This piece is adapted from my research and notes for the speech I gave this past Sunday, May 20th, at the Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference. The talk was entitled “Push and Pull: The Role of Religion in Social Justice.” The follow-up to this piece will address the present-day role of religion in social justice and whether there is a secular alternative.
There is no doubt that religion has hindered social justice movements and continues to do so. I am not saying that said movements were dependent on religion, that their achievements could not have been accomplished without religion, that religion didn’t have its place in hurting the efforts of the movements, or even that religion didn’t necessitate them in the first place. At the same time, to deny religion’s role in certain aspects of specific social justice movements is to ignore an incredibly important aspect of American history, especially for certain minority communities.
As the discussion of religion’s role in hindering social justice took us all the way back to American slavery, let us start there, with Abolitionism. Christianity was used heavily by white abolitionists to motivate and inspire others to join their cause. Rather sentimentalist Christian propaganda, such as the highly influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin, propelled the cause forward. The central idea in this line of thinking was that the slaves were brothers and sisters in Christ and were thus undeserving of the horrendous treatment they endured.
The enslaved people themselves used religion in their quest for their freedom. Though Christianity was imposed upon them as part of their slavery, they turned it around to work in their own favor. Slaves used spirituals to communicate messages towards freedom. As is evidenced by Harriet Tubman’s nickname, the Biblical Moses was a commonly-used source inspiration towards freedom. Though the notion of the Jewish slavery in Egypt is historically questionable, when did the truth ever get in the way of a good, inspiring story? The Christian indoctrination of the slaves had backfired spectacularly: through “we are all children of God” and “brothers and sisters in Christ” lens, white Americans were led to sympathize with Abolitionism and slaves were empowered as human beings deserving of freedom.
The legacy of slavery was what made the Civil Rights Movement necessary. Beyond the obvious fact that Martin Luther King Jr., as well as many other leaders, were religious figures, religion was crucial in the movement. Churches served as essentially the perfect organizational tool: people were forced to be at least decent to fellow churchgoers, there were enforced weekly meetings and sense of community, there was built-in respect for what the man behind the pulpit had to say, and there was social pressure to participate both personally and financially. The malleable nature of the messages of religion, so evident with slavery, became even more consciously manipulated: the “children of God” narrative implied the necessity of equality.
Christianity was not the only religion to have a crucial role in organizing during the Civil Rights Movement. The Nation of Islam rejected the notion that Christianity, i.e. what they saw as “the white man’s religion,” could be used to liberate African-Americans. They advocated a religion that they saw as more authentic to their people’s history and background. Although most people remember the Nation for its divisive doctrines as voiced by the highly influential initial career of Malcolm X, its impact within the African-American community was immense. The Nation’s focus on reducing drug abuse, increasing self-reliance, and promoting gainful employment in the highly hostile environment in which it existed changed many lives.
The various waves of feminism and movements for women’s rights were not supported, and were often opposed, by organized monotheistic religion, but the idea of a more female-centric spirituality via various New Age movements was influential to many feminists. Moving away from the patriarchy inherent in Judeo-Christian religion and into a female-centric, female-empowered model was a way to free themselves of the self-hatred with which many of them were instilled through those religions.
The most prominent contemporary movement for civil rights is the LGBT movement. Most of the big muscle in the religious community is flexed in opposition to it, but just as some religious groups are against LGBT rights, some are for them. The United Church of Christ and Unitarianism in general has stood with the LGBT community. Their buildings have served as meeting places for groups like No on Proposition 8. While other religious groups have claimed that the mere existence of same-sex marriage violates their freedom of religion, the UCC has argued that being prohibited from performing same-sex marriages, which is permitted in their doctrines, violates their freedom of religion. Non-Orthodox rabbis have also generally been in favor of LGBT rights.
Even among mainstream Christians, the support for LGBT rights is growing. There is a growing segment of Christians who have adopted a more love-based faith in that they prefer to promote the “love thy neighbor” part of Jesus’s teachings over Paul’s writings or the Old Testament’s prohibitions related to homosexuality. This line of thinking is not limited to Christians that might be considered, let’s say, somewhat wishy-washy.