The Contributions of Freethinkers: Asa Philip Randolph
The civil rights movement in America is often identified with Christianity. In large part this is because of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Baptist minister and worked the language and cadence of sermons into his most famous speeches - especially the famous paraphrase of the Book of Amos, "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
But the civil rights movement wasn't organized or led solely by Christians. As often happens in American history, there were prominent freethinkers in the vanguard of social progress, such as the person who's the subject of today's post.
Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida in 1889. He was the son of an ordained minister in the black Methodist church, but his family placed great value on education, and this may be part of the reason why Randolph himself never found any attraction in religion. He attended the Cookman Institute, a segregated high school in East Jacksonville, where he excelled academically despite pervasive racism and became the valedictorian of the class of 1907.
Despite graduating with honors, Randolph's skin color barred him from all but menial labor in the South, so in 1911 he moved to New York City, where he worked and took night courses at City College. Reading The Souls of Black Folk, by fellow freethinker W.E.B. DuBois, had a major influence on his nascent political consciousness. He joined the Socialist party, where he made union organizing among black workers his mission. Together with his friend Chandler Owen, he also founded The Messenger, a literary magazine whose masthead said in part:
"Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times... Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is."
According to an article by Sikivu Hutchinson, The Messenger lived up to its freethought theme by sponsoring essay contests with titles like "Is Christianity a Menace to the Negro?"
Randolph's work in labor organizing brought him into the fold of the burgeoning civil rights movement. One of his greatest successes was in 1925, when he successfully organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for railroad employees, bringing improved salaries, job security and working conditions to mainly black workers in one of the few fields that was open to them.
But as the country was drawn into World War II and black workers were excluded from jobs in the booming defense industry, Randolph set his sights on higher goals. He proposed a march of African-Americans on Washington, D.C. to demand jobs and an end to segregation in the military, and although the march never actually materialized, the threat of it was enough to persuade President Roosevelt to issue the milestone Executive Order 8802, ending segregation in the defense industry. (There's a famous story, possibly apocryphal, in which Randolph was introduced to FDR, who said he agreed with everything the civil rights movement was demanding but told Randolph to "make me do it".)
Randolph continued to pressure successive administrations in his role as an organizer and civil-rights spokesman. He was one of the founders of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign which was influential in persuading President Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, extending FDR's earlier declaration by ending segregation in the armed forces.
Later elected vice president of the AFL-CIO, Randolph served as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the famous event where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and which was instrumental in building momentum for the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Throughout his life, Randolph remained an unapologetic freethinker. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II, and was declared Humanist of the Year in 1970. This longer biography notes that he was unique in that "he made his reputation as a labor leader rather than by following the more traditional path to African-American leadership through the clergy", and that his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was a formative influence on some of the most successful civil rights leaders of the twentieth century.
Other posts in this series:
Weekly Link Roundup
• Greta Christina posts her completed list of atheists of color.
• In early 1981, Carl Sagan sent this letter to the Explorers' Club - an international society dedicated to scientific exploration - regarding their men-only admission policy. Several months later, the first female members were admitted. (HT: Geek Feminism Blog)
• Johann Hari writes about "the myth of the panicking disaster victim" and what it implies for humanity's inherent moral sense.
• Catholic anti-abortion groups are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to "save" a 13-month-old infant with a severe neurological disorder who is not and likely never will be conscious, after Canadian doctors proposed removing his breathing tube. Peter Singer asks if this is the most "pro-life" use of all that money.
• Following a devastating grand jury report, the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia has suspended 21 priests named as child molestation suspects. Also, Maureen Dowd profiles the first U.S. district attorney to criminally charge church officials for covering up child abuse - including sickening details from the grand jury report describing exactly what they helped to cover up.
• In a welcome and long-overdue development, the British government proposes reforming the country's archaic and plaintiff-friendly libel laws to stop abuses such as "libel tourism". (See my earlier post on this.)
Atheist Action Items
• We've all been following the news about the massive earthquake and tsunami that's devastated Japan, and I won't waste your time rehashing the details. Help on an international scale is urgently needed, and the Foundation Beyond Belief has stepped in and is raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross. They've already collected almost $10,000, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Visit their ChipIn page and contribute if you can.
