Race and the Meaning of Religious Liberty

Timothy Golden January/February 2022

 Illustration by Robert Hunt

For Black Americans, traditional narratives around religious freedom are complicated by both historical and present realities. Is there a path toward a shared understanding?

Race. Just mentioning the word makes us uncomfortable. Race is the proverbial “elephant in the room” for many in their daily lives—that ever-present reality that most prefer to ignore, hoping that it will just “go away.” We do not want to confront race, because it demands confronting a long and brutal history of racial violence that is not simply a matter of historical record. It is a history that has been institutionally preserved and transmitted to subsequent generations in ways that perpetuate Black suffering on one hand and maintain White dominance on the other. Indeed, it seems that not only is race a permanent fixture in our daily lives but also that racism—its troubling and dangerous institutional derivative—is an intractable feature of American life. America is thus trapped between two forms of discomfort: the discomfort of race and racism in daily life and the discomfort of confronting race and racism. Either way, we are uncomfortable.

Our discomfort has led us to try different ways to “solve” America’s race problem so that we no longer must deal with race. One such “solution” is to deny race; to argue that race is neither scientific nor genetic. “If race is not a genetic reality,” the argument goes, “then when we speak of race we are literally talking about nothing.” On this account of race, one can critique any discussion of race—or racism—by arguing that we are discussing something that simply does not exist. Conversations about race might as well be about the great pumpkin, the tooth fairy, or some other childish fiction. But this view is somewhat naive and oversimplified, for even if science is correct about the nonexistence of race on a genetic basis, how do we account for the highly racialized world in which we live? 

A Social and Political Reality

It seems that American social and political life reflects a material reality in stark contrast to our scientific denial of race. Myriad socioeconomic indicators suggest that poverty and wealth, cultural phenomena, social benefits—and burdens—exist in tangible ways that demonstrate that race not only exists but also is an organizing principle of American life. From disparities in health care to those in the administration of criminal justice, education, and the ongoing struggle to secure voting rights in federal law, the examples of the social reality of race abound despite its scientific denial. There may not be a “race gene,” but the reality of race, both socially and politically, is indisputable. Indeed, no Black person I know is prepared to walk into a Ku Klux Klan meeting and boldly declare that race does not exist. Race is a social and political reality.

Accompanying the social and political reality of race is the practical reality that race informs much of what we do, either consciously or unconsciously. We live in a world in which race and racism shape not only our attitudes toward others but also our interpretations of words and phrases, including the phrase “religious liberty.”

Extremes of Political Ideology

To an American White evangelical, the phrase “religious liberty” typically implies that “Christianity is under attack” from social and cultural forces that demand its genuflection at the altar of a “multicultural Baal” that regards neither religion nor liberty. The aim of this social and cultural idol is to persecute White Christians through American law. The ultimate result will be to replace them with a cultural religion completely antithetical to the Bible, fundamentally changing their “Christian” and “American” way of life. 

On this view, religious liberty implies a sacred connection between the founding narrative of the United States and Christianity in which both are understood as compatible with each other. As such, the aim of the state is to vindicate and protect the practices of the church at any and all costs, even if it means that other religions take a backseat to Christianity in constitutional interpretation. This view implies that left-wing, “activist” judges are the bane of American law and social life and must be avoided at all costs—even at the cost of political consensus. So if presidential nominees to the federal judiciary are now confirmed in the Senate on partisan votes, so be it. Long gone are the days when such justices as Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the former considered to be a right-wing conservative and the latter considered to be a left-wing liberal, were confirmed 98-0 and 96-3, respectively. Since Christianity is “under attack,” we need Supreme Court justices who understand the urgency of the moment, so broad-based political consensus is no longer an option. The admixture of church and state is perfectly acceptable on this view so long as it is the Christian church that is buttressed with the power of the state. For White evangelicals, then, religious liberty often means securing their own religious (Christian) liberty as a zero-sum game: Christianity wins while other religions lose.

