Between Black and Right: Religiosity and the Roots of Black Conservatism

My father, like many of his generation, negotiated between the clear-cut (and often violent) discipline of the church and a world of rapid change.

By Makani Themba-Nixon Mar 21, 2005

After you climb the rickety steps of my grandparents’ Roxbury duplex, past the red, rusty porch swing, you are greeted with an old doormat emblazoned with the U.S. flag, a grimacing eagle, and the words, THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.

Inside is much like any other home of their generation. Dark wood paneling, artificial flowers arranged on mantels and around picture frames, and over an old, three-knobbed stereo, there is a velvet painting of Dr. Martin Luther King and the two assassinated Kennedy brothers. Save for the color television and the digital cable, little has changed in that house for more than 40 years.

For me, it is this place more than any other that represents the long tradition of black conservatism in this country. It is this house, where my father was raised the adopted son of a South Carolina-born preacher, that spawned the pain and politics that made him the cog of the religious right he is today. And if we, on the left, are to truly understand the increasing number of African Americans joining their ranks, we will have to go back a lot further than this election.

I Am a Man
This plaintive cry of the civil rights movement made famous during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike sums up the crossover politics of the black Christian right. And metaphorically speaking, it’s a pretty accurate summary of the base politics of the Christian right overall. My father, like many of his generation, negotiated between the clear-cut (and often violent) discipline of the church and a world of rapid change. In the Boston of the late 1950s and early ’60s, my father had opportunities his parents never had—college, access to a previously segregated profession and a sense of upward mobility made possible by the civil rights movement in the south and the north. He also faced a subtle racism his parents never understood. My grandparents lived with a racism under which there was the constant awareness of physical threat and circumscription. For them, this new racism felt like freedom, and there was no excuse for failure in the “space” it provided.

Yet, my father found success elusive. As a black engineer, he was often the last hired and first fired due to budget cuts or what white colleagues termed his “arrogance.” Between sporadic employment and the advances of the women’s movement, it was increasingly difficult to have the “traditional” marriage my father idealized. As a result, his backlash against feminism and women’s rights was thoroughly fierce.

He had plenty of company. For him and his friends, white women had gotten out of line ahead of black men in the quest for human dignity. Even black (male-led) “liberation” organizations articulated victory in terms dangerously close to Leave It to Beaver in blackface. In this context, it was easy to appear “progressive” under the rubric of the black nationalism of the early 1970s. For my father and others like him, it was a struggle for coronation, not liberation.

As the ’70s came to a close and the Reagan era took hold, there was growing public bitterness about the hard-won legal infrastructure to protect minorities, women and children. Jail time for spousal abuse (though more often imposed on poor batterers of color than rich, white ones), affirmative action, choice, rights for sexual minorities and restrictions against racial slurs were all among the targets of the emerging right. When AIDS hit the country full-blown in the mid-1980s, it was the “sign” conservative Christian forces needed to assert that without Jesus (as they remade Him), the nation was going to hell in a hand basket. The generation that “turned on and tuned out” 20 years before was looking for order and stability for their families. They wanted rules and an “operating system” that steered clear of the troubling ambiguity of the times.

After a journey that included stints at Atheism and even Judaism, my father returned “home” to the church of his youth. By the early ’90s, he felt “the calling” and became a Baptist minister like his father. Church, as he would often say, provided an “operating manual” for his life. It gave him a comforting sense of order where good was rewarded, evil was punished, and he had clear dominion over his world.

He found himself in a world that welcomed him and worked hard to meet his needs as a new preacher. There were workshops, guidebooks, conferences, prayer partners, prepared sermons and even software all designed to make him a more effective minister, a more “Christian” father and husband and a smarter businessman. Thanks to his college education and a charismatic, though challenging, personality, my father rose through the ranks to perform workshops of his own. He was part of the new face of the “non-racialized” evangelism, as groups like the 700 Club, Moral Majority and the Promise Keepers (PK) worked to subtly shift perceptions in black communities that they were a “whites only” club. The goal: to get more African Americans in their base membership (but not too high up in leadership) without alienating their white (mostly Southern and Midwest) core.

Promise Keepers was my father’s first real leadership role in one of these mega religi-machines. In fact, his stint as a regional officer in the Pacific Northwest gave me hope that he might get the support he needed to address his rage. After all, they made members sign a vow against physical abuse of their spouses. And it helped. My father was a serial batterer until his entry into PK.