• On another note, my good friend and general paragon of awesomeness Greta Christina is compiling a list of living atheists who are people of color, similar to Jen McCreight's list of female atheists. The intent is to offer the completed list as a resource for conference organizers who want to diversify their lineup, but don't know or can't find any non-white atheists to invite. Go check out the comment thread, and if you know of anyone who hasn't been mentioned, please add them!
The Abolition Spirit Is Undeniably Atheistic
Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I've previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I'd like to add some more evidence on that subject.
Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. - the highest elected position in that body - and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that "Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion" and praised "his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching", which "gave him such power... as few of the Lord's ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church".
But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln's election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that "I have never intermeddled with political questions," but that he was compelled to speak on politics because "we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation". Since Palmer was the representative of "a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance", namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.
And what vital message did he have to impart?
A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual.... this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world's progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken... If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.
Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn't just the South's divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since "their character fits them for dependence and servitude", and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon "relapse into their primitive barbarism" and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South's side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was "recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God".
Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension... My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!
And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too:
...in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.
...This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — "liberty, equality, fraternity," which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.
Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs - but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I'm happy to accept it.
We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist - and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)
Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That's because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn't nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they're quite right - because we're the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!
Encouraging Diversity in Atheism
I wrote last month about the importance of making non-white atheists feel welcome. I intend to continue banging that drum, and now I again have occasion to do so, thanks to this article from Religion News Service, "Atheists' Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers".
This article complements the last one I discussed. Alom Shaha's essay was about being a person of color and an atheist, looking at the community from the inside. This one is more about looking in from the outside, how the atheist movement appears to the wider world when viewed through the lens of racial diversity. It also chronicles the struggles of some minority atheists to find a face like their own in a sea of white males:
"Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that," said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. "We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place."
...But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn't been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a special Black History Month edition for February. In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.
It's important to emphasize that this is not solely an atheist problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday at 11 A.M. was "the most segregated hour in this nation", and the evidence suggests that little has changed. According to research, only 5% of American churches are racially integrated, and half of those are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white. Still, that doesn't mean that we as atheists have no responsibility to address this issue - and at least most religious denominations have substantial black memberships, even if they don't often mingle with white churchgoers.
Why is the atheist movement so racially homogeneous? The article mentions the theory I find most plausible: that the power of religion in minority communities is a cultural legacy of racism. In the past, racial and ethnic groups that faced hatred and hostility from a deeply prejudiced larger society turned to religion to encourage social coherence as a means of protection - an attempt to evoke sympathy and fellow-feeling from those who'd otherwise be biased against them. Even today, when minorities have greater legal protection, this attitude persists and leads to intense suspicion and exclusion of anyone who doesn't conform to the community norms. (Writers such as Sikivu Hutchinson have suggested a similar explanation.)
There are two lessons that I think should be drawn here, and one is that we don't have unlimited time to get this right. Stereotypes like this have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies; after all, if "everyone knows" that all atheists are white people, that's likely to discourage blacks, Latinos, and members of other minority groups from wanting to join us. (And if that conclusion doesn't occur to them on their own, religious apologists will be happy to suggest it.) Atheism as a movement is still in its early stages, which makes it even more important that we take the effort and pay attention to diversifying now. It's an effort that'll bear fruit in the long run.
The other is that this isn't a problem white atheists can solve on our own. We can and should do everything possible to present an inclusive and welcoming environment to atheists who are minorities, and ensure that they don't feel out of place; and when they do speak up, we should do everything in our power to support them. There's more progress to be made on all those fronts. However, the only way that religion's power in minority communities will ultimately be broken will be if people who are members of those communities come out as atheists and push back against social pressure to conform.
Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. These efforts are still in their beginning steps, but existing atheist and humanist groups are realizing the value of championing diversity, and people of color are organizing themselves as well:
A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.
...some activists like [Alix] Jules are holding to a vision of integration. He chairs a newly formed diversity council for the Dallas Coalition for Reason, which includes the area's 15 atheist groups. Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups... Dallas' Fellowship of Free Thought used to be almost exclusively white, Jules said, but now the group counts members with black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, including former Muslims.