The irony of this White evangelical view is that it exposes a racist history of American Christianity and its troubling relationship with American politics that many in the White evangelical community would rather ignore. But it’s a history Black Americans have both experienced and embraced: the relationship that allowed for the state-supported theological justifications of the American slave trade. These justifications ranged from the Hamitic curse—the notion that Black people were cursed with lives of servitude for Whites because they are the descendants of Ham, who mocked Noah, his father—to the argument that slaves could be baptized because although their souls belonged to God in heaven, their bodies belonged to their masters on earth. This uniquely American strain of Christian theology was heavily invested in justifying what Frederick Douglass often called the “peculiar institution” of American chattel slavery. When a Black person hears the phrase “religious liberty,” then, it is seen in a context of oppression at the hands of state governments that, since the end of Reconstruction, have been openly hostile toward them, and a federal government that has responded unevenly at best.

Considering this oppression, the phrase “religious liberty,” for Black Americans, implies a struggle against an oppressive religion in the name of liberation. White evangelicals, because of their experiences, understand religious liberty to mean preservation of a racialized status quo that maintains their position atop the social and political hierarchy through an affiliation with hyperconservative political ideology. In contrast, Blacks understand religious liberty to imply an emancipatory politics that will break the chains of religious oppression in the interest of liberation. Black Americans thus espouse resistance to oppression in the form of prophetic discourses that interpret the Black American experience in Christian theological terms. One sees this in the religious thought of W.E.B. DuBois and the Black liberation theology of James H. Cone,1 who often saw Jesus as a biblical representation of Black Americans. Even as the Hebrew slaves before them confronted Pharaoh’s oppression and were delivered from bondage, Black Americans must experience an “exodus,” finding relief from the American pharaohs of police brutality, mass incarceration, and voter suppression. Unlike White evangelicals, for whom religious liberty implies a maintenance of the status quo, for many Black American Christians religious liberty implies a disruption of the status quo in the interest of liberation. The contrast is striking. 

There is another Black interpretation of religious liberty that implies a rejection of the religious altogether in favor of liberty. Overlooking the prophetic discourse of Black Christianity, on this view of religious liberty notions of liberty eclipse the religious altogether because of American Christianity’s  historical role in the oppression of Blacks, indigenous persons, Latinos, and other people of color. And it is this eclipse of religion in the interest of liberty that translates into a left-wing political ideology that is so preoccupied with “liberty” and so hostile to religion that it sees as antagonistic to American democratic norms and institutions.

Consider the rank ideology at work in attempts to “pack” the Supreme Court. Rather than return to the democratic norm of a two-thirds confirmation vote in the Senate for federal judicial nominees, some on the left with admirable but ultimately misguided egalitarian racial agendas have suggested politicizing the Supreme Court by allowing political affiliation to expand the amount of justices on the Court. So controversial is this proposal that it has drawn criticism from Justice Breyer, one of the Court’s liberal justices.2 

Seeking Moderation

Political extremes are ineffective because they merely reinforce rigid and uncompromising worldviews, which makes for a polarized social and political culture. In this environment, the broad-based political consensus that is so essential for constructive public policy is difficult to attain and government suffers amid the rancor of ideological extremities. 

Our Western literary, philosophical, and Judeo-Christian heritage has warned us about the dangers of extremes. Greek mythology tells the story of Icarus, whose father, Daedalus, made Icarus wings of feathers and wax, telling him to avoid flying too high, as he would be too close to the sun, which would melt his wings, causing him to drown in the sea. Likewise, warned Daedalus, flying too low would produce the same result. For Icarus to safely reach his destination, he needed to fly at a midpoint between the extremities of the sun and the sea. The lesson here is that an excess of ambition brings one too close to the sun, while a deficiency of ambition brings one too close to the sea. Instead of these extremes, one must “fly” moderately to arrive safely at one’s destination. This literary lesson has a Greek philosophical analogue in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he argues that virtue is found at a mean between two extremes. A classic example is the virtue of courage, found at a mean between the deficiency of cowardice and the excess of foolhardiness.