He lasted a little more than a year before he left the organization, frustrated at his inability to rise above the local level. After PK, his views calcified even more under the constant tending of Christian radio. By the end of the ’90s, he joined the millions of Christians who made Christian media their sole source of news and information.

Marriage as “Line in the Sand”
Both my grandparents had passed by the time the measure to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples came before the Massachusetts legislature. My father quickly became a regular fixture on radio and television as an enthusiastic opponent of the measure. Personally, I found it a bit surprising and even hypocritical that this had suddenly become his number-one issue. As a man working on his fifth wife, it seemed that his relationship with the institution of marriage was pretty shaky to say the least. Conversations with him on the issue found him well rehearsed and unable to deal with any hard questions. Fortunately for him, the press never asked him any.

It became clear that his embrace of the “gay marriage” issue was no accident. He was simply a cog in a larger strategy to mobilize the Christian Right against something, anything that would unite their base across race and class. To do that, they had to pick a restriction that would have no real impact on their membership (as far as they knew). So, down came the fact sheets, the talking points, the spokespersons and organizing trainings that set the groundwork for mobilizing the base around the first rule in electoral politics—it’s far easier to mobilize people against something than for it. “Gay marriage” was an easy place to draw a line in the sand without addressing the real threats to the “sanctity” of marriage. After all, none of these guys was going to take on adultery, family abandonment or spousal abuse.

By the 2004 election, the Bush machine was able to supplant traditional economic issues and even an unpopular war with “sexual politics” in order to consolidate support among regular voters in the church. It was a watershed moment for black churches nationwide. Which way would they choose? The politics of their survival—like education, jobs, housing? Or the politics of “sexual morality”?

Most black churches went with the former and turned out a significant portion of the anti-Bush vote. In fact, although Bush got a slight rise in black support from 2000, fewer African Americans voted for Bush in 2004 than for Nixon or Ford decades earlier. While white churches had the added common ground with Bush of protecting white privilege, black churches found the racist impact of Bush policies too much. Yet, we cannot take the effort to defeat Bush as political unity down the line. Many of our folk still voted to support anti-gay initiatives and other traditional causes of the right. A good friend from Mississippi sums it up when telling the story of how their state Democratic Party platform convention went down last spring: “It was exactly like the Republican convention,” she says. “Anti gay, pro guns…just a different set of candidates.”

The truth of the matter is that an increasing number of people of color, confused by homosexuality, overwhelmed by corporate media and consumerism and prodded along by a tightly organized body of church intermediaries, are embracing a decidedly right-wing social agenda. Rev. Bernice King’s anti-gay protest at the gravesite of her famous father (Dr. Martin Luther King) is only the most recent example.

In many ways, rightward activism like this is the logical progression for the millions still in search of their manhood, of order, of the sepia-toned family of their dreams. Certainly, history has taught us the lengths that people will go for order and the boundless will of the powerful to create scapegoats to exploit this fact.

So, is every person of color involved in the right-wing Christian movement a dupe or a pimp? Certainly not.

Somewhere in the political space between my grandparents’ jingoistic doormat and their velvet portrait of ’60s “civil rights” martyrs, I find a strange logic to it all. Black conservatism has been with us for centuries. It actually constitutes the mainstream of black religiosity and is nothing new. The question is to what degree will the black church subordinate its work on “socio-economic moral issues”—like jobs, equal education, access to care—to work on “socio-sexual moral” issues like marriage rights and teen sexuality?

More and more, we progressive organizers find ourselves at odds with church leadership on key issues. In Mississippi, groups battle with ministers in the fight to end corporal punishment in the schools, and activists fighting for reality-based sex education or even school-based clinics find black churches their most aggressive opposition. Of course, there’s still common ground. However, it’s clear we cannot take shared politics for granted.

Forging a shared agenda will require a sensitive, compassionate approach to the underlying reasons that people seek sanctuary with the religious right in the first place. Stepping out of this place of perceived safety, order and discipline requires tremendous trust and faith in humanity and faith in the possibility of our dreams. There’s a lot of work to be done (and investments to make) for the left to create the kind of political infrastructure and social fabric that will sustain such an alternative movement. Efforts like Project SOUTH’s Midnite School, Grassroots Policy Project’s worldview initiative and Movement Strategy Center’s Spirit in Movement are among those striving to bring this broader visioning to “the movement.”

In the meantime, I’ll join many of you in going for the “openings” everywhere they avail themselves—in the supermarket, at City Hall, on the dance floor and even in tense interactions with family members. I’m not ready to concede any black folk to the right just yet. Not even my father.