If we keep at it, these efforts will naturally blend together, leading to an atheist movement that looks more like society in general and that incorporates a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints. And that, in turn, means we'll be able to more persuasively appeal to a larger number of people, speaking to them in the cultural language they're most familiar with and phrasing our message in a way that more strongly resonates with their own concerns. In short, encouraging diversity in atheism isn't just something we should do for the sake of political correctness, but a wise investment that will pay dividends down the line.
Making Non-White Atheists Feel Welcome
I was reading this outstanding essay by Alom Shaha, an atheist and ex-Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, who describes what it's like to come out as a nonbeliever in a tightly-knit, intensely religious community. But as he makes clear, the social and cultural pressure on people in his situation isn't just a matter of happenstance; it formed as a defensive reaction against a wider society that was bitterly prejudiced:
My family was one of a large wave of Bangladeshi families who emigrated to the UK in the early 1970s. It was a horrid time to be a young Bangladeshi in Britain – a time when pubs displayed signs saying "no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs", and violent racism was rife. We got used to the shouts of "go back home you dirty pakis", and lived in fear of physical abuse ranging from being spat at to being beaten up on the street. In these circumstances, it's not surprising that the Bangladeshi community was a close-knit and insular one.
It was not only our shared experiences as immigrants that unified us, but also our shared religion. Islam was the religion that defined many of my cultural experiences as I was growing up... For many of the people I grew up with, being a Bangladeshi is inseparable from being a Muslim.
This is, to put it bluntly, something that most white male atheists have never had to worry about. Yes, there are oppressive religious communities of every race and ethnicity which use brainwashing, peer pressure, and xenophobia to keep their members in line. But in addition to all those obstacles, which are common to every fundamentalist community, deconverts like Shaha faced the painful reality that much of the outside world genuinely was, and often still is, deeply prejudiced toward them. Under those circumstances, it's not irrational to fear that if you leave your own community and the social safety net it provides, you'll find no friends anywhere.
All this is by way of commenting on another post Shaha wrote recently, about the importance of being inclusive and welcoming to non-white atheists (HT: Jen McCreight). Typically, the comments section erupted with people - I'm going to go out on a limb and say most of them are probably white males - who angrily, defensively protested that they're not racist themselves, so this can't possibly be a problem. Here's one representative example:
Perhaps it's such a complete non-issue than only the most ardent proponents of identity politics have ever given it a second thought.
Judging by the sneer hanging over the phrase "identity politics", I can only conclude that this statement was made by someone who's never personally had to deal with racism or sexism, and from that single data point, believes that it can't possibly be an issue for anyone else either. If you want to know why non-white (and, often, non-male) people are underrepresented in the atheist community, if you want to understand why they sometimes feel unwelcome, look to comments like this.
This is why, as Shaha suggests, we need to make more of a concerted effort to "reach out to [non-white atheists] specifically, not generally" - to make a point of not overlooking them, of inviting more of them to be speakers and presenters, of making sure we give them their fair share of media attention and focus.
It has nothing to do with the fact that people who have the same skin color are privy to a secret means of communications not available to others, or that we have some kind of diversity quota to meet. It has everything to do with the fact that people who didn't grow up in a community like this, people who've never faced these kinds of social pressures, aren't likely to have much good advice for those who are still in that situation and want to escape. And on the other side of the equation, consider things from the viewpoint of people who are still a part of those communities. If they look to the atheist movement and see only white faces, they may conclude that no one else from their community has ever made it out and found a safe haven among us, and that may well discourage them from trying.
In other words, being more inclusive isn't something we should do as an act of charity. It's something we should do because it makes the atheist movement as a whole more powerful, more influential, and more able to effectively communicate with a broader range of people.
Where, Oh, Where Are the Atheist Women?
Last week, I noticed a pingback on my blog from a post on Ms. Magazine by Monica Shores, "Will New Atheism Make Room for Women?"
There are some good things about this piece. I have to say that I'm glad to see the atheist movement making an impact in wider, more traditional media circles. The need to diversify the atheist movement and ensure that we encourage and fairly value the contributions of women and people of color is a valid one, and I've written about it before as well. I welcome more attention being paid to this issue and people being willing to point it out if we've fallen short.
