Intro: What's Past is Prologue
As we enter the heart of the 2012 election season, I thought I might dust off a piece I wrote in 2004 about the homophobic agenda of the religious right and how George W. Bush and Karl Rove manipulated a minority of Black so-called Christians to vote Republican in the hopes of stifling LGBTQ rights. No doubt you'll ultimately see similar tactics at play from the Romney-Ryan ticket, arguably an even more radical right-wing pairing than Bush-Cheney. Whenever the right wing has its back to the wall it pulls from its predictable God/guns/gays arsenal to stimulate the baser instincts of the less-informed. Romney-Ryan seem poised at the moment for a classic "Celebration of Wealth" tour straight through to November, with various Trickle Down and Voter Suppression warm-up acts, but be ye forewarned, swing states can expect a deft jab-hook-uppercut combination of anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and anti-gay marriage hysteria. I so want this piece to sound dated, but I'm afraid that many of these issues remain with us as a people.
What's key here are the infinite possibilities for the Republican manipulation of Christianity. Watch for Paul Ryan's syncretized Ayn Rand / Jesus gig where the Gospels come across as a testament to individualism and corporatism. That would certainly have driven Jesus to an even deeper rage in the temple as he spoke out against the moneychangers. Stylistically, this is no different than the Bush-Cheney gay-bashing Jesus. For my Christian brothers and sisters, please notice how your Gospels get re-written every four years and how your economic and political needs get consistently written outside of the circle!! These people don't believe in Jesus, they believe in money and power and how Jesus can be manipulated to help them get more!
Read on with an eye toward the future as well as the past!
Trickle Down Christianity:
How the Socially Regressive Homophobic Agenda of Karl Rove and the Christian Right Wing Army Undermined Black Political Aspirations in 2004
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:38)
In the end, as black boxes tallied more votes for the incumbent George W. Bush than had been cast, while provisional ballots were dismissed and military votes left to gather dust, America was hijacked in 2000 by Karl Rove's Christian Right Army of Conservative Jesus using so-called "wedge issues" of abortion rights and gay marriage to achieve a right wing imbalance of power. Along with a good 48% of America I watched as Bush proclaimed himself the American Caesar and gloated over his unearned political capital. All in the name of Conservative Jesus.
When I use the term "Conservative Jesus" I refer to a particular deity worshipped by the religious hypocrites of the red states who once proclaimed racism and segregation as bedrock American values, and who now value attacks on women's rights and the rights of gays and lesbians. Conservative Jesus is the Jesus of white male supremacy. Conservative Jesus is the Jesus who was called on to bless slave ships and slave auctions and slave punishments. Conservative Jesus is the Jesus of segregated churches -for noontime Sunday remains one of the most segregated hours in the American week. Today, Conservative Jesus is the Jesus of billionaire tax cuts and simultaneous cuts to social programs for the poor, the sick, and the homeless. Conservative Jesus likes money and NASCAR and Elvis and dabbles in cocaine and crystal meth and spousal abuse and votes against his economic interests and the interests of poor boys at war and calls Michael Moore anti-American and Sean Hannity quintessentially American -if only he could spell "quintessentially"- and hates the liberal Jew media and most of all hates those goddam faggots with the same fervor that his father and grandfather hated those goddam niggers.
There is another Jesus. I call him Liberal Jesus. Liberal Jesus is the Jesus of the poor, the naked, the homeless, and the sick. He's the Jesus of a Liberation Theology, the Jesus that inspired the freedom struggles of enslaved African people in America (Turner, Vesey, Prosser, Brown, Dismal Swamp Maroons) and Civil Rights marchers in the South. Liberal Jesus is also the Jesus of Gandhi -who was as solid a Biblical scholar as any revolutionary leader- and the historical struggles of subordinated peoples across the globe. Wherever there are poor and oppressed people, there is Liberal Jesus, the Jesus of the underclass who comes with the dispensation of grace rather than the judgment of Leviticus. When Liberal Jesus returns in glory he'll no doubt be consistent with history and seek out subaltern communities including gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities. Followers of Liberal Jesus know well that there will be gay people in heaven.
