Black scholars share ways religious liberty has been white too long
Exposing a narrative that centers white experiences during the 2021 Shurden Lectures
How can we expand the work of decentering white voices and perspectives that have long dominated conversations about religious freedom? Four academic leaders shared their research and insight during the 2021 Shurden Lectures program, titled “Religious Liberty Has Been White Too Long: Voices of Black Scholars.”
Broadcast live April 14 via Zoom to a nationwide audience, the event featured Dr. Nicole Myers Turner, assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University; Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood, associate director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Dr. Anthony Pinn, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Religion at Rice University; and Dr. David Goatley, research professor of theology and Black Church studies at Duke Divinity School. Each scholar made a presentation, and later all four joined a conversation with BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr.
The title of the event is derived from James Baldwin’s 1969 observation that the bulk of the country’s white population is beyond hope of moral rehabilitation. “They have been white, if I may so put it, too long,” he wrote in his critique.
Post-emancipation Black Protestants defining religious freedom as a critique of racial inequality
After the Civil War, freed people who were critiquing and undoing slavery saw religious freedom tied up in personal freedom, according to Dr. Nicole Myers Turner.
“Linking to James Baldwin’s critique of white supremacy, I asked myself what might we see when we look at religious freedom through the vantage point of freed people,” she said as she shared her research.
“For them, religious freedom was about fundamental soul liberty, and that was what they had to protect and wrestle away from the system of inequality that had so long denied enslaved people their fundamental humanity,” she said.
Turner shared the story of Fields Cook, an enslaved person in the early 1800s who found that the institution of slavery denied him the right to pursue soul salvation and his ministerial calling. Growing up, Fields was the same age as his enslaver’s son, and the two were playmates. As they grew older, the enslaver’s son began lording his slave master status over Fields. As the son went off to school, Fields was sent into the fields and admonished to “work little pig or die.”
“One can imagine how the clouds of doubt and disappointment and then spiritual frustration and anguish descended on Fields as slavery separated him from his friend, his calling and his God,” Turner said.
“Slavery dealt its severest spiritual blow by denying Fields and other enslaved people the freedom to follow God and tend to their soul salvation.”
Sharing his story later in life, Fields “exposed religious freedom as a critique of racial inequality that denied enslaved and freed people the fullest and deepest expression of their humanity because of their status as slaves.”
When more than four million enslaved people became free after the Civil War, they began to stake out their terms of freedom, including separating into their own churches and denominations.
“Thus, religious freedom meant for freed people the capacity to critique racial inequality and white supremacy and their doctrines in a thorough-going way and to affirm Black humanity and dignity,” Turner said.
The separation allowed them to worship away from the oppressive gaze of white planters, but it was more than that, according to Turner. “Being in their separate worship spaces undermined enslavers’ claims to authority and superiority through the legislation that has subjected enslaved and free Black people’s worship to surveillance.”
Post-emancipation activities were infused with a sense of justice, requiring political engagement. “In securing for themselves a soul liberty, they seized religious freedom to work out their soul salvation unhindered. That work was not simply spiritual — it required political engagement,” Turner said.
Tearing the veil from top to bottom and bottom to top
Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood focused her presentation on analyzing the symbol of the veil, which has “particular meaning for religionists, in general, and for Black religionists, in particular.”
Smallwood pointed to a collection of essays published in 1944 entitled “What the Negro Wants,” which laid out an agenda.
“They wanted to have what everyone else wanted: the five freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution,” she said.
For them, first class citizenship included equal opportunity, equal protection under the law, equal pay for equal work, equality of suffrage, equal recognition of the dignity of human beings, and abolition of segregation.
“These were all of the freedoms veiled from them in society, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was considered one of the vehicles they would use to tear that veil from top to bottom,” Smallwood said.
“In their estimation, the freedom of speech, religion, press, the right to peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government were the perfect combination of rights and privileges to equalize the playing field for Negroes in America. In effect, it was thought that these five freedoms make the people of the United States the freest in the world.”
Smallwood asserted that the deep symbol of the veil is “at once a symbol of what is hidden and a symbol of what is revealed.” And, for Christians, the veil being torn illustrates the removal of obstacles or barriers to connectivity, providing license for people to access God for themselves.
Smallwood said tearing of the veil from the top is evident where African Americans mastered conventions of American life, including breaking from the denial of rights and conquering the highest office in the land. It is torn from the bottom, she said, when African Americans “have been pinned to the ground by knees on their necks,” and their ensuing deaths have shifted the atmosphere.
“Never before have we seen such a global outcry for justice from police brutality than what we saw with the senseless death of George Floyd — gone too soon but not soon forgotten,” Smallwood said.
“The forces that move the earth when the veil was torn asunder at the death of Jesus are the same forces that have combined to bring seismic shifts in the atmosphere to move policy towards a more equitable world for African Americans. The ground has shifted and the veil is torn because we have learned as a people to operate in the power of the spirit, and that is religious freedom.”
