Terrence L. Johnson is a professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School. He was a senior fellow at the Berkley Center from February to September 2022, after having previously served as a senior research fellow from April 2019 to January 2022. From 2015 to 2022 he was an associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University's Department of Government, as well as an affiliate member of the Department of African American Studies and member of the executive committee of the Center for Jewish Civilization. Johnson’s research interests include African American political thought, ethics, American religions, and the role of religion in public life. He is the author of Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (2022, with Jacques Berlinerblau); We Testify with Our Lives: How Religion Transformed Radical Thought from Black Power to Black Lives Matter (2021); and Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (2012). He also serves as co-editor of the Duke University Press Series Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. Johnson holds a B.A. from Morehouse College, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Brown University.
As I listened to Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s stirring condemnation of both anti-Asian American racism and Republican-led legislation to restrict voting in the United States, I wondered if the ancestors had sent him to memorialize the dream invoked by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King condemned the nation for failing to live up to its democratic ideals to guarantee liberty, equality, and freedom for all. And yet, the towering civil rights leader pleaded with African Americans and their allies to remain steadfast in their pursuits of freedom and justice.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Dr. King’s hallmark speech galvanized a generation of Black faith leaders to narrate a political imagination rooted in religious faith, largely Afro-Christianity; divine justice; and a dogged belief in the transformative power of democratic ideals.
Dr. King’s hallmark speech galvanized a generation of Black faith leaders to narrate a political imagination rooted in religious faith, largely Afro-Christianity.
In a recent Pew Forum interview, Rev. Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders—senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC, and Howard University School of Divinity professor—said, “in the ’60s, you had maybe a high-water mark of political and social influence of religious leaders with the Civil Rights Movement.”
For decades, what the late historian Manning Marable called “Black faith,” the resolute belief in freedom through political struggle, reigned supreme in African American political activism. From Black Power to Black Lives Matter, Black faith has been an anchoring ideology, one that informs and energizes on-the-ground activism. Instead of taking up arms and attempting to violently overthrow the government, African American political activism for political rights has largely been nonviolent and oriented by a radical belief in the collective power to change racist and sexist institutions.
Senator Warnock is Black faith made flesh. The pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church is the first African American to win a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia and the first Black Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in the Deep South since Reconstruction.
Senator Warnock is Black faith made flesh. The pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church is the first African American to win a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
In his first speech delivered from the United States Senate floor, Senator Warnock captivated the nation with a blistering criticism of the Republican Party’s failure to protect democracy. He urged his Republican colleagues to protect the nation’s most cherished symbol of democracy: the right to vote.
“Ours is a land where possibility is born of democracy. A vote, a voice, a chance to help determine the direction of the country and one’s own destiny within it. Possibility born of democracy.”
The junior senator scolded his senior Republican colleagues for supporting voter suppression legislation. According to Senator Warnock, Republican-led state legislatures have introduced nearly 250 voter suppression bills throughout the nation since the tumultuous 2020 election cycle that led to his historic victory and nation-wide election upsets by Democrats.
Rather than “adjusting their agenda,” said Senator Warnock, “the Republicans are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”
Senator Warnock’s biting indictment silenced the Senate chamber and the nation. But it also exposed the false narrative of the American dream, what Lewis R. Gordon calls bad faith—the conscious belief in a lie. For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have appropriated Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to reinforce the American dream as accessible to anyone who works hard.
Senator Warnock’s biting indictment silenced the Senate chamber and the nation. But it also exposed the false narrative of the American dream.
Senator Warnock also appealed to the dream narrative. “And that’s why I love America. I love America because we always have a path to make it better, to build a more perfect union. It is the place where a kid like me who grew up in public housing, the first college graduate in my family, can now serve as a United States Senator.”
But in a striking move, he exposed the deep limits and contradictions of the American dream. A case in point: He pointed to the pernicious and deliberate efforts by his Republican colleagues to block the path to freedom and justice for all people of color: voter suppression. Senator Warnock opened the nation’s eyes to its own bad faith. His was a victory born from the visionary efforts by Stacey Abrams and her Fair Fight Action group started in 2018 to tackle voter suppression. And yet, before he could finish his victory lap, a grinning devil in a fine Brooks Brothers suit awaited Senator Warnock at the finish line.
There are hundreds, dare I say thousands, of Stacey Abrams in our nation whose elections were stolen from them—all while the nation, counties, and states watched with open eyes. Senator Warnock invoked his own racial uplift narrative to illustrate its limits within a white supremacist context. Politicians will fail us. The government will ignore our bloodshed, cries, and protests.
By pointing to the nation’s bad faith, he carved out a new outlook to sustain African Americans and their allies. He called democracy “a political enactment of a spiritual idea.” That from an interior “spark of the divine,” all human beings may “participate in the shaping of our own destiny.”
Maybe this is the new Black faith. Our destiny lies within our own hands, from the sparks of Spirit that inform the intellectual, cultural, and artistic traditions of Black life.
This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University.