In the election of 2004, Liberal Jesus was the voice that demanded jobs, affordable healthcare, medical research, an end to war and oppression, and the end of the systematic incarceration of the poor and men and women of color in American prisons. Liberal Jesus wanted a guarantee that the votes of all would counted. Liberal Jesus wanted a fully funded commitment to improving public education.
After 300 years of Conservative Jesus colonizing people of color around the world, it was to a large extent the African American community that gave rise to Liberal Jesus. It was this Jesus that Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser spoke of as they prepared for revolt against the slaveholding South. It was Liberal Jesus who protected runners in the Underground Railroad in the still of the night. It was Liberal Jesus who spoke to the hearts of progressive Conservative people like John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, the American Quakers, Charles Sumner, and Thaddeus Stevens.
For a moment I believed that in the dark hours of the Presidential Election of 2004, as the African American vote suddenly became more and more relevant, that the Black community which gave rise to Liberal Jesus might surface as the vanguard to advocate for the ranks of the poor and the suffering. I believed that voters who went with values on their minds would vote with the anti-war values and the anti-poverty values of Liberal Jesus. It was an important moment in history for oppressed communities, as was the presidential election of 2000 where mere percentage points stood to make the difference. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, the poor, the elderly, and the young all had a moment to shake up this country and set it back on a path toward social justice.
Instead there was a spiritual coup in which African American religious leaders conspired to murder Liberal Jesus and jump on board the agenda of Conservative Jesus, thus effectively aligning themselves with Conservative power and privilege in the hopes of earning the crumbs of Trickle Down Christianity.
In 2004 Black Conservative Christians resoundingly demanded a full-scale assault on the rights of gay and lesbian persons to marry. Conflating race, religion and politics, Republican strategists effectively appealed to Black voters as a class of socially conservative Christians and established a troubling "brotherhood of resentment" focused around such key wedge issues as gay marriage. The formula was simple: Black=Christian=Anti-Gay=Bush.
Post-election polls are reporting conflicting data. Major cable network news programs (MSNBC, CNN) have reported that the increase in Black Republican votes nationwide was marginal. However, other polls indicate that the state of Ohio in particular experienced an increase in Black Republican votes from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004 - voter fraud notwithstanding. The political influence of socially conservative Black Christians remains to be seen, but by embracing the divisive politics of Conservative Jesus they have certainly secured their complicity in the agenda of the Far Right. With Ohio playing such a pivotal role in this election, African Americans are firmly implicated in all Bush policies abroad and at home.
The homophobic and socially regressive agenda of Black Christians expressed in the election of 2004 is an unfortunate outgrowth of a broader history of social conservatism in the Black community that has effectively limited the political/social/cultural agendas of African American communities. While the homophobic agenda of the election of 2004 signified a measure of complicity and support for candidates who formerly opposed several cornerstones of The Black Agenda (Affirmative Action, a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday), the homophobic agenda of the Civil Rights Movement, was also marked with implied complicity between southern segregationists and the Black political elite. In fact, every historical homophobic or anti-feminist infraction on the part of the Black community and its leadership elite has implied complicity with reactionary and decidedly racist dominant political ideologies (e.g. anti-feminist attacks directed at the likes of Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Maria Stewart and others during the Reconstruction era, the anti-feminist agenda of the Civil Rights movement, and the homophobia of the Civil Rights movement manifest in attacks against James Baldwin).
Historical Homophobia: Adam Clayton Powell "conspires" with Strom Thurmond in the Battle over Bayard Rustin.