However, Shores' post isn't written in the spirit of helping atheists improve on this issue. It's more in the style of a hit job, taking the stance that we must all be sexists whom no woman would want to associate with:
If you've been following the rise of so-called "New Atheism" movement, you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion. The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger - are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75). Sam Harris, another popular figure who bears mention, has the distinction of being in his early 40s.
Ironically, she spends all her time focusing on the white men who are prominent in the atheist movement, and then at the very end bemoans the fact that atheist women lack "visibility and name-recognition"! Well, Ms. Shores, why do you think that is? Could it possibly be because mainstream, traditional media outlets - even ones as allegedly progressive and feminist as Ms. Magazine - refuse to give atheist women the space and fair coverage they deserve?
What makes this even more bizarre is that Shores is clearly aware of the existence of many atheist women. She references Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and links to essays by Susan Jacoby, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina and Jen McCreight, as well as a post by Sikivu Hutchinson right here on Daylight Atheism. Yet, again, she gives all these excellent writers and advocates only passing mention, so that she can continue to criticize us for the utterly inexplicable invisibility of women and people of color. (It kind of reminds me of this skit from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000.) To compound this, Shores writes that there's "little indication that atheists are receptive" to the idea of diversifying - and to support this assertion, links to two posts arguing the exact opposite! This is clearly a case of the established media narrative driving coverage of the facts, rather than vice versa.
There are a few other annoying inaccuracies in Shores' post I want to point out. She writes that atheists "can't abide by tolerance of religion", when what we actually say is that religion shouldn't get special privileges or be immune from criticism. She writes that we "dare not hope for eradication of religion outright", whereas many of us do hope for this (by victory on the battlefield of ideas, of course, not by coercion or violence) and have no fear of saying so. And she ridiculously and insultingly mischaracterizes this piece by my fellow blogger vjack of Atheist Revolution as "overtly sexist", when it's actually a thoughtful exploration of the reasons why women may not feel as welcome in the activist segment of the atheist movement as we'd like.
Thankfully, Ms. magazine gave a follow-up post to Jen McCreight, who corrected many of these inaccuracies and pointed out some of the atheist women who are making major, meaningful contributions to the movement. This was a much better piece that rightly highlighted the accomplishments of atheist women, rather than ignoring them and then inexplicably complaining that they're nowhere to be found.
Weekend Link Miscellany
I've got a couple of links this weekend, some atheism-related, some not:
• Lost a digital camera lately? It made me smile to find out about I Found Your Camera, a website helping to reunite lost cameras with their owners.
• After the terrible and entirely preventable deaths of three people during a "sweat lodge" ceremony last year, the New Age community in Sedona is suffering a tourist backlash. Is this what it takes to make people realize that pseudoscientific gibberish is not harmless?
• "The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation." An excellent piece on the rise of atheism among young people, due in part to obnoxious evangelicals insisting that conservative politics are a prerequisite for believing in God. (Thanks, guys!)
• NPR covers the founding of a secular student group at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. (See also).
• The FFRF stops Christian proselytizing at a Tennessee public school. One board member complains that anyone who didn't want to hear the prayers could just "put their fingers in their ears".
• A wonderful meditation on atheist spirituality. (HT: Unequally Yoked)
• And lastly, any female readers want to advance the course of science? My brother is working on his graduate thesis, and he's looking for volunteers to take this study on female sexual response. It's completely anonymous and doesn't collect any personal information.
The Connection Between Religion and Slavery
Last year, I wrote about whether Christianity deserves the credit for abolishing slavery. I have some additional evidence on that topic I'd like to mention.
I just finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the autobiography of the great American abolitionist. Born a slave in antebellum Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read at a young age, in secret, and later escaped to the North and freedom. His account of his own life is an eloquent first-hand retelling of the cruelty, suffering and bigotry he saw and experienced in the world of slavery.
Douglass wasn't an atheist. If anything, he was a Christian (though arguably only in the same sense that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, i.e., praising a purely theoretical form of Christianity, while denouncing Christianity as it was actually practiced as corrupt and laden with hypocrisy and immorality). This makes his own personal testimony on the close connection between religion and slavery all the more compelling:
In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night.
...I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture — "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."
