Black Theological Politics from Obama to the Present
The two years since Trump’s election have seen calls for a return to the activist ethos of the Civil Rights movement. The shock victory of “the first white president” and the urgent need for “anti-Trump” election victories has led even some establishment Democratic politicians to seek pardon from Black voters, as a series of prominent insider and outsider Black women ran for state and national office. Simultaneous with this political reflection, there has been a wealth of academic commentary which has sought to recapture the lessons of the Black religious tradition. Though opposing Donald Trump requires the sort of clear moral message that this tradition can offer, this resurgence of interest in Black theology has its roots in the debate over the legacy of Barack Obama in the waning years of his presidency. Understanding how these debates developed during Obama’s presidency specifically as a battle over Black spirituality can help activists on the left to understand how we got here and the challenges the left faces as it seeks to lay out a compelling and moral alternative to the Right (and especially White Supremacist) wing of our body politic.
Ultimately, the scholars mentioned in this piece have contentiously struggled—throughout a historic presidency and historic backlash—to answer a few questions. What role do universal moral values play in radical and center-left politics? Can we both constructively criticize and strategically collaborate with potential partners who ideologically differ from us? What lessons can we learn from Obama’s historic presidency, and from the first two years of Trump’s, about the United States’ capacity for dealing with racism, especially in its politics? Everyone across the Black religious divide agreed that America had a race problem-in part addressed and in part inflamed by Obama’s presidency. Those in this piece often disagreed as to how to solve racism or even its solvability. The historical reactions can be divided into three categories which hold true to this day. The morally conservative approach (which blames the Black community itself), the morally progressive approach (which frames the struggle in cosmic terms in which racial justice will triumph), and the “black atheist” approach (which assumes no final victory and at worst frames white supremacy as structurally unbeatable).
Obama’s philosophy and political career at various times embodied each of these approaches’ strengths and drawbacks, which made his presidency the perfect prism for reflective debate. When Obama stepped onto the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he surprised traditional political commentators with his optimistic belief that the United States could forge a common community beyond the division of “red” and “blue” states. Drawing on a sermon, “The Audacity to Hope,” that would prove the inspiration for his campaign, he invoked the grit of slaves and immigrants to convince audiences in the convention hall and in living rooms across the country that they could mobilize despite the advantages of a wartime president incumbency, despite the historically white Republican-leaning composition of the electorate that year, and despite George W. Bush’s fervent evangelical base. “We The People” could mobilize to exit “this long political darkness” into “a brighter day.”
But four years later, during Obama’s own presidential campaign, Jeremiah Wright, the Trinity United Church of Christ preacher who delivered the sermon which inspired the 2004 speech, would appear on tape “damning” America for domestic and international arrogance, and lamenting that America’s foreign policy blunders and its eye-for-an-eye mentality had “come home to roost.” Wright refused to back down in the face of the ensuing backlash. In an interview with Baptist-educated journalist Bill Moyers, Wright placed his comments within the prophetic Black tradition. He promised he was “coming after” Obama as the potential head of a government that implemented harmful policies. Largely out of the headlines, Wright continued to criticize Obama during his two terms, wittily quipping in 2014 that “King said ‘I have a dream.’ Barack said, ‘I have a drone.’” Radical by 2008 or even 2010 standards, Wright’s dismissal of Obama’s supposedly “post-racial” America would nonetheless seem increasingly prescient to mainstream observers by 2015.
Wright kept good company. As Black Lives Matter took off after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garland in 2014, theologians and journalists more generally began to question the long-assumed effect of having a Black president on American racism. Ultimately, this debate boiled down to a moral question: Were American political and social mores—specifically white ones—redeemable from White Supremacy? Was talk of “moral arcs of justice” within the Black Church tradition that had fueled the Civil Rights Movement useful, or had it proven naïve?
Black opinion on this issue often crossed ontological boundaries. Sister Mary Shawn Copeland in 2014 praised Black atheist Ta-Nehisi-Coates’s work on “elegant racism,” which insidiously constricts Black access to social and cultural capital while hiding overt hate speech and acts. Coates’s widely read case for reparations would propel him to the status of the most widely read commentator on race in the United States. Even Obama—who often drew on Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” to avoid wielding religion in moralistic political narratives—questioned whether the United States could live up to the “costly grace” God had given it to overcome the original sin of racism after the fateful 2015 killings in a Charleston, South Carolina AME Church.
