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Theology Thursdays: "Two things that I don't discuss." (BEC: 04/09/2000)


By now, most of us have heard the phrase, " There are two things that I don't discuss and that is religion and politics". But how many of us have really thought over the implications of that statement and the devastating effect that its acceptance has had in the Black community. How many of us actually consider the abdication of responsibility that such an attitude toward reality represents? Is it possible that such a disposition toward religion and politics leads to a slowing of activity in the direction of true liberation?

For centuries humans have embarked on a quest to know God, find his (man's) origin and discover the best way to live. This quest has always inherently united what we now call religion and politics. For most of recorded history, religion and politics were viewed as little more than inseparable aspects of life. It has only been in the last 150 years that in an especially significant manner, religion and politics have been de-coupled. Prior to that time, in the last 2000 years in particular, it is difficult to find an event involving human beings of major import that has not occurred at the intersection of religion and politics.

For example, the words and actions of Jesus of 2000 years ago had both religious and political impact. Today, no one could reasonably deny that according to the Bible, Jesus affected the political establishment though he is seen primarily as a spiritual or religious teacher. Muhammad ibn Abdullah of 1400 years ago, though a spiritual leader who is credited by many with receiving a revealed religion --Islam, had a definitive political impact on the Arabs that he rose from among. Certainly the impact he had on trade, tribal allegiance and the customs of Arabia would qualify as political by today's standards. The Crusades which involved international governments, diplomacy, war and economic trade had their genesis in historical truths and religious debate. The Renaissance, today viewed in artistic and scientific terms has its root in religion- the spread of Islam and the study of the Kabala. And how many students of history are aware of the fact that Christopher Columbus, according to historians, was inspired to explore the west by the belief that he was fulfilling Isaiah 11:11-12?

While slavery is most commonly seen as an economic event the argument that was used by the slave masters and traders to justify it, was that they were civilizing or spreading Christianity to heathens. And during that same time, the aristocracy in Europe translated the Bible into various European languages and kept the knowledge of it among themselves. When Blacks were enslaved they were specifically denied the right to practice religion and prevented from reading the Bible.

And today who can honestly dispute the fact that at the root of the conflict in the Middle East are different interpretations of scripture regarding a specific area of land and on the identity of God's chosen people? And what are we to make of politicians who take their oaths of office with one hand on a Bible or Qur'an? How now, is it so easy to say that religion and politics should not be discussed? Who really benefits when the real relationship between religion and politics is hidden and/or obscured especially when this happens among the poor and oppressed? Lastly, how has it helped Blacks to place the subject off limits and to not connect the two in the most appropriate manner?

When Blacks were freed from slavery and were granted the right to vote they wrestled with the discrepancy between what they read in the Bible and the way in which they were treated in American society. The concept of a social gospel began to emerge whereby the Black Church balanced the performance of rituals and traditions with its responsibilities to interact with the political leadership of its communities. They did what they could attempting to balance the dictates of the Bible and the U.S. Constitution while simultaneously attempting to navigate Jim Crow Laws. Having been enslaved and denied an education the vast majority of Blacks were unfamiliar with the spread of the social sciences and the three disciplines that it consisted of: sociology, psychology and anthropology. But soon the social sciences began to dominate politics in the early 1900s, and most dramatically in the administration of Woodrow Wilson. At the same time, the influence of religious fundamentalism, as it was known, began to wane. White America was increasingly moving away from the use of scripture and religion as a governing tool and increasingly deferring to university professors and scientists for its explanations of reality and on the best way to live.

But as far as Blacks were concerned, it would not be until the 1960s before they would come face-to-face with the social sciences. This would take place when the social science disciplines were applied to the problems of the urban poor. And it would be at this time that the Black electorate's inability to craft a social gospel whereby politics was guided by religion would hurt it the most.

Black religious leadership were generally unaware of the scholars and scientists that advised elected officials and shaped public policy from behind-the-scenes. And when the Civil Rights movement was eventually absorbed by the Democratic Party, its leadership was subsumed by the worldview of the social scientist. To those who doubt that assertion, why is it that social scientists in general did not seek the assistance of the Black Church in the formulation of their theoretical models while the Black Church openly deferred to social scientists at the most critical stage of the Civil Rights Movement?

Even Dr. King advocated that social scientists take the lead in solving problems within the Black community. On September 1, 1967 in a speech he gave before the American Psychological Association (and which was dedicated to the role of social science in understanding and solving the problems of the Black community and the Civil Rights Movement) Dr. King said, " Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome Black unity and sense of people hood while the process of integration proceeds."

For nearly 40 years the social scientist has taken preeminence over the religious leader in matters of public policy. And Blacks have accepted this arrangement. And why? Because the general assumption has developed and spread that the social scientist operates from an intellectually superior position to that of the religious teacher. But is that really the case?

In This Is The One Minister Jabril Muhammad directly challenges those who argued that religion was somehow inferior to science when he wrote, " Such people will usually tell you that 'science' deals only with perceptible and verifiable realities. Therefore, the findings of 'science' are superior to the results of 'religion', which they say concerns that which cannot be demonstrated. Is this so? Is it not true that the scientists of this world depend on the unseen universal reign of law that is inherent in everything everywhere? Is not their ability to reason rooted in the belief, if not the conviction, of the rationality of existence, which is grounded in that which they cannot see with the physical eye? What prevents us from believing that there may be dimensions of existence transcending the level we are now aware of?"

Many religious leaders put their scriptures behind their backs when they dealt with the political establishment and openly deferred to social scientists many of whom deny the existence of a Creator or Divine Law. In the most important period in the history of Blacks in America those who claimed to represent the Supreme Being, the Ultimate Expert on human nature put down their human nature manuals and sought the guidance of men and women outside of the Black community who openly admit they do not know human nature definitively nor the origin of life itself. If ever there was a time for Blacks to give up the " I don't talk about religion and politics" approach it was during the 1960s.

Has the relationship between the politician and the social scientist solved the problems that plague the Black community? No. Then how can anyone really say that the social scientist is in any way superior to a religious leader, particularly in the key area of reforming human beings? And in the face of that are Blacks justified in accepting America's presupposition that religion and state should be separated; particularly when the Black community revolves so intensely around its religious institutions and organizations? It is the answer that the Black electorate gives to this question in the 21st century that will forever shape its destiny.


Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, October 21, 2004

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