When Douglass' owner grew frustrated with his disobedience, he resolved to break his spirit by lending him out to another slaveholder renowned for his ability to terrify and torture slaves into obedience:
Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer. I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey... Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation... Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion — a pious soul — a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a "nigger-breaker."
Later in his autobiography, Douglass tells of yet another slaveholder, known for his cruelty, who was an actual Christian minister:
Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave. It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion — a mistake, accident, or want of power — are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it.... Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. There was not a man in the whole county, with whom the slaves who had the getting their own home, would not prefer to live, rather than with this Rev. Mr. Hopkins. And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals — more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family — that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer — than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.
Douglass sums up his experience as a slave as follows:
I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.
It's not that all the religious people he met while enslaved were evil. He speaks of one preacher in particular who urged slaveholders to set their slaves free. The point is that, far from making everyone better, religion made the slaveholders worse. As Frederick Douglass put it, it gave them "religious sanction and support" for their cruelty: it convinced them that they had the right to buy and sell human beings, that God approved of their conduct and granted them license to oppress, abuse, and even murder their slaves.
And biblically speaking, they were correct. The Bible explicitly does permit slavery, and even commands slaves to be meek and obedient. To overthrow this foul institution, we had to ignore the immoral commands of the Bible - and for the sake of Frederick Douglass and millions of others, it's a good thing that we did.
Gender Desegregation Wednesdays
By Sarah Braasch
In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)
Kat and I were working on an English translation of a section of the French website for the women's rights organization, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives). We were struggling with the word mixité. We toyed with "the mixing of the sexes". But, that sounded like one of those speed-dating events. We settled on "desegregation". But, then we included the antecedent "gender", to distinguish our meaning from the more common American connotation of racial desegregation. "Gender desegregation" does capture, in English, the intended meaning of the French word "mixité". But, we were left somewhat dissatisfied. NPNS uses mixité as the last in a three-word chant representing the three ideological pillars of their movement. Laicité, Egalité, Mixité. Gender desegregation doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
As I plowed away, I came to an expression that made me roar aloud with laughter. Kat demanded to know the cause of my apparent mirth. As often occurs in such situations, a painfully literal translation had tickled my funny bone. It just sounded so weird and precious in English. I had translated "Mercredis de la Mixité" as "Gender Desegregation Wednesdays". When I told Kat, she laughed too. Then, we both laughed. Then, we laughed so hard we cried. It was one of those irreplaceable and singular moments of cosmic comic connection, otherwise known as, "you had to be there". It's ok if you don't get it.
But, then, after we had finally stopped laughing, we had a serious conversation about our reaction to my lacking translating skills. Obviously, it was the combination of the ostensibly esoteric with the ostensibly quotidian, like Theosophy Thursdays. But, why did "gender desegregation" sound so academic, so arcane, so removed from the populist vernacular that it incited uproarious laughter when "racial desegregation" or just "desegregation" does not?
Racial equality has been cemented as an indispensable ideological pillar of liberal, constitutional democracy while women continue to struggle for full recognition as human beings and as citizens. While religious justifications for racism are considered barbaric and archaic notions of yesteryear and beyond the pale for a modern, civilized society, religion remains the foremost obstacle thwarting women's aspirations to humanity and citizenship.
The evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormon Church) during recent decades illustrates this point perfectly. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church broke away from the main sect of "Saints", because they refused to give up polygamy (so-called celestial plural marriage) as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine, among other complaints.
Imagine, for a moment, an even more strident version of the FLDS Church. Let's call them the Super Fundie Latter Day Saints (SFLDS) Church. Imagine this SFLDS Church breaking away from their Mormon brethren, because they refuse to give up racism as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine.
If you question whether either or both polygamy and racism were, have been or are foundational tenets of the Mormon doctrine, I invite you to peruse the LDS Church's own literature on their own website. It's quite eye-opening. Copious documentation indicates that generations of Mormons were taught that dark skin is a curse from God, as well as evidence of a less than entirely virtuous pre-human existence, serving to justify everything from racial slavery and segregation and discrimination to Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws. Only public outcry and condemnation and boycott, rising dissent among the rank and file, and the risk of losing federal funding for BYU's students provoked Jehovah into revealing a doctrinal change to the church leadership in 1978.