Obama’s comments in Charleston represented a sweeping contrast to his earlier public philosophy. Despite the renaissance in Black theological and political thought during the Obama years, one Obama double-standard continued to grate on the nerves of Black intellectuals. The sociologist, Baptist minister, and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson took to criticizing Obama’s “politics of respectability”—the attempts to please elite whites through “white” measures of achievement or criticisms of the Black community—which Dyson deemed “unsuccessful.” In Dyson’s mind, Obama delinked the improvement of the African-American community from an acknowledgement of the discriminatory structures the community faced.
Obama’s respectability discourse was not new. In Obama’s famed 2004 keynote address, he offered “hope” to all Americans, but he decried “the slander [presumably within the African-American community itself] that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” This despite empirical evidence—reported by Nia-Malika Henderson—refuting the prevalence of this “slander.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out at the time, Obama offered harsh words for Morehouse College graduates in 2013 even as he offered policy solutions to the white working class and bankers. As Dyson pointed out, Obama in these moments sounded like a Black pastor admonishing his congregation—not so much Martin Luther King as like minister and university president Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who often chided Black communities for “selfish” victim complex which impeded Blacks’ ability to put their internal houses and families in order. Echoing James Baldwin’s 1962 observations on the allure and danger of socially conservative religion in Black communities, Coates rejected this Black conservative moralizing as hopelessly trying to please whites, or fanning the flames of Black separatists such as Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan. For Coates, religious fervor only elided structural racism and provided fodder for accommodationists and separatists alike.
If Obama sometimes embodied the Black Church’s conservative streak, he also consistently demonstrated its progressive rhetorical potential to bridge divides. Despite his occasional “bootstraps” rhetoric, Obama also blazed a modern discursive path for melding religion and intersectional justice. Beginning his commemoration of 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, invoking the hymn “God Will Take Care of You,” he assured America that gay blood “ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down” the Selma Bridge. Indeed, in the last few years, support for LGBT rights has jumped among traditionally skeptical religious African-Americans. He condemned an attitude that accepts “bias and discrimination are immutable”, an attitude that “rob[s] us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.” Obama used the same moral tongue lashing to admonish deniers of racial progress as to admonish those in the Black community he saw as failing their peers. Debates over Obama would outlive his presidency and not for the reasons Obama would have wished.
Trump’s ascension and the “whitelash” it represented added fuel to the to the hot debate among Black intellectuals about the possibilities for a racially transformative politics going forward. It created an even greater split even between intellectuals that had once agreed in their criticisms of Obama’s “race-blind” presidential rhetoric. On one side stood thinkers such as Coates, whose version of “black atheism” left little room for redemptive narratives, let alone moral arcs. In its extreme form, wrote Melvin Rogers in 2017 in a scathing review of We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates’s “black atheism” led to the conclusion that “Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all failures. They performed the same script, they failed to move their audience to action, and they never reshaped U.S. life and culture.”
Perhaps the strong reaction came because Coates inverted the expectations of his colleagues, chiding moralizing community leaders (represented in some instances by Obama himself) and praising the symbolic value of Obama’s presidency despite the disastrous Trump epilogue. Coates had coupled his “Afro-pessimism” about America’s ability to overcome race with a reflection on Obama’s historic ability to both “trust” whites and speak “the language of the South Side,” in addition to Obama’s ability to wield federal power in a way that “was black.” He dismissed criticisms that Obama was not Black enough—often reflected in criticisms of his alleged inattention to Black issues—as “coping” with being wrong about the possibility of a Black president. Coates, far from fatalistic, wished to be proven wrong about the impossibility of overcoming White Supremacy. The same attitude that had fueled Coates’s hope in Obama fueled his pessimism come the former president’s seeming failure.
On the other side of this intellectual divide stood (to varying degrees) religiously-influenced critics of Obama’s moral and foreign policy Realpolitik, which included, as Cornel West controversially put it in a response to Coates’s most recent work, “563 drone strikes … and 550 Palestinian children killed.” The sharp debates among some of Black America’s leading thinkers that emerged after Trump’s rise represent an extension of the personal “circular confrontation” that can happen between high-profile public intellectuals with strong personalities as much as high-stakes inquiry. Even here the differences may prove overstated. While their frustration with his support of Obama is understandable, their criticism may paint an unfairly one-sided picture of Coates’s engagement with the Black Church intellectual tradition and authors and moral laws more generally. Indeed, despite his atheism and his pessimistic characterization of America as a civilization built upon white supremacy, Coates’s aforementioned premiere essay on reparations began by approvingly quoting lengthy and relevant passages from Deuteronomy 15: 12–15 as well as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (Chapter 2 Sec. 10). Coates does not dismiss religious moral arguments and the Black Church tradition with which he quarrels out of hand, and his critics’ characterization of his black atheism as fatalistic is to some degree overstated. The moralist and non-moralist sides have differences, but also common goals. The problem becomes finding a discourse to unite the streams around justice struggles, not divide them over ontological differences.