In an essay entitled "My Gay Problem, Your Black Problem," Earl Ofari Hutchinson critiques the phenomenon of Black homophobia, citing the exclusion of gay activist Bayard Rustin from the 1963 March on Washington. "Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, a known gay, and major mover and shaker behind the 1963 March on Washington, was all but banned by March leaders from speaking or having any visible public role at the March. A popular Black nationalist magazine of that day frequently referred to him as 'the little fairy.' No Black leader publicly challenged this homophobia" (Hutchinson N.d.).
It was the old time segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond who intended to destroy the SCLC by attacking Rustin and implying some nefarious plot between gays, communists, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Calling Rustin a Communist, draft dodger and homosexual, Thurmond manipulated these "wedge issue" and effectively disrupted the leadership of SCLC, ultimately forcing Rustin to the periphery of the movement.
But Thurmond was not alone in his attacks. Thurmond had a most unlikely "ally" from the Black community, radical Black congressman Adam Clayton Powell. In a fashion reminiscent of the complicity of contemporary conservative Black Christians, Adam Clayton Powell also manipulated Black homophobia against Bayard Rustin in order to disrupt the power of SCLC. Writing a review for The Nation, Randall Kennedy observes, "Insulted by what he perceived as their failure to consult him first, Adam Clayton Powell--the chief minister of Harlem's most influential church (the Abyssinian Baptist) and one of only four Blacks in the House of Representatives--accused King of being in thrall to socialist interests by virtue of his association with Rustin. When that failed to provoke a reaction, Powell upped the ante, threatening to charge that King and Rustin were having a homosexual affair. In the face of that threat, and King's unwillingness to confront Powell, Rustin publicly severed all his ties with SCLC--one of several developments that undercut the proposed demonstrations and rendered them largely ineffectual. Powell's sexual blackmail devastated Rustin and drove him to the outer edges of the civil rights movement for several years" (Kennedy 2003).
Bayard Rustin was a Pennsylvania Quaker, member of the Communist Party, later an anti-Communist Socialist, participant in the struggles of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, member of the Congress of Racial Equality, pacifist and conscientious objector of World War II, organizer of the 1947 interracial Journey of Reconciliation that would serve as the precursor for Freedom Rides some 20 years later, and top strategist in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s SCLC movement to end Jim Crow segregation in places of public accommodation.
The mastermind of King's 1963 March on Washington, D.C. and the voice of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, Rustin is perhaps best remembered in the Black community for a 1953 morals charge in California for his homosexuality and an FBI photo showing him in conversation with King while King was bathing and implying a homosexual affair between the two men.
Randall Kennedy notes, "Throughout these pursuits, Rustin expressed a gay sexuality for which he was stigmatized as a sexual criminal, a smear that crippled his ability to lead the movements to which he passionately contributed ideas and inspiration. Rustin was for many years a forgotten man. His obscurity stemmed not only from amnesia but also from conscious suppression, largely on the part of left-liberals and Black nationalists who objected to what they saw as a complacent, even retrograde turn in his later years" (Kennedy 2003).
Adam Clayton Powell's attack on Rustin and the SCLC's response of demoting Rustin, is testament to the far more pernicious effects of short-sighted homophobia. Powell's "outing" of gay Black activist Bayard Rustin also strangely marked Powell as complicit with southern segregationist Strom Thurmond in his desire to destroy the SCLC. It is in this fashion that Black homophobia inspires strange allies.
The demonization of Bayard Rustin effectively blinded African Americans from the kind of political coalition building that Rustin would address in his later life. Kennedy notes, "Before the late 1970s, Rustin spent little if any energy advancing the cause of equal treatment for lesbians and gays. During the final decade of his life, however, he began to speak out in support of the gay liberation movement. One influence prompting this change, suggests D'Emilio, was Walter Naegle, a younger man with whom Rustin fell in love (and legally adopted for purposes of estate planning). Naegle convinced Rustin to support vocally such measures as a sexual-orientation antidiscrimination ordinance in New York City. He also helped to persuade Rustin to address organizations like Black and White Men Together. Speaking to this group in 1986, Rustin remarked that "the barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group which is most mistreated," and that now "the new 'niggers' are gays" (Kennedy 2003).
