A new booklet published by the Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) draws some shocking conclusions about the state of race relations in America and raises troubling questions about the role of religion in politics.
In May last year, twelve church leaders and members of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’s racial justice committee spent two weeks on a fact-finding trip to America. Inspired by the memory of the role of African-American churches in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, their aim was to look at how America’s modern religious institutions are addressing contemporary issues of racism and inequality. The report of their findings, Beneath The Surface, written by CCRJ Secretary Revd Arlington Trotman, makes for a surprisingly hard-hitting read.
Although the CCRJ delegation’s American trip took place before the catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina, its physical, political and economic ramifications proved too important for the committee to ignore when it came to writing Beneath The Surface. In Trotman’s words, ‘Hurricane Katrina … cruelly exposed what appeared to be one of America’s most telling ironies: the presence of abject poverty and ingrained racism lurking just beneath the surface of the world’s richest “super power”.’
The first chapter, titled ‘The Katrina Revelations’, is, therefore, given over to a coruscating attack on what was, it is argued, a racist response from a society that does not care about its poor. ‘[I]t is hard to avoid the conviction’, the pamphlet concludes, ‘that many sectors of American society, including the Federal and State governments, corporate and private enterprise, and the religious community appear to have become blasé about deep-seated inequalities between African Americans and white people’.
Racial justice in America
The final three chapters unsparingly examine religious institutions’ roles in promoting racial justice in Washington D. C., the rich northern metropolises of New York and Chicago and various rural and urban locations in the Deep South states of Alabama and Georgia that were significant sites in the civil rights movement. Although the delegation did encounter some progressive groups and hopeful programmes, its overall impression was bleak. The following statement clearly summarises the delegation’s impressions of the situation in America.
‘[The] delegation was challenged by images and strong signals of segregation, racism, poverty and discrimination. The lack of a coherent debate about racism and segregation, or indeed a public outcry at such inequalities, not to mention America’s apparent political and social disengagement with the nub of the question, was plainly astounding.’
For those interested in applying the delegation’s findings to a British context, it is the second chapter, dealing with the links between poverty and racism and the growing phenomenon of ‘politicised and economically powerful faith’, that makes for the most interesting reading.
The section on the rising influence of politically conservative evangelical religion on politics is particularly prescient in the light of Tony Blair’s comments in March about God being the ultimate judge of his decision to invade Iraq and his attendance, at the start of April, at a conference on Black political participation organised by Brixton’s evangelical Ruach Ministries. The fact that Tony Blair’s ascent to the podium was accompanied by the messianic overtones of the hymn ‘Father we welcome you’ is worrying in its suggestion of a link between elected political and divinely-sanctioned leadership.
Reversing the trend of rapidly declining electoral participation by the African Caribbean community is an important issue in Britain. But the pamphlet expresses serious reservations about the impact of the ‘Religious Right’ on both American politics and the African-American community. Detailing the close links between evangelical churches and the Bush White House and a significant minority of Congress, the pamphlet points out that there is much to fear from the fusion of right-wing politics and a form of religion that justifies poverty as God’s punishment for the lazy and views the war on terror as a religious crusade.
The pamphlet further warns that the aggressive expansionism of evangelical religion threatens to usurp African-American churches’ historical role of campaigning for racial justice and equality. In the course of its investigations the delegation found that churches often seemed surprisingly uninterested in engaging with the problems of the most disadvantaged sections of their congregations. ‘Many are convinced that the Political and Religious Right have “hijacked” God’, Trotman reports, ‘It may be claimed, furthermore, that, where the black mega churches are adopting mass marketing tactics, a form of neo-colonialism could be emerging.’
That the CCRJ’s fact-finding delegation was so shocked by the unquestioning attitude towards racial, social and economic injustice it found in America, gives one hope that inequality is not yet such an everyday part of the British social and political scenery that it goes unnoticed. ‘Clearly our Churches have much to do before a truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church, characterised by inclusiveness and mutual respect can be assured’, concludes the pamphlet. Whether a partnership between evangelical religion and politics can play a constructive role in promoting racial justice remains to be seen. Those who want it could do a lot worse than look to the compassionate, critical, campaigning theology that underpins the Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice and its admirable publication Beneath The Surface.