How does it feel to be a problem?
Sharing from a secular humanist perspective, Dr. Anthony Pinn extended the conversation on religious liberty to include discussions of the deep existential questions of life.
Pinn said a question from W.E.B. Du Bois haunts him: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Pinn argued that the question is fundamental, and when it comes to America, Black people are a “problem.”
“It is at the auction block that our enslaved ancestors most forcefully feel this ‘otherness,’ most forcefully feel the way in which they have been dehumanized — rendered things of no consequence. And the ability to reinforce this ‘otherness’ and to convince Black folks on a variety of levels in a variety of ways that they are ‘less than’ continues to guide the social logic of the United States,” Pinn said.
In response to that fundamental question posed by Du Bois, Pinn said “religiosity becomes a fundamental way that Black folks have responded” to this “otherness.”
“Black religion becomes a formal mechanism by which Black folks have wrestled with the fundamental questions of existence: Who are we? What are we? Why are we? When are we?” according to Pinn.
Pinn posited that secular humanism — just like the Black Church — puts into place modes of thought and activities meant to wrestle with those fundamental questions.
One of the most significant ways those religious considerations are mapped out in culture is through hip-hop music and culture, Pinn said.
Tupac Shakur argued the relevance of Black Jesus — by which he meant the patron saint of thugs who recognized difficulties of Black life in an anti-Black world.
Queen Latifah called for unity and to re-think community in a way that is much more inclusive, honoring responsibility beyond individuals.
When dealing with the question of “How does it feel to be a problem?” rapper Jay-Z reformulated the question to say he’s not a problem but a god.
“Here you get these artists reconceiving and rethinking moral and ethical obligations in a way that centers life, and they do this without ignoring — without denying — the messy and tense nature of our collective dealings,” Pinn said.
“Thinking in this much broader way that recognizes that there are tensions, inconsistencies and conflicts within the ways in which Black folks have wrestled with those fundamental questions gives us a greater sense of the contours and the content of liberty and freedom.”
Words of warning and encouragement
Dr. David Goatley offered “caution and encouragement, particularly for our white siblings who are working for religious liberty.”
Goatley noted that “religious liberty conversations in the United States are often engaged by white leaders who inhabit extremes.”
Because of this, many Black leaders have only heard misconstrued narratives about religious liberty that are not in line with how Black people live and believe.
“On one hand, there are conservatives who operate on an extreme, and they assert that freedom for religion should be defended by their social, cultural and ideological locations. All Black people know this is an injurious and murderous way of living, and these have been demonstrated in the history of the United States through genocide, through slavery and through domestic terrorism,” he said.
“On the other hand of the extreme are progressives who promote freedom from religion — that is seen because religion is seen for some of them as an encroachment on their liberty. They want to ban religion from the marketplace of ideas while perspectives on history, philosophy, economic theory, et cetera, are seen as belonging in the public square,” Goatley continued.
“And so, unfortunately, many religious liberty conversations for many Black religious people have been happening on the extremes, and this is not helpful.”
Goatley said the BJC approach has potential for partnership among Black religious leaders and people who have been subjected to the extremes, speaking of freedom both for religion and from religion. But, he had important words of warning.
“Some Black leaders have felt about BJC and others who similarly are situated that agendas have often been set prior to engaging them in conversation or including them in meetings. Then, by the time Black religious leaders get to the room or to the table, they’re there for disseminating information or an attempt to secure affirmation,” Goatley said.
“White religious liberty leaders need to be cautious about assuming that, however well-thought and however well-argued, your perspective can speak for all. Where one sits determines what one sees, and Black vision for religious liberty will enhance life for everyone.”
Goatley encouraged groups like BJC to keep working and including all voices at the table, reminding everyone that “Black perspectives on religious liberty are diverse, but they’re clear, and they need to be considered.”
Black people embrace a diversity in the practice of religion, but Goatley rejected the labeling of such as “syncretism” — intertwining religious and cultural practices — since there are no religions that are not informed or influenced by culture.
“Many of us are supporters of religious liberty because we are not willing to impose a kind of homogeneous understanding to which we have been victim,” Goatley said, noting that there are many expressions of religious and non-religious ideas that Black people support.
Continuing the discussion
To conclude the program, the panelists engaged in conversation on a variety of current issues, including how America is still racially segregated in many ways, hypocrisy in advocating for freedom among both theists and non-theists, and more. They also discussed critical race theory — the idea that race is a central factor in structural inequality — and the importance of using that lens in viewing religion in the United States.
The Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State were established when the Shurdens made a gift to BJC in 2004 for this annual lectureship. Our 2021 event was the first in the series to be held completely online and feature four different scholars. A recording is available at BJConline.org/ShurdenLectures, as are discussion guides for further conversation. You can access a full 5-session discussion guide or an abridged single-session guide for groups.