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Faith and the struggle for social justice

A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow; David L. Chappell; University of North Carolina Press: 330 pp., $34.95 The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War; Elisabeth Sifton; W.W. Norton: 368 pp., $26.95

November 16, 2003|Jim Sleeper | Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers."

Liberalism is "living on borrowed time -- taking for granted the spiritual and cultural resources that liberals depend on but do nothing to replenish," writes historian David L. Chappell, revivifying an old argument in his stunning reinterpretation of the American civil rights movement as a profoundly illiberal undertaking.

You've read that correctly: In Chappell's account -- which is not a polemic but the harvest of exhaustive research and judgment worthy of his mentor Christopher Lasch -- many liberals in the 1950s were taken aback by early civil rights demonstrations. Having broken with Communist Popular Frontism and missing the glories of union organizing, prominent liberals were suffering from "pulpit envy" of conservative demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin and Joe McCarthy. But they didn't know what to make of the deeply Christian, non-demagogic, nonviolent movement emerging from pulpits such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s.

A few liberals rushed to the movement; others later wrote themselves into its history, more glowingly than warranted. Chappell probes some liberals' displacement of their own spiritual and cultural desperation into support for activists who, like King, were actually skeptical of liberalism and even "opposed to humanism in the modern world and in favor of theism," as King put it. No reader of "A Stone of Hope," to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in January, will fail to acknowledge these tensions and incomprehension between the movement's progress-affirming enthusiasts and its darkly Christian, sometimes fatalistic organizers: King, John Lewis, James Lawson, Fanny Lou Hamer and Modjeska Simpkins -- even its Quaker "house philosopher" and master tactician Bayard Rustin and the Camus-like existentialist Bob Moses.

Religious conservatives may lay claim to Chappell's account, as neoconservatives have to George Orwell, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Hebrew prophets. Keepers of secular-liberal civil rights orthodoxy may try to dismiss or debunk it. But Chappell's finding that more than a few liberal movement boosters were compensating for their own moral exhaustion and pulpit envy is no partisan conservative thrust. It identifies a real dilemma of classical liberalism, which encompasses libertarian and mainstream conservatives: The dilemma is that an all-consuming "logic" of individual rights, free markets and corporate contracts, even one leavened by bureaucratic social-welfare initiatives, can't sustain freedom in a liberal republic. It becomes such a cold tangle of contracts and rights that its freedoms rely ultimately on beliefs and virtues -- religious, philosophical, ethno-cultural -- that the liberal state itself cannot nurture, much less enforce.

At least liberalism promises to enforce "civil rights," and those who litigated against Jim Crow (and took political and personal risks doing so) meant to vindicate a liberalism that is not merely neutral and procedural but progressive. Chappell doesn't quarrel with them; he doesn't propound the "borrowed time" arguments about liberalism's moral incapacities as much as he discovers how the civil rights movement was nourished by nearly tribal, illiberal beliefs, including its leading activists' conviction that their organizing depended on a realistic pessimism about human nature, lightened only by Hebraic prophecy and Christian love and hope.

It was the activists' darkling faith that gave them the courage to face dogs and mobs with the intentionally coercive yet loving nonviolence that so astonished liberals and segregationists alike. When civil rights leader James Lawson said that the nonviolent demonstrations "convicted us all of sin," he meant that activists who had the religious strength to acknowledge their own illiberal motives could best understand the oppressor's efforts to maintain a facade of decency atop his own sins.

As important as Chappell's fresh reading of movement leaders' tragic faith is his discovery, through groundbreaking research, that segregationists were befuddled. Few Southern white clergy were Bible-thumping apologists for Jim Crow; most deflected the problem or responded to it in ways that were more complicated than is widely assumed. To Southern politicians' dismay, the South's Baptist and Presbyterian conventions voted overwhelmingly to accept desegregation in the 1950s, and their seminaries admitted black students. Billy Graham integrated his huge revival meetings, even bringing King to the pulpit in 1957. Segregationists didn't dare take him on.

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