But, back to our imaginary Super Fundie LDS Church that is incensed with the original LDS Church for abandoning the foundational doctrinal tenet of racism. Imagine that this Super Fundie Mormon sect decides that the best way for it to propagate its originalist vision of Jehovah's intentions for mankind is to adopt as many black babies as possible. The goal of the program is two-fold. It will give these decrepit black souls an opportunity to redeem themselves while in their human incarnations, hopefully with the added bonus of turning their putrid black skins white. And, the black babies will be brainwashed into submitting to their divinely ordained, sub-human status, thereby furthering God's plan for differentiating amongst his creations, according to moral uprightness, by segregating them by race and geography.
Turns your stomach, doesn't it? Strikes you as pretty much the most disgusting, despicable agenda ever, doesn't it?
It was real. This actually happened, or something very similar. Except that black kids weren't the targets. Native American kids were. And, it took place during the latter half of the immediately preceding century.
It was called the Indian Student Placement Program. Mormon families took in thousands of Native American kids and brainwashed them into believing that they were the cursed Lamanites, the black sheep descendants of ancient Middle Eastern Jews. The program's creator and leader, Spencer W. Kimball, former President of the LDS Church, once bragged about the program participants' complexions turning noticeably whiter, as evidence of their having left savagery behind for a Mormon life and salvation.
Do you know what is even more disgusting and despicable? This is still happening. Every day. All over the US. Right now. To women and girls.
All over the US, in religious communities and families, women and girls are being brainwashed into believing that they are sub-human, meant only to obey and serve the men in their lives, meant only to birth and raise more adherents. They are brainwashed into believing that they are the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities. They are brainwashed into believing that they will either submit to God's divinely ordained plan and subject themselves to sub-human treatment, or face dire consequences in the here now, the hereafter, or both.
How do I know? Because, it happened to me. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was raised to believe that men dictate the lives of women, because women are inferior by design, by God's design.
If it isn't ok to adopt an African American or Native American baby and raise it to believe that it is sub-human on account of its race, why is it ok to take a girl baby and raise her to believe that she is sub-human on account of her gender? I don't care if you birthed her yourself. Your children are not your property to abuse as you please. They are human beings with rights.
How do they get away with this? By claiming this blatant abuse as a religious liberty. We don't let them get away with that anymore with respect to race, but we still let them get away with it with respect to gender. At least, according to Spencer Kimball, the dark-skinned kids can grow lighter as they grow more virtuous. But, what about the poor girls? No matter how much a little Mormon girl prays for her clitoris to grow into a penis, I'm guessing that wasn't part of God's plan. Instead of being so concerned with gay couples adopting and raising children, maybe we should be scrutinizing Christian Fundies who want to adopt girl children and raise them as sex slaves.
Where is the public outcry and condemnation and dissent and government response for gender segregation and slavery as exists for racial segregation and slavery?
Nothing exemplifies this cognitive dissonance as well as the global uproar over public burqa / niqab bans. In the U.S., it is far easier to craft a legal argument against the burqa / niqab as a simple safety measure and general prohibition against identity obscuring masks in the public space than it is to even begin to speak about addressing the ban as a women's rights provision, as an affirmative action provision, as a gender equality provision, as a prohibition on gender segregation in the public space, or as a prohibition on gender slavery in the public space.
Why? Because everyone is ready to bend over backwards to defend the burqa / niqab as the free expression of religious liberty. Because religious liberty still trumps women's human and civil rights in American jurisprudence. Because we still view women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities.
History repeats itself. Again and again and again. How quickly one forgets the Civil Rights Era. It boggles the mind how no one seems to realize that we already had this argument. But, it was about race. First, it was about slavery and then it was about segregation. And the opponents of progress and democracy made all of the same arguments. They denounced the Civil Rights Act as the federal government overstepping its constitutional bounds by regulating the behavior of private citizens in the public space. They said that the federal government was trampling on the First Amendment rights of US citizens. And, the proponents of progress and democracy made the same arguments. They said that separate never equals equal. They said that a liberal, constitutional democracy cannot sustain itself with a substantial portion of its citizenry disenfranchised and debased.
