this year the New York Times ran an eye-opening series titled “Race Remixed,” which explored interracial marriage and the growing numbers of mixed-race Americans. Surely this is a mark of spiritual integration.

Beyond race, polls for over two decades have shown that lopsided majorities of Americans favor higher minimum wages for the poorest workers. Whatever one might think of the wisdom of such a proposal, the impulse is a moral one. It’s an instance of social solidarity, not economic self-interest. Boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most wage earners.

There are, even in these polarized days, the glimmerings of a true political community, if not a beloved one. …read more