And when Jesus heals the woman with the issue of blood who touches the hem of His garment, He is healing a woman who has had an issue of blood for 12 years. Recall that in the Gospel account, this miracle occurs while Jesus is on His way to heal a young girl who has been alive for as long as the woman who has had the issue of blood. These two women thus represent extreme positions, and Jesus, who says that He felt virtue (δύναμις) leave Him when the woman touched the hem of His garment, was in between them. This Greek word is transliterated as dunamis, implying moral power and excellence of soul. The takeaway here is significant: whereas there is only weakness and sickness in the extremities, there is power and moral excellence in between the two. Attaining this power and moral excellence implies that we must seek the mean between extremes to prevent racial interpretations of religious liberty that translate into the destructive influence of extreme political ideologies.

From Politics to the Political

The space of moderation that our Western moral and theological heritage urge us to inhabit is what I will call “the Political.” “The Political” is a social arrangement of people under an authority who has the capacity to make and enforce law. The Political is ubiquitous throughout Scripture. In the book of Genesis Adam and Eve abided in the Political because they were a community of persons socially arranged under an authority (God) with the capacity to make law (do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and enforce law (the day you eat of the tree you shall surely die). This social arrangement persists throughout Scripture and is seen in Pharaoh’s Egypt, Israel’s captivity, and the deliverance of God’s people in the book of Revelation. In each of these instances, one sees a God who is intimately connected to history in the form of liberating His people from Pharaoh, sending His prophets with messages of warning and judgment, and establishing His kingdom anew. At every turn, the God of the Bible is a God that entrusts His creation to administer justice in the realm of the Political, but when we fail, God is there to pick up the slack.

And this is our mission today: to abide in the Political, pursing justice for all those in need. Although it is good for the church to stay out of politics, the church cannot help being part of the Political, which is a major part of its creed and the place in which we find a measure of hope for the recalcitrance of our interpretations of religious liberty, not because race no longer exists, but because our understanding of the human condition is brought into sharper focus.

With a space much broader than political ideology, we can now reconcile our ideological differences in the interest of the common good. This is not a naive, postracial utopia. No. Indeed, in the Political, both Black and White will continue to have differing interpretations of religious liberty and robust policy disagreements based on their differing historical and social realities. And far from denying the reality of systemic racism, the realm of the Political enables Whites to see issues of oppression not through a narrow ideological lens, but rather as issues of the utmost moral and spiritual urgency that demand our social and political attention, just as they did in Scripture. Again, race is acknowledged in the Political and is accompanied by an ever-increasing moral energy directed outward at injustice rather than inward toward bolstering one’s narrow ideological commitments.

A Way Forward

Race has an inevitable effect on how we interpret the meaning of “religious liberty.” This effect drives us toward political extremes that prevent constructive public policy. A possible way out from those extremities is to engage the concept of religious liberty within the context of the Political rather than politics, for the Political enables us to see one another as citizens in the “kingdom of God,” a political arrangement based not on ideological expediency but instead on the moral imperative to love God as seen in plight of others, and to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. The simplicity and breadth of these moral imperatives from our Judeo-Christian heritage acknowledges both racial differences and their corresponding histories, while viewing the injustices of these histories as issues demanding everyone’s moral energy—both Black and White.


1 W.E.B. DuBois may seem an odd fit with Black theologians like Cone, especially considering his Communist affiliation and his open hostility toward religion in some of his work. But it would be a mistake to think that DuBois is hostile to religion as such for two reasons. First, as a sociologist, DuBois was deeply interested in the sociology of religion and its impact on both his life and Black life—an impact that he believed to be uplifting and constructive. See W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown (New York: International, 1962) and The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1899), p. 21. And second, one can argue that DuBois is a pragmatic religious naturalist: one who is hostile to an overemphasis on religion’s ontological commitments in favor of an emphasis on “religious stories, moods, symbols, rhetoric, and moral values because they are links to the past, because they are powerful tools and narratives for shaping and envisioning life, and because they can allow for a type of spirituality that emphasizes the fallibility, fragility, and power of the human-made ties that bind us and make us dependent on each other” (Jonathan S. Khan, Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009], p. 13).

2 See Stephen Breyer, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2021). 

Article Author: Timothy Golden

Timothy Golden, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy, legal studies program coordinator, and director of the Donald Blake Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture at Walla Walla University. For 20 years he was a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Frederick Douglass and the Philosophy of Religion (Lexington Books) and Subjectivity, Transcendence, and the Problem of Onto-Theology (Palgrave Macmillan).