One of the persistent criticisms of much of the reflection up to this point on the orthodox church’s place in the contemporary west is that what we’re really talking about is the white orthodox church’s place in the contemporary west. Matthew Loftus and I have both raised different versions of this point. More recently, Jacqueline Rivers talked about this issue at the Plough event and Jemar Tisby wrote about it for RAAN.
While I think the issue is more complicated than some have suggested, the critique is not an unreasonable one, especially when applied to white evangelicalism which really does have a terrible history on racial issues, particularly in the post-war era.
Toward that end, I’m going to be blogging through some different major works in African American lit, beginning with W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.
Du Bois completed his dissertation at Harvard in 1895 at the age of 27, making him the first ever African American to complete a doctorate at Harvard. He then began to become more prominent in the early 1900s, first as a leader of the Niagara Movement in 1905 and then as a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, which means it slightly predates Du Bois’s emergence as a major institutional leader amongst African Americans. The book is significant not only as one of the most significant texts in early 20th century America, but also as an early work of sociology. Moreover, Du Bois himself is an interesting figure not only because of his academic work and key work in founding the NAACP but also because he lived to be nearly 100 years old. In other words, he was born shortly after the Civil War and lived almost to the time of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.1
Today we’ll briefly discuss the first chapter of the book before moving on to subsequent chapters in future posts.
Chapter 1: Our Spiritual Strivings
One of the core questions that we have been wrestling with in our political theology discussion recently is whether or not the American social order is salvageable. Du Bois’s first chapter, “Our Spiritual Strivings” captures some of the reasons that make me think it is not.
The main idea at the heart of this chapter is what Du Bois calls the “double consciousness” of African Americans. Here is Du Bois describing the idea:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
There is some foreshadowing here of Martin Luther King’s line in the “I Have a Dream” speech in which he speaks of black Americans trying to cash the check that America’s aspirational self gives them, only to find it returned to them and marked “insufficient funds.”
That said, while King’s speech is chiefly focused around the legal status of African Americans, Du Bois’s chapter pushes the critique further, arguing that this double consciousness is not simply a fact of the African American’s relationship to our nation’s legal system, but is actually an essential element of black identity in the United States.
What’s more, he argues that the primary consciousness, if we can put it that way, is not the self-consciousness of the African American, but the “sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” So the issue here is not simply that the African American sees themselves as both African and American and sees those two identities as competing in some sense even though, intuitively, he thinks they should not. The issue is that on a basic level, Du Bois says, the African American sees themselves in the way that white America sees them.
The Significance of Double Consciousness
This insight is one of the fundamental ideas that would shape African American literature in the 20th century. It also would play a major role in combatting the many injustices the American legal system visited upon black Americans. Most notably, it would become a core element of the argument used, almost 50 years later, by Thurgood Marshall in Brown v Board of Education. Marshall used Kenneth Clark’s famous doll experiment to demonstrate that segregation was by definition unequal because it created entrenched feelings of inferiority in the segregated group.
Clark went to segregated black schools across America and would show black students different dolls, identical in every way except skin color. He would, for example, ask students to pick out the doll that “looked like you,” and they would pick the dark-skinned doll. Then he would ask them to pick out the “nice doll,” and they would choose the lighter-skinned doll.
The significance of this insight is not limited to the United States. A similar problem existed in Apartheid-era South Africa, which is why the activist Steven Biko, pictured above, would often use the phrase “black is beautiful,” when speaking and writing. As in America, Biko observed that black South Africans believed that they were not whole and complete people in themselves, but saw themselves as inferior because they saw themselves as white South Africans saw them.
Double Consciousness and White America
As I reread Du Bois’s chapter, which I had not read in several years, I was self-consciously looking for tie-ins with some of the Benedict Option discussion, something that a number of black Christians have been calling on white Christians to do for some time.
In one sense, I think I found it: One of the overarching goals of Du Bois’s work, not only in this book, but his life’s work more generally, is to subvert this sort of dual consciousness in black Americans. He wants African Americans to learn to see themselves independent of the filters and distortions through which white America sees the black community. This concern, it is worth noting, is still relevant today. Watch conservative media report on the story whenever a young black man is shot by police—the old racist tropes that see black men as being somehow beastial or uniquely vicious will start popping up again on TV, the radio, and in print.
Du Bois wants his readers to recognize the richness of the African American community in America and to recognize the innate goodness that exists within it. He speaks at length about the role of spirituals in the black community and even shares a few bars from the spirituals at the beginning of each chapter as if to say, “Look, this is your musical heritage and it is good and beautiful and complete in itself. Forget about what the white people think of it or you. It doesn’t matter. This is good. Your culture, your people, they are beautiful. Love them.”
This ability to look at oneself rightly without resorting to unjust or unfair standards of judgment, is vital to the cultivation of any healthy community and so I think one could argue that American Christians, and evangelicals in particular, could stand to learn something about courage and a right sort of pride in one’s roots from what Du Bois is saying in this chapter. Indeed, any kind of smaller sub-culture or community could likely benefit from this sort of reflection. Learning to love one’s home and to see it rightly and independent of the distortions of hostile outsiders is always a good thing.
