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On Stephen Carter, Black Religious Leaders and Bush


I just finished reading Stephen Carter's new book, God's Name In Vain which deals with the "the wrongs and rights of religion in politics". The book is excellent and while I don't subscribe to several of Carter's arguments, I can only think of a handful of books that are more timely and more relevant to the debate raging in the Black community over President Bush's faith-based initiatives.

Carter begins his introduction with a direct statement regarding his focus.

He writes:

"This book argues two interrelated theses: First, that there is nothing wrong, and much right, with the robust participation of the nations' many religious voices in debates over matters of public moment. Second, that religions - although not democracy - will always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they choose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of American politics."

Indeed, Carter does not falsely advertise. He holds to these themes throughout the entire book from cover to cover.

The relevancy of the book to the current disagreement(s) among religious leaders in the Black community cannot be understated. Although Carter's book was written before last November's election, it reads as if he was able to get a peek of what would happen in January and February after Bush unveiled his faith initiative.

In essence Carter is able to pick up on two important streams of thought that currently run in the Black community's opposition to Bush's program.

Carter generally isolates these two objections to religion in politics when he writes:

"The first objection I have already mentioned. I have in mind the following difficulty: When a religious community becomes too regularly involved in politics, the community loses touch with its own best self and risks losing the power, and the obligation, to engage in witness from afar, to stand outside the corridors of power and call those within to righteousness. I shall call this the Integrity Objection.

The second objection, which I shall call the Electoral Objection, is this: When a religion decides to involve itself in the partisan side of politics, in supporting one candidate or party over another, it not only runs a high risk of error; it also, inevitably, winds up softening its message, compromising doctrine to make it more palatable to a public that might remain unpersuaded by the Word unadulterated."

In the Black community we can recognize both objections as components to the skepticism and opposition surrounding Bush's plan.

Interestingly, the two Objections don't just have a relevancy to the Bush initiative. They, in fact, have an application to the relationship between the Black electorate and the two-party system.

Being that the Church has been the center of social organization in the Black community, there is no escaping an evaluation between the "wrongs and rights of religion in politics" where Blacks are concerned.

We for one, have been skeptical of the claims of the Black religious left which styles the Bush program as an effort to buy off Black preachers or even convert them into Republicans.

We look at such charges with a measure of irony and humor, as we recognize that many of these same Black leaders have been bought off by the Democratic Party, for decades.

This does not mean that the charges of the Black religious left have no merit. They certainly may.

But it is almost the height of hypocrisy to watch Black Christian Democrats make an argument along the lines of Stephen Carter's Electoral Objection, when they themselves were the first to be guilty of the crime that they now accuse others of committing.

Of the two Objections written of by Carter we think the Integrity Objection is the most important to make and we think that is the one closest to the criticism that Nation of Islam Leader Minister Farrakhan has made of Bush's program.

The Black religious left has applauded Minister Farrakhan's stance but more so out of a superficial desire to "get Bush" than out of a deep commitment to guide and warn President Bush from the Word of God. There is an enormous difference involved here.

Minister Farrakhan is warning that President Bush is possibly pushing his initiative in order to dull the efforts of Black religious leaders who the Minister believes should be criticizing Bush according to the Word of God and what scripture says about God's judgment of nations where slaves are held and where people are oppressed and denied freedom, justice and equality.

In his recent Saviours' Day address, Minister Farrakhan literally read from Isaiah 61 as he probed Bush's motives, the nature of his faith-based initiative and the response to it by Black religious leaders. He openly questioned whether Bush's initiative, though couched in Biblical imagery and symbols, would allow Black preachers to do the Messiah's work as described in Isaiah 61.

He also wondered aloud whether Bush was using his program to slowdown the speed of the growth of the reparations movement in Black America.

According to our interpretation of Carter's thesis, the Minister is assuming the prophet's role of warning the state, irrespective of what personalities and partisans hold political offices at a certain time. Indeed, the Minister has made consistent criticisms of every President since he decided to rebuild the Nation Of Islam in 1977.

He has been "equally" critical of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush "again".

His Black religious peers, on the left, have only been critical of Reagan, Bush and Bush "again". Although they couch their criticisms in religious terms, the bulk of their arguments against Republican administrations have been partisan in nature. In effect, while they are holding the Bible, they are really criticizing these Presidents according to the Democratic Party Platform.

If the Black religious left was sincere in its Electoral and Integrity Objection to Bush's program, it would have warned of the dangers of the civil rights movement being absorbed by the Democratic Party a long time ago.

It also would have publicly warned the Black electorate of the principled differences that exist between the message of Jesus Christ and the policy positions of the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

Likewise, the White religious right would have done the same with the Bush-Cheney ticket.

If the Black community and its religious leaders are to make progress in the remaining years of the Bush presidency, it will have to do some honest soul-searching regarding the way in which it has handled politics and religion.

And Black religious leaders will have to ask themselves whether their true allegiance is to God, the Bible and Holy Qur'an or to the United States of America and the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Have they been using God's name in vain?


Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, March 25, 2001

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