Where’s the Religious Left?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The intersection between the black civil rights movement legacy and religiosity has produced a curious schism in African American communities. While the African American electorate remains politically liberal it is socially conservative on so-called values issues like same sex marriage, government vouchers for private schools and (to a lesser extent) abortion. The 2008 debate over same-sex marriage in California underscored this tension. After the passage of Proposition 8 some same sex marriage advocates scapegoated African Americans. Initial news reports from the Los Angeles Times and CNN touted up to 70 percent African American support for Prop 8. Branded as moral hypocrites, blacks who supported the measure were accused of betraying their commitment to civil rights. After the dust settled from the election season, the oft-cited statistic of overwhelming black support of Prop 8 was refuted by a study by Fernando Guerra from Loyola Marymount University.

Despite this timely corrective, opposition to same-sex marriage among African Americans has remained relatively solid. The religiosity of African Americans and long-standing black hostility towards designating gay rights as a civil right has made same-sex marriage a third rail issue among many straight Christian and Muslim African Americans. During the campaign, progressive political analysts of color often drew parallels between prohibitions of interracial marriage prior to the 1967 Loving vs. the State of Virginia anti-miscegenation ruling and prohibitions of same-sex marriage. For the most part these analogies were rejected because of the belief among African Americans that discrimination against gays and lesbians is not comparable to racial discrimination. Proponents of this view point to the absence of Jim Crow laws expressly barring gays and lesbians from housing, education, employment and other major sectors of public life. Some go even further, arguing that homosexuality is a European “aberration,” imposed upon people of African descent post-diaspora.

Unacknowledged homophobia within African American communities, coupled with biblical literalism, make Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) African Americans largely invisible. Moreover, the perception among some African Americans that white gays have opportunistically appropriated the civil rights mantle exacerbates black suspicion of the LGBT community. In this charged climate it is often difficult to assess the legitimacy of grievances about conflating anti-gay discrimination with racial discrimination.

Yet the fact remains that scores of LGBT worshippers and closeted church officials pack Black Churches every Sunday and worship elbow to elbow with their straight brethren. And these very same congregants see their families, relationships and right to love marginalized if not demeaned in biblical scripture and in the homophobic rhetoric of “fellowship” that some congregations promote. During and after the election season, a few progressive black ministers and church figures—most notably the Reverend Eric Lee, the Southern California head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—spoke out in opposition to Proposition 8. But their viewpoints were not widely aired, and the general impression of black hostility to same sex marriage solidified in the public mind.

The failure of black religious progressives to critique the destructive role that fundamentalist religiosity plays in contemporary skirmishes around civil rights points to a moral crisis. When it comes to “values” issues in the U.S. the most visible and vocal constituency is the attack dog army of the Religious Right. Unfortunately, national politics has not yet produced a vigorous counterpart to the Religious Right on the Left. According to writer Frederick Clarkson, the Religious Right has been so successful because it has mobilized a broad Christian constituency around electoral politics. Since there is no comparable organized coalition on the “Religious Left” the Religious Right has been able to singlehandedly define, frame, and distort the debate about the role of religion in the so-called “public common.”

This leadership vacuum has allowed the Religious Right to hijack public discourse around “values” issues and fetishize morality from an ultra-conservative stance. The absence of “counter-voices” has eclipsed secular-religious coalitions such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Perhaps the most pernicious Religious Right strategy has been its appropriation of the language of civil rights in its campaigns against choice, church-state separation and gay rights. In this regard, black religious progressives could play a vital role in shifting the terms of debate from the shrill reactionary anti-civil rights agenda of the Religious Right to a more social justice-oriented compass. Proposition 8 backers such as the rightist Mormon Church were able to exploit the absence of moral leadership on the Religious Left by appealing to the most conservative elements of both the black and Latino communities.

In this regard, the absence of high profile national mobilization among the left-leaning faith community is not an insignificant point, because it effectively allows the Religious Right to assume the moral high ground on public policy. Perhaps the only figure with national stature on the “religious left” who has been consistently vocal in his opposition to fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy has been Jimmy Carter. Clearly, if a comparable coalition existed on the Left the Religious Right’s moral and political influence on such issues as abortion, same sex marriage, stem cell research and intelligent design would be balanced by dissenting forces. That such a coalition does not exist underscores the bankruptcy of organized religion’s monopoly on morality and moral principle.

Where’s the Religious Left?