Moreover, it’s probably worth noting that the point of comparing with regard to double consciousness is not about comparing hardship, but rather comparing a kind of parallel experience of being outside the mainstream and feeling pressed into seeing yourself both as you are and as the mainstream sees you. Indeed, if one of the interesting (and alarming) trends of this past election is that certain whites have started voting as a defined interest group then it may be worth considering the historical roots of today’s evangelicalism.
Modern American evangelicalism is not the descendant of the northeastern Puritans or any sort of European Christian movement; it is the descendant of Second Great Awakening Christianity and, more directly still, late 19th and early 20th century fundamentalism which grew out of the Methodist and Baptist churches that emerged from the Second Great Awakening. In the late 19th century, the orthodox Christians in America could be split into “evangelical” and “churchly” groups. Over time, the evangelicals devoured the churchly conservatives, fundamentally transforming the basic nature of white Christianity in America.
Amongst other things, it established many of the self-hating pathologies of poor white culture in the United States in white Christianity as well. These historical roots also likely go some distance toward explaining evangelicalism’s very mixed history on race issues.
That said, even here I am nervous about drawing a parallel between the double consciousness of African Americans and whatever absurd inferiority complex plagues evangelicals. The relationship between Christianity and the American social order is extremely complicated.
You can reasonably argue that Christianity has always been at odds with America to the extent that American identity is unimaginable apart from the horrifying racial injustices visited upon black Americans as well as Native Americans and Asian Americans throughout our nation’s history. Indeed, you could argue that the American social experiment is unsalvageable from a Christian perspective precisely because all the positive goods it has laid hold of have been obtained through systematic injustice.
That said, even if we grant that this base conflict between Christianity and America exists (which I think we should), it remains true that said conflict has only rarely led to actual crisis for white Christians. To be sure, it may begin to do so more regularly in the days to come—but that is precisely the point. Whatever crisis that might be facing white American Christians is notable precisely because it is new and has minimal historical precedent.
Even if America’s founding is somehow sub-Christian on a basic level and even if the nation’s cardinal sins are such that there isn’t any real way in which you can claim that ours has ever been a Christian republic, the simple historical fact is that this nation has historically been a very easy place to live if you are white and (in even some vague sense) Christian.
Given that, there is something that feels intuitively wrong about trying to draw lines of commonality between what someone like Du Bois is describing in this chapter which has grown out of, at his time, nearly 300 years of slavery, rape, beatings, lynching, segregation, and disenfranchisement and what white American Christians might now be starting to learn about life as “a moral minority,” in which the worst thing to happen to any of us so far is the loss of professional opportunity and facing heavy government fines.
Obviously losing one’s job is a big deal, as are the fines of the sort facing people like Aaron and Melissa Klein. Even so, there is no comparison to be made between that and the sort of injustice that led to the dual consciousness Du Bois is describing.
We can push this point further as well: If we approach the contemporary situation primarily as a battle over religious liberty, we may be missing the larger issues with our republic. The religious liberty battle can, theoretically, be won within the existing social order, particularly post President Trump. This is because that battle is chiefly legal in nature and is thus decided by the Supreme Court. With Neil Gorsuch now in Justice Scalia’s seat, we are back to the same sort of court we had before Scalia’s death.
Should one of the liberal justices die, one would expect a centrist conservative sort to replace them as long as Trump is president. And should that happen, it is likely that the court would protect religious liberty for the foreseeable future. (Of course, conservatives would do well to remember that Roe was upheld thanks to multiple votes from Republican appointees, so there’s no sure thing with the court.)
That said, when we consider Du Bois’s argument in this chapter, the deeper problems with the American experiment become quickly apparent. On the one hand, the American order is founded on republican principles. We value individual freedom and believe that it is wise and good for political power to be diffused across the polis.
On the other, the American order and particularly the American economy has always been dependent on various forms of racial injustice to uphold and sustain it—slavery, the theft of Native lands, the exploitation of migrant workers, Jim Crow, red lining, mass incarceration, and on down the line. Our republic is built quite literally on brutality, theft, and deceit.
This, then, raises a question: While the white evangelical critique of America’s drifting from its foundations on religious liberty is reasonable enough, is it radical enough? In the grand scheme of things, the act of fining Aaron and Melissa Klein for running their business according to conscience is actually one of the less horrifying crimes our nation has committed.
Given our republic’s history of mistreating non-white people, it seems that the need of the moment is not only to win a legal battle protecting the status of Christians in the marketplace, as important as that battle is. The need is to ask more basic questions about the roots of American political society and to ask if or how a Christian polis can be reconciled to such a disordered society.
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- By the time of his death, Du Bois had grown disillusioned with the United States and moved to Ghana, the first free post-colonial state in sub-Saharan Africa, then led by their iconic president Kwame Nkrumah. Stokely Carmichael would also move to west Africa in the 1960s, though he would settle in Guinea where he studied with the by-then diposed Nkrumah.