Homophobic Short-Sightedness and The Election of 2004
San Francisco columnist Chip Johnson wrote on September 27 that a group of 15 Oakland, California African American ministers endorsed George W. Bush for president in August, citing Bush's position against gay marriage and related American values positions as the motivating factor in their vote. Johnson specifically named Rev. Greg Richards of San Francisco's Double Rock Baptist Church in San Francisco and Pastor Eric Crawford, Executive Director of the California Coalition for Inner City Renewal and a registered Republican as key Bush supporters (Johnson 2004).
Johnson's editorial portrayed a conflicted political landscape amongst Black church goers in California. On one extreme were those who lent wholehearted support of the Bush moral agenda -federal funding notwithstanding- and were seen in the final weeks of the campaign signing up new Black Republican voters. In the middle were those who chose to prioritize issues of unemployment and alarming urban homicide rates over gay marriage. On the other extreme were those ministers who condemned efforts by the Republican party to entice and co-opt the African American vote. Among these voices were former San Francisco Supervisor Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church, Rev. Frank Pinkard of Evergreen Baptist Church in Oakland, and former Black Panthers David Hilliard and Bobby Seale (Johnson 2004).
California was but a microcosm of what was happening on the national scene. Attracted by this conflicted landscape as sharks are drawn to blood in the water, the Republican Party clearly seized the initiative on as national scale, conscripting and prominently featuring the likes of Bishop Wellington Boone and the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson.
Kim Pearson, in an article entitled "Black Christians, the Homosexuality Debate, and the American Creed," written for an August 2004 edition of the ezine The Revealer noted, " When the Episcopal Church of the United States of America consecrated openly gay clergyman Eugene V. Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, African and Caribbean leaders of the Anglican Church led the revolt that has brought the denomination to the brink of a historic split. When, in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional, social and political conservatives salivated over the prospect that opinion polls showing heightened African-American opposition to gay marriage might cause some Black American voters to vote Republican. Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin advised his party that the marriage issue could be a "great wedge issue" for Republican candidates in 2004" (Pearson 2004).
Pearson indeed forewarned that this embrace of an anti-gay agenda threatens the core humanist principles of a Black Christianity founded on anti-slavery and the fight against oppression. Such historical considerations are paramount in this debate. "If Republicans have their wish, the result could not only be a significant re-alignment of the Black voting bloc, which has been overwhelmingly Democratic since the New Deal era, but a fundamental blow to the progressive Black theological tradition that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. In the long run, this may prove to be the most substantial effect of the 2004 election, because that tradition -- epitomized by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s plea that the United States "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed" in his "I Have A Dream" address -- has been the fundamental challenge to this country's claim to moral exceptionalism" (Pearson 2004).
Rather than so-called cults of victimization or anti-intellectualism (McWhorter 2001) or nihilism (West 1994), a persistent social conservatism directed at Black gays and lesbians and women have been the central barriers to Black political progress in America. Homophobia and sexism have historically limited the vision of African American social/political agendas and have inhibited effective political coalition building. There's a profound resentment at the heart of these failures, and the fear that women and gays will ride the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement and eventually surpass African Americans in political relevance.
The Response of Black Liberation Theology
I've been deeply moved this political season by the stirring and historical grounded address of Barack Obama to the Democratic National Convention as well as the speeches of Dr. Cornel West to hordes of progressive protesters at alternative conventions I began to consider the response of a history of writings in the tradition of Black Liberation Theology to the moral agenda of the administration of George W. Bush.
I am interested in thinking through the radical tradition of Black lay ministers, thinkers and rebels David Walker, Martin Delany, Alexander McGuire, Howard Thurman, James Cone, and Cornel West. As the Republican Party begins to attract more and more socially conservative Black Christians who blithely ignore the historical ramifications of cheering former segregationist "Zig Zag" Zell Miller or endorsing neo-colonialist expansion, I think it's important for radical Black Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Secular Humanists, and devotees of African and African-derived spiritual traditions to sound opposition to the American conservative appropriation of God.