Recently, Rand Paul appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. Rachel Maddow was shocked and aghast at Rand Paul's seeming suggestion that the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that touched upon the behavior of private citizens in the public space should never have been.
Rachel was eloquent when she replied, "The Civil Rights Act was the federal government stepping in to protect civil rights, because they weren't otherwise being protected. It wasn't a hypothetical. There were businesses that were saying black people can not be served here. And, the federal government stepped in and said no, you actually don't have that choice to make. The federal government is coming in and saying you can't make that choice as a business owner."
You don't get to make that choice, even if you are a member of the persecuted minority, and you want to segregate yourself from the persecuting majority. We are not going to allow racial segregation. We would no more allow a black owned restaurant to refuse to serve white patrons than we would a white owned restaurant to refuse to serve black patrons.
Why shouldn't you be able to segregate yourself? Segregation is not a choice you get to make in the public space of a secular, democratic republic. Segregation is the antithesis of democracy. Segregation is the antithesis of human rights. Segregation is the antithesis of equality. Segregation is the antithesis of equal protection. Separate but equal does not exist. I thought we already arrived at that conclusion in the US with Brown v. Board of Education.
What about the freedom of association? This is not about forcing people to be friends or lovers or cohorts of whatever variety. The woman in the burqa in public is not the black woman with her black friends entering a white owned store. She is the white storeowner putting up a "no blacks allowed" sign in her store window. She is saying, "I demand the right to participate in society fully, but I also demand the right to discriminate regarding with whom I will interact, with whom I will engage in the public space. I demand the right to treat other human beings and other citizens in a discriminatory fashion. I demand the right not to acknowledge the humanity of the other citizens in the public space while I also demand that they acknowledge my humanity."
This is unacceptable in a liberal, constitutional democracy. We must not tolerate gender segregation in our public space, even in the pursuit of religious liberty. It matters not if the "choice" to segregate oneself was coerced or no. It matters not if the woman wearing the burqa is a victim or no. We simply cannot tolerate gender segregation any more than we can tolerate racial segregation. Public segregation is not a choice you get to make.
This is not treating women like hapless and helpless victims, unable to choose their own style of dress. The anti-burqa ban argument is not only condescending to women, it is also contradictory. It is saying that women can and do and should be able to choose gender segregation and slavery of their own accord and volition, but that they may not be held accountable for the choices they make. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. If you can "choose" slavery, then you can be held accountable for choosing slavery.
Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights Act relied upon the Commerce Clause. While the Commerce Clause has been interpreted in an incredibly expansive manner, the Supreme Court has been narrowing the scope of this interpretation as of late. The questionable nature of applying the Commerce Clause to implement federal civil rights legislation could be avoided if we brought back the Privileges and Immunities Clause. But, regardless of the constitutional basis, our federal government acted to end racial segregation in the public sphere by regulating the conduct of private citizens in the public space. Is it really such a stretch to jump from racial segregation in public accommodations to gender segregation in the public space? I think you could make an even stronger argument that gender segregation in the public space impedes interstate commerce in the aggregate than you are able to make regarding racial segregation in public accommodations.
The fully integrated veil (the burqa or niqab) is more than segregation; it is effacement; it is dehumanization. It is slavery. This is not about morality. Morality has no place in the law. Desegregation, either racial or gender, is not the moral choice. It has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with democracy.
It is an issue of democratic representation and power distribution. It is the same issue that inspired the framers of the Constitution to separate powers within a tripartite federal government to create a system of checks and balances and to leave the balance of power in the hands of the states and the People. If any one class or group or entity has too much power, discrimination and oppression are quick to follow. This is why diversity is a compelling government interest. This is what makes affirmative action policies possible. Gender equality and desegregation should be every bit as compelling a government interest as diversity.
Per the current state of American jurisprudence, religious liberty trumps women's rights. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a violation of international human rights law. This is a violation of the principle of secularism. This places our liberal constitutional democracy in jeopardy. This is why we need the Equal Rights Amendment. Racial equality has had its constitutional moment, and now we need to enshrine gender equality in our Constitution in the same way.
I am a human being, not a whore, even if Jehovah or Allah or Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius or Rael says otherwise.
Maybe one day Gender Desegregation Wednesdays won't sound so absurd anymore.
We can dream.