Bad Religion

Last semester, in a class about how law and religion had shaped U.S. history, I read a book that discussed religion and lynching. The author spoke of America’s “multiple Christianities,” a phrase that’s stuck with me since. I was reminded of this phrase when I noticed the theme of religion in this week’s reading, and I wonder if it might be a good way to think about how Wright and Baldwin view religion and racism. 

For two men who disagree sharply about how to talk about racism in America, Richard Wright and James Baldwin appear to have a lot in common in their understanding of religion. This convergence of their views really interested me, since James Baldwin’s critique of Native Son is rather scathing, but he seems to share Wright’s opinions toward religion. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he compares novels like Native Sonunfavorably with missionary stories and tropes of white as holy and black as sinful. He finally writes, “Bigger’s tragedy is… that he has accepted a theology that denies him life” (Collected Essays, 18).

If Baldwin is scornful of how themes of sin and sanctity are presented in Native Son, Wright seems equally so. In the final portion of Native Son, religion becomes an especially pronounced theme. Reverend Hammond and Bigger’s mother try to convince Bigger to turn to prayer while in jail. The preacher tells Bigger, “Be like Jesus. Don’t resist” (Wright, 285). But Bigger has no desire for religion, a repulsion that is compounded by the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross: “The cross the preacher had told him about was bloody, not flaming; meek, not militant. It had made him feel awe and wonder, not fear and panic” (337). Religion, in Wright’s view, is used for negative purposes—either to suppress Black liberation or to empower white supremacists. This dichotomy between the burning cross and the preacher’s cross underscores that white Christianity and Black Christianity are two different things. Wright articulates this divide in “How Bigger Was Born” as well, commenting that there may as well be “a white God and a black God” (437). 

Wright and Baldwin’s shared cynicism towards religion is an important area of overlap. While they may see “multiple Christianities,” their perspective seems to be that all religion blinds people to the work of racial justice. Seeing how these two different novelists relate to religion, in particular their critique that Christianity is just as segregated as the rest of the United States, is an invitation to think more deeply about how we can engage with these authors as students at a Catholic university and enter more honest conversations about the role of religion in promoting or frustrating racial justice.

2 thoughts on “Bad Religion”

  1. Grace, I too noticed the shared criticism Wright and Baldwin shared towards religion, and I think you did a great job of pointing it out! I often ask myself about how Black people had experienced so many lies from White people during colonialism, so why was Christianity the one thing they believed? I think it is important to ask ourselves these questions and the question that you bring up at the end, of how our University could be playing a role in racial injustice through religion. Awesome work!

  2. Hi Grace great stuff here! Your observations on the intersection of religion and racism in this work are insightful, particularly highlighting Reverend Hammond’s quote “Be like Jesus. Don’t resist.” Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify their actions and assert their own ‘moral superiority’ over Black people. They used religion to fight insurrections and organized rebellion by preaching the ideal of the submissive Christian slave. They preached a form of Christianity that emphasized obedience to white people as the highest form of morality they could aspire to reach. We see this continued today in divisions set in the church and I’m glad you’re continuing to question role of religion in promoting/ impeding racial justice

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