As a member of the radical African Orthodox Church, I scoured the pages The Negro Churchman for the words and wisdom of Archbishop Alexander McGuire in the 1920s and '30s, when we were New Negroes and battles were being waged against Conservative lynch mobs and Jim Crow.
In the March 1923 edition of the Negro Churchman, frequent contributor and founder of the International Humanity League, Marie Louise Montague persuasively argued that the Christian message of love and the dispensation of grace have been consistently compromised since the emergence of Christianity from Roman dungeons. Montague presents a concise and utterly persuasive history of Christians who emerged from the lions' dens and jails of ancient Rome wrapped in the empire friendly rhetoric of St. Paul to be politically legitimated by the Emperor Constantine, and to forever seal this marriage between church and state.
Montague wrote, "Records prove that as soon as the Church of the Apostles emerged from its slavery to Rome's tyrannical emperors, the pendulum was swung to the other extreme. At the instance of Charlemagne and Pepin, the papacy sacrificed a mandatory ethical principle to worldly expediency by assuming that secular kingship which eventually arbitrarily ruled over the other kings of the earth; and 'ipso facto' the 'power of love' as the inherent motive of God's plan was transmuted by the alchemy of Satan into the "love of power." This proposition instantly evoked a protest in the historical exodus of the sixteenth century. Subsequently, however, the Reformers themselves officially denigrated into exemplars of that equally fatal corollary union of State and Church. Henry the Eighth, and his royal successors, were recognized by the English nation as heads of the established church. The Czar of Russia likewise assumed the status of spiritual guide to the National Orthodox Church. Later the Kaiser usurped the ecclesiastical duty of directing the destinies of Germany's theological dicta, which nullified the Lutheran movement as a rebuke to the Vatican's political aggressions. It will be readily admitted that the morale of Christianity suffered as severely from civil assumption of religious authority, as it did from the fatal error of judgment that diverted the successors of St. Peter to civil sovereignty as Kings of the Holy Roman Empire. Both dislocations served equally to subvert the integrity of religion, the onus of the first digression resting as a stigma upon the early Pontiffs. Its fruition is a sinister combination of world monstrosities, Protestant National Churches, and Catholicism vitiated in the very fountainhead of truth" (Montague1923).
By definition the incitement of emotion around such issues as gay marriage necessarily blinds voters to other aspects of the neoconservative agenda among which is the marriage of Church and State. Montague's warning from the early 1920s is clear: historically the marriage of Church and State is the critical formula of empire building. The American Church is now complicit in every death wrought by American Empire and can no longer serve as a locus of dissent. The Church will no longer speak about disenfranchisement, poverty, the horror of war, and is no longer a place for conscientious objectors. Truth has become the artful blend of what we're told in all too brief Presidential press conferences -the most recent of which have allowed for only one question from the already timid press- what our ministers preach, and what the conservative media espouses on behalf of both Church and State.
The fact that socially conservative Black Christians happen to agree with the regressive social conservatism of Bush & Co. is a mere illusion of inclusion and community. Black Christians, dazzled by the play of shadows, threaten to fall into a troubling alliance with a broader and more relevant neo-conservative imperialist agenda. The issue of gay marriage is simply the bait for the consent of a contemporary neo-conservative and neo-colonial agenda. It is as though the victims of empire come once again to build it up and continue the cycle of their victimization in a bizarre form of volunteer slavery.
Behind the persistent conflation of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden by the Bush administration is a more troubling conflation of George W. Bush and Jesus Christ and the re-mergence of Christianity as the religion of Western Empire. This willful and distorted political marketing of the message and image of Jesus Christ should serve as yet another wake up call for all liberation theologians who want to promote the use of Christianity to undermine empire.
