Black Religion and the Vote
Q. Bernard Driskell
Exodus 19: 21 reads, And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.
The Moses story is about the role of God in the liberation of a politically, religiously, and economically oppressed people. For Black slaves, Moses was, next to Jesus, the most important figure in the Bible:
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell old pharaoh, let my people go.
There were songs about “crossing over Jordan” sermons, and other Moses-related themes. Today, for people of all caste and colors, the idea of America as a “promised land” is a powerful one. But African Americans were never included in this “promise “and had to fight for our inclusion, and out of that struggle emerged the Abolitionist tradition, which grew the Black Social Gospel movement.
The Black tradition of the social gospel equipped leaders of the Civil Rights Movement with much of the movement’s intellectual underpinning. This movement–best described as social justice politics with progressive theology—includes Martin Luther King Jr., his chief mentors, the allies, and the entire tradition of black church social justice activism reaching back to the early 1800s.
This tradition also birthed President Barack Hussein Obama. It was a combination of Obama’s acute sensitivity to this promise – the American Dream – and the power of civil rights Christianity that reengaged the Black religion [and the country] to elect its first African American president.
And now, after eight years of his presidency, black bodies’ are scattered in the streets at the hands of miscreant police officers with little to no prosecution – a stark reminder of a time in our history not so long ago, Black Americans find themselves yet again caught between the promise land and Egypt; between the wilderness and the lynching cross of Jesus. And every election cycle the only recourse we seems to have is to simply vote.
This election cycle requires more.
Just as Moses went down, we too must “go” with the faith of God and speak to the systemic “pharaohs” of America with votes and action. And when we vote, we must pay attention to whom we are electing– from your local county clerk, to the district attorney, to state representatives all the way to the presidency. For it is local and state policy that affects us more directly. For instance, the regulation of police departments and how individuals are prosecuted is a local and county matter.
However, we must understand that policy isn’t the panacea for racial discrimination. The problem is the system within which our structures have been built. Policy can certainly change and augment structures but our social system often transcends policy, which is why movements like #BlackLivesMatter are important. Black religion once fixated on the dream of freedom. As King once said, ‘We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of ‘now:’ Now is the time necessity for envisioning a new abolition.
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand,
America, Let my People go.
Driskell is a preacher, lobbyist and professor of religion and politics Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4.