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Opinion: The Black church can depolarize religious freedom

The traditional Black church’s public witness provides a compelling example of how to disagree and fight for freedom without contempt

The defining battle of the Black religious and political experience in America is a story of survival despite constant attempts to deny human dignity and agency.
Branden Camp, Associated Press

Call it one of American history’s ugliest ironies — a country founded, in part, on the pursuit of representation and religious freedom, condoning and in some instances sanctioning the denial of representation and religious freedom to certain people.

This is perhaps the defining battle of the Black religious and political experience in America. A story of survival despite constant attempts to deny human dignity and agency.

The earliest version of the Black church was forced to be an “Invisible institution,” as Albert Raboteau coined it in his book “Slave Religion.”

He explains how many enslaved people were forbidden from attending church or even praying. Pursuing meaningful religious experience was to risk corporal punishment. Literacy, and therefore Bible reading, were prohibited, likely because the Bible’s liberation narrative has always been a threat to injustice and moral disorder.

And yet somehow, the church survived as a clandestine body, becoming a life source and refuge where many slave preachers professed a theology of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. A hermeneutic of love and truth that distinguished itself from the slaveholders perverted version of the faith — constantly reminding the shackled congregation that they were defined by God, not the institution of slavery. That their chains were temporal, but their freedom inevitable.

Despite church bombings and segregated church pews, the Black church experience is ultimately a testimony that couldn’t be contained. It’s about a praise and worship chorus that couldn’t be silenced. Conversely, it’s a reminder of man’s inability to subvert God’s providence and plan.

It’s a glorious illustration of the fact that there are some things you can’t beat out of a people. True faith is always beyond the tyrant’s reach, but its free exercise is not.

You see, religion robs the tyrant of ultimate authority. It means there are some matters that transcend the jurisdiction of heads of state and the cultural consensus. So the tyrant always seeks to dismantle, neutralize or co-op it. But there will always be a song that refuses not to sing, a praise determined to reach the heavens.

This explains why enslaved people in the midst of a system designed to produce nothing but hopelessness and self-hate somehow found a way to sing freedom songs and love their own soulful aesthetic.

A people bound to a wicked institution designed to produce beasts of burden, yet they somehow became poets and theologians, inventors, orators and playwrights. The Black church has always had a song that refused not to sing. A praise that rang out through muzzle of oppression to miraculously reach the heavens.

And here we are now, drawn into a culture war not of our own making, but nevertheless with our interests and the survival of our institutions at stake.

Not faultless, but also not equitably represented in the exchange.

The Black church is not a monolith, but the large number of us who value social justice, while refusing to be lured by the false promises of self-definition and self-justification, find it difficult to fully align with either side of this war.

Though we primarily vote with Democrats, neither the conservative nor secular progressive storylines are all that convincing to be quite honest. One of these traditions got the entire Civil Rights Movement wrong, the other battles in vain against absolute truth.

This leaves many of us conflicted. But one thing’s for sure, we’re never insulated from the consequences of their altercation. We’ve always paid, not only for our own sins, which are real, but also for the sins of whoever’s winning the culture war at the moment.

James Davison Hunter, the sociologist who coined the term “culture war,” noted that “the cultural conflict in this country took place primarily within a sector of white America.” It’s diversified a bit, but the Hidden Tribes report showed that today’s polarized debates are still controlled by affluent whites on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

My organization, and the hundreds of Black and brown pastors who stand with us, has decided that it’s past time to enter the debate whether we received an invitation or not.

To stand up for religious freedom — and LGBT rights. Not by surrendering our convictions or splitting the baby, but rather by demonstrating that it’s not a winner-take-all proposition. We’ve resolved to apply the compassion and conviction of the Gospel to those with whom we agree and disagree alike.

One of the keys to depolarizing religious freedom is to listen to people of color who aren’t vested in the old ideological wars but have an interest in the outcome of the religious freedom dispute. And then to reconstruct the debate based on those insights.

Try following leaders like Asma Uddin, who have a different framework and approach to the issue. The debate would automatically become less partisan and more constructive. Majority Americans who primarily define themselves through the lens of conservative or progressive ideology have no credibility with the other side.

So rather than waiting for the other side to be bludgeoned out of existence, overcome the impasse with different inputs and frankly by following diverse leaders. Everyone has a role to play, but the frame and tenor of the discourse can no longer solely be driven and orchestrated by white conservative and progressive sensibilities and historical beefs.

I’m not talking about diversity for the sake of diversity, but rather diversity for the sake of democracy and a healthy discourse that can effectively come to solutions. The traditional Black church’s public witness provides a probative and compelling example of how to disagree and fight for freedom without contempt.

It’s a song that refuses not to sing, with notes and lyrics worth reciting and living out.

Justin Giboney is the cofounder of the AND Campaign, an attorney and a political strategist based in Atlanta.

Editor’s note: This essay is a modified transcript of a speech delivered by Justin Giboney at the 2021 Religious Liberty Summit at Notre Dame Law School. It is republished here with the author’s permission.