Any reasonable spectator of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City might well consider that Jesus Christ walks the conservative line hand in hand with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the cast of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. There's Jesus, the tough talking Texan with Saddam Hussein's captured handgun in one hand and a chain saw in the other, who has spiritually signed off on the neo-colonial agenda of the present Bush administration, leaving American children behind, as blissfully ignorant of the needs of seniors as he is of the correct pronunciation of "nuclear," and in rapid pursuit of the privatization of Social Security.
Now is the time to declare that the Jesus Christ now firmly appropriated by the Republican Party is NOT the Jesus Christ that we who espouse a liberation theology worship.
This is not the Jesus Christ that I've come to know and love, not the Jesus Christ of my ancestors, not the Jesus Christ that stirred Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and countless Black Maroons in America to action in the anti-colonialist struggle against slavery. For centuries, many of us involved in the message and image of Liberal Jesus have labored to draw a dividing line between ourselves and the appropriation of Jesus Christ and message by men and women of wealth and power.
These two versions of Jesus Christ have long stood in opposition. The phenomena of segregated churches in America is an expression of this conflict and of the real historical conflict between the Jesus of slave masters who urged captive Africans to turn the other cheek and the Jesus of captive Africans who refused to assume the mantle of slavery because of a Jesus who spoke on freedom and labored with the oppressed and challenged the union of money and power and religion in one fiery moment in the temple. For liberation theologians, ours is a Jesus who rejected the promise of empire during his 40 days and nights of fasting and prayer. Ours is the Mount of Olives Christ who would not have turned back gays and lesbians but had a vision of inclusion under the dispensation of grace.
In truth this divide has always existed in American history. George Bush's Jesus Christ is the Jesus Christ of slave masters and slaveholders. What I fear is that in the present day the divide between what Howard Thurman might call the Jesus Christ of the Disinherited and the Damned and the Republican Party's dressed up version of Conservative Jesus -brought to you by the Carlyle Group and Halliburton- is being blurred, or rather, that Conservative Jesus has assumed the foreground.
As a Black Christian I find the socially regressive agenda of contemporary Black Christian Republicans to be utterly repugnant, politically debilitating in the long run -as if gays, lesbians and women voters won't remember which groups were there to support their causes, unsupported by the words and acts of Jesus Christ, wholly naïve, and frankly suspect given the nature of federally funded faith-based programs.
As a Black Christian, I want to affirmatively state that the Jesus that I pray to is not the same Jesus that George W. Bush prays to for counsel in matters of war, peace, and social justice. W's Jesus is the Jesus that was invoked to bless slave ships and that narrowly perceives the world in terms of the clash of empires.
To paraphrase Bush the Younger, I judge his Jesus in terms of the results wrought by prayers to his Jesus, and, specifically I judge W. and his Jesus in terms of a possible 100,000 Iraqi dead and counting and the 1,100 dead and counting American soldiers in this latest installment of the Clash of Civilizations.
There must be an alternative to Bush's Jesus, perhaps a Jesus that teaches and enables us to live in the world with other people in peace.
Dr. Nicholas Louis Baham III
Assoc. Professor of Ethnic Studies
Dept. of Ethnic Studies
California State University, East Bay
Hutchinson, Earl Ofari "My Gay Problem, Your Black Problem: African American men's fear and misconceptions contribute to their homophobia" Black Stripe N.d. Retrieved November 2004
Johnson, Chip "Flash point for Black churches: Gay marriage issue may benefit GOP"
The San Francisco Chronicle September 27, 2004 Retrieved November 2004
Kennedy, Randall "From Protest to Patronage" The Nation, September 29, 2003
Montague, Marie Louise "Secularism" The Negro Churchman March 1923
Millwood Kraus Reprint Co., N.Y. 1977
Pearson, Kim "Black Christians, the Homosexuality Debate, and the American Creed"
The Revealer August 5, 2004, Retrieved November, 2004