Larry S. Perry, II, is assistant professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His work focuses on the history of the American religious left; its thoughts, thinkers, politics, and practice; and its intersection (or lack thereof) with racial justice in the United States. Perry's current book project is entitled A Black Spiritual Leftist: Howard Thurman and the Religious Left’s Unfinished Business of Race Relations.
Religion in the United States at its best calls us to become our best selves. At its worst, religion has encouraged, incited, and defended—loudly and tacitly—some of the most oppressive, vile, and evil actions. Over the last four years, the role of religion within the inner workings of American political life has led to more of the latter than the former. The grave circumstances faced by the coming Biden-Harris administration impart religious figures with the responsibility to pull politicians and their publics towards a more just society. While many progressives—particularly those with religious orientations—celebrate the coming administration, they should be preparing to push the coming Biden administration to create and embrace a bold racial-justice-concerned agenda by holding its feet to the fire.
Over the past four years, the religious right has allowed its obsessions with conservative judges’ appointments to overrun the need for truth, equity, and common decency. Indeed, the religious right helped create a culture that has encouraged—or at the very least gave a blind eye to—the Trump administration’s divisive policies. Under Trump’s leadership, we have watched the implementation of a Muslim ban. ICE agents have at once uprooted and ripped apart families and trapped children in cages who crossed an invisible line to seek opportunity. We have even heard about women’s involuntary hysterectomies at the U.S. border. Ironically, this all was accomplished under the guise of patriotism to a nation that once proudly said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
Furthermore, the religious right has found itself on the wrong side of racial justice, even as we have seen the upheaval of white supremacist movements and the devaluation of Black lives all about us. Few evangelical ministers spoke out against Trump’s comment that “there were very fine people on both sides” in response to the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia. One Black minister, Darrell Scott of Trump’s diversity task force, even blamed the left-wing media for inciting violence, even as white supremacists vociferously proclaimed their anti-Semitism and racial hatred.
The religious right has found itself on the wrong side of racial justice, even as we have seen the upheaval of white supremacist movements and the devaluation of Black lives all about us.
The religious right’s support of this culture of division has most notably found a manifestation in the recent upheaval of police violence against Black folk. Televangelist Pat Robertson admonished Trump, stating he needed to say to Black Americans “I understand your pain...” amid the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Unfortunately, few others of the religious right spoke out against Trump’s ham-fisted, untimely, and apathetic calls for “law and order.” Even fewer conservative religious figures have been willing to call for the end of extrajudicial killings of Black folk at the hands of the police and white vigilantes—let alone take seriously the now nearly politically innocuous slogan, Black Lives Matter. Instead, these figures have either remained silent to Black suffering or become the cheerleaders of right-wing fringe groups that assert “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” even with the endangerment and degradation of Black lives.
With the budding Biden administration waiting in the political wings, the time is ripe for progressive religious leaders to create a bold agenda centered on racial justice. On the night of President-elect Joe Biden’s election win, he stated: “The African American community stood up again for me... you’ve always had my back. And I’ll have yours.” Indeed, Biden benefitted from majority-Black communities’ votes—particularly those of Black women—to win critical states like Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Likewise, Black religious communities and progressives—who are concerned about racial inequity—ought to hold Biden to his word.
Black America must push for daring legislation—especially as it anguishes through being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Progressives cannot leave Black folk to the wayside as they have done in the past—ignoring the particularities of their experience for the hope that “a rising tide can lift all boats.” During the Obama era many center-left think tanks and progressive religious groups never considered a Black agenda. Ultimately, the Democratic Party paid the price in 2016 as the Clinton campaign was unable to lean on the same Black voters who had loyally showed up for the Obama administration.
Progressives cannot leave Black folk to the wayside as they have done in the past—ignoring the particularities of their experience for the hope that “a rising tide can lift all boats.”
Key items that progressive religious entities and Black religious communities need to push for from the Biden administration include the following:
- criminal justice reform—inclusive of a massive reform and repurposing of police and a programming that works to curtail recidivism;
- a jobs bill that encourages the hiring of Black Americans for jobs with a living wage;
- a stimulus package that makes special efforts for Black-owned businesses;
- the creation of school programs that close the digital divide between Black and white communities through access to STEM-focused education; and
- the design of programs that encourage corporate diversity and equity efforts and corporate responsibility to Black communities.
Criminal justice reform is a significant issue to be addressed in Black America, especially with the upheaval of extrajudicial killing of unarmed Black people at the hands of police. Issues of recidivism are nearly just as important, as its causes often result from lack of access to jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals who must disclose their criminal records. A jobs bill that works explicitly on behalf of Black Americans for living-wage jobs could help curb Black dependence upon the gig-economy with jobs that turn into careers.
A stimulus package that aids Black-owned businesses' efforts could revitalize Black communities by allowing Black dollars to stay in Black communities for more extended amounts of time—hence improving economic access and conditions. In light of the racial tech gap, exposing Black K-12 students to STEM-focused education is imperative for shoring Black opportunities in the world’s fast-growing sector. The creation of programs that encourage equity, diversity, and responsibility among corporations is a not so subtle call for America to reimagine how companies should look, think, and act within communities of color that have often given them so much of their profit. By taking seriously these policies, perhaps America could finally achieve real democracy, a goal that has alluded us for far too long.