A nationally prominent pastor attempting to resurrect one of Martin Luther King’s final signature initiatives provides a possible model for combining clear-eyed racial analysis with Black religious idealism. Academic acrimony was absent at an April 19 discussion at Duke Chapel between Reverend William Barber and Senator Bernie Sanders. On the subject of the “moral economy,” the white politician and the black preacher both quickly agreed that an intersectional class-race approach would prove a long-lasting fuel for post-Trump social movements. Asked what constitutes a moral economy, Sanders ticked off a litany of problems such as income inequality and the despoiling of “God’s earth” that a morally based economic vision would need to solve. This religious dimension of his political agenda reflected his comments at an invited lecture he had given at Liberty University during the 2016 presidential primaries. William Barber took a longer and wider view, situating economic equality in the context of his own early upbringing, marred by segregation and uplifted by Martin Luther King and the Poor People’s Campaign. Citing Article 11, Section 4 of the North Carolina Constitution, first approved in 1868 during Reconstruction, he reminded state lawmakers that aiding the poor, unfortunate, and orphans was “one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.” He mentioned that the 1868 Constitution writers sought to bring together white and Black working-class workers and break the back of racism, efforts only reversed through a 1898 racist coup in Wilmington, NC.
As the Indy Week reported in 2013, the Barbers had William several days after King’s March on Washington, and his parents decided to move him to his father’s hometown—and into segregated schools—so that they could join the Civil Rights struggle. He graduated with a Masters from Duke Divinity School, becoming president of North Carolina’s NAACP in 2006. Barber rose to national prominence during the 2013 Moral Monday campaigns, which gathered thousands of protesters to protest the increasingly radical Republican-controlled North Carolina State legislature. He advanced the same unwavering message at Duke that he has since 2013, a “fusion” politics that seeks to pull together a multi-class, multi-religious, multi-racial progressive coalition. Invited to address the 2016 Democratic Convention, he spoke passionately, “shocking the heart” of a Democratic Party then enthralled in debates over electability and with a candidate, Hillary Clinton, that to many represented the worst of technocratic neoliberal governance. He invoked the “brown Palestinian Jew” Jesus whose message contradicted a Caesarian siren song that, as Trump boasted, one ruler alone could “fix it.” Having left his position in the Moral Monday movement and the North Carolina NAACP, he has sought to resurrect the Poor People’s Campaign—which he described in July not as “failed,” but as “shot” (in reference to King’s assassination—and has used this platform to tour the country with progressive politician Elizabeth Warren. Stories from the tour range from professional and working-class black women to elderly white male coal miners. Each story speaks to the devastation wrought by the mix of unregulated capital and increasing legal restrictions on organized labor. Barber laid out a platform that sweeps from fair housing reform to a repeal of the 2017 GOP tax bill (which he classifies as racism by another name), to an end to deportations of undocumented immigrants.
The head of the NAACP at the beginning of this year, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, picked up on King’s call for a “revolution of values” during a trash workers’ mobilization in Memphis, Tennessee. While the canonization and sanitization of King could lead many intellectuals, black and white, to take a pessimistic or fatalistic view of white supremacy’s hold on US society, a more charitable reading would distinguish, as Jacob Hamburger wrote for Tocqueville 21, between a revolution which dismantles social structures (the social mechanics) and the social “values and mores” which cause that machinery to operate in favor of white supremacy. William Barber, in the tradition of the Black Church tradition, is betting that you can reprogram the country’s legal and political struggle. But like the pessimists he realizes America’s moral heart needs an EMS shock or it may not very well survive. This religious vision is neither racially “atheist” in the Coatesian sense nor otherworldly. It advocates neither Manichean separatism nor reconciling opposing views and class interests—as Obama still advocates. Rather. the Black Church tradition Barber embodies—the tradition at its best—evinces a realism that combines the simplicity and dovishness of the Gospel message with the serpentine shrewdness of effective grassroots organizations.