Monthly Archives: March 2015
David L. Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow challenges standard accounts of the civil rights movement and the reasons for its success, identifying religion as the key factor that enabled change. It was the prophetic vitality of the religion of black churches, leaders, and civil rights activists, he argues, that enabled them to overcome the much more economically and politically powerful forces of segregation. On the other hand, it was the lack of religious support that undermined the cause of the segregationists. While “black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, … white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion” (p. 8).
Chappell begins by diagnosing the inadequacy of post-World War II liberalism. Liberals believed in human nature, convinced that reason could and would overcome prejudice and superstition. But this very optimism rendered them passive in response to stubborn southern opposition. If human progress was inevitable, better to allow time to do its work than to provoke a southern backlash that might only delay such progress. Some liberals realized that the problem was liberalism’s lack of spiritual energy and authority. Post-war liberals supported civil rights, but “They were not the ones who made it move” (p.43).
One of the primary reasons Christians seeking to work out the implications of their faith disagree so sharply on matters of politics and public policy is because they make conflicting assumptions about the purpose and efficacy of government.
Evangelicals, for instance, interpret biblical teaching through the prism of a prior commitment to small government. It has not always been this way. Evangelicals formed the backbone of William Jennings Bryan’s populist campaigns for the presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and southern evangelicals were a core part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition during the late 1930s. But evangelicals increasingly evaluated the secularization and growth of the federal government in light of the Cold War and the threat of godless communism. It therefore made sense for them to align themselves with the emerging conservative movement, first in southern California, and then throughout Dixie. Anger over federal enforcement of desegregation, of course, made a big difference for southerners, but so did concerns over secular humanism (in education), feminism, and the liberalization of abortion laws.
African American Protestants, on the other hand, interpret biblical teaching in light of their experience of the federal government as their key shield and protector against racism and discrimination. It was the emergence of a strong Supreme Court and a more interventionist Congress that led to the end of segregation. On the other hand, the doctrines of limited government and states’ rights, to which conservatives often appealed as the bastions of liberty, were typically used in defense of the oppression of black people.
Roman Catholics, for their part, are more conflicted. Catholics also made up a core constituency of FDR’s New Deal coalition, and the labor-friendly social teachings of the Catholic Church rendered them much firmer in this commitment than were southern evangelicals. Unlike Protestants, who experienced the secularization of the federal government as a form of marginalization, Catholics experienced it, at least at first, as their own liberation from what had been an essentially Protestant establishment. But when secularization extended to fundamental issues of Catholic moral teaching, such as gender roles and abortion, many Catholics found their allegiances divided. To this day the Catholic bishops lean Democratic on issues such as immigration, health care, and care for the poor, but they shift sharply to the right on matters pertaining to the life of the unborn. Hence the Catholic bishops’ advocacy for an expanded federal role in health care, followed by a sharp rejection of Obamacare as it emerged.
Nowhere do these tendencies appear more starkly than in the Catholic and evangelical responses to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s recent endorsement of net neutrality, which passed on partisan lines (three Democrats in favor, two Republicans opposed).
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed the shift, viewing the federal government as a powerful force for religious liberty: “From the inception of the Internet until the mid-2000s, Internet service providers were not permitted to discriminate or tamper with what was said over those Internet connections. Today, the FCC restores this protection for speakers, protection particularly important to noncommercial religious speakers.” For the Catholic bishops, the greatest threat to religious liberty on the Internet comes from the potential tyranny of the market; it is the federal government’s job to ensure that Internet communication remains free.
In contrast, the evangelical National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) unanimously opposed a move toward net neutrality on the part of the FCC. As president and CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson put it, “I am saddened that the FCC voted on partisan lines to dramatically expand federal power over the Internet. Bigger government is not fertile ground for the flourishing of free speech and innovation. This is a power grab, and NRB opposes it.” For evangelicals like Johnson, the primary threat to free speech comes from the growth of government; leaving such matters to the market ensures that they will flourish and remain free.
Neither the Catholic bishops nor the evangelical members of the NRB are being hypocrites here. Both are seeking to work out the implications of their faith as they see it. No doubt the bishops come at the matter from a more theological perspective, while the members of the NRB work from a more business-oriented standpoint. But they are taking opposite positions on an issue in the name of the same objective – liberty and freedom of speech – largely because they conceive of the role of government in relation to the market in profoundly different ways.