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Trump administration considers travel bans on up to seven more countries

Washington D.C., Jan 21, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- More travel bans and restrictions could be coming from the Trump administration, with up to seven countries targeted.

Citizens of Belarus, Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania could face more travel restrictions, as initially reported by the news site Politico. The restrictions could be announced Jan. 27, the third anniversary of the administration’s first travel bans.

The restrictions under consideration are not finalized and might not necessarily be a complete ban, but rather could apply only to certain government officials or certain types of visas, like business or visitor visas.

Some countries the Trump administration is considering for new travel restrictions have had good relations with the U.S. or have been the subjects of U.S. efforts to improve relations, Politico reports.

The administration has justified travel restrictions as an anti-terrorism measure, saying the travelers are not adequately vetted.

The original executive order was issued Jan. 27, 2017, prompting hundreds of demonstrators to gather at airports. The first order denied visas to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The order was modified and went through several court challenges. In its current form it restricts entry of some citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and North Korea. Chad was on the original list, but was removed.

Lawyers, advocates for Muslim immigrants, and other critics said the administration’s travel ban still constituted a “Muslim ban” since most of the countries under the ban are Muslim-majority.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the travel ban in June 2018, ruling that President Donald Trump was acting within the limits of his authority when he enacted the travel ban on nationals from seven countries.

At the time of the ruling, leaders of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee and religious freedom committee said the travel ban “targets Muslims for exclusion, which goes against our country's core principle of neutrality when it comes to people of faith.” The Supreme Court “failed to take into account the clear and unlawful targeting of a specific religious group by the government,” the bishops said.
Most possible additions to the list do not have travel restrictions. The Wall Street Journal said people from Eritrea, Nigeria, and Sudan on business or visitor visas appeared much more likely to overstay their permits.

This week White House spokesman Hogan Gidley did not confirm to Politico any details about expanded ban or travel restrictions, but said the original order “has been profoundly successful in protecting our country and raising the security baseline around the world.”

“While there are no new announcements at this time, common sense and national security both dictate that if a country wants to fully participate in U.S. immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counter-terrorism measures — because we do not want to import terrorism or any other national security threat into the United States,” Gidley said.

Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. after a string of terrorist attacks, including a December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California that left 14 dead and 22 injured. The shooters were a married couple who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group shortly before the attack. One was a U.S. citizen and the other was a Pakistani national who moved to the U.S. on a fiancée visa.

His comments drew condemnation and concern from many who worried explicitly targeting migrants based on religion was wrong in itself and would enable U.S. laws and policies targeting other religious groups.

Opposition to death penalty growing among Republicans, activists say

Washington D.C., Jan 21, 2020 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- The number of Republican state lawmakers opposed to capital punishment is growing, a conservative group claims, as anti-death penalty activists look forward to continued momentum from the right on this issue in 2020. 

“The nation is down to only 25 states that still have an active death penalty system, of those, over a third have not used it in a decade or more,” Hannah Cox, National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told CNA in a statement. 

“We anticipate the downward trends to continue around capital punishment and expect to see more states join those that have repealed their systems over the next year.”

At the national level, the parties are divided on the issue.

The 2016 Republican Party platform stated that “The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” and that “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.” 

Conversely, the 2016 Democratic Party platform called for the abolition of capital punishment, which was refered to as “arbitrary and unjust.” 

Despite the platform plank, Republican lawmakers seem relatively unafraid to introduce bills to repeal the practice. 

In the 2020 legislative season, five state legislatures are considering Republican-sponsored bills to overturn the death penalty: Colorado, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Washington. Last year, repeal bills were introduced with Republican sponsors in 10 states. That is a two-state increase from 2018. 

Out of the 10 states that considered bills to abolish the death penalty, one, in New Hampshire, passed, and went into effect in 2019. Another, in Wyoming, failed in the Senate.

New Hampshire repealed the death penalty for anyone who was convicted of capital murder after May 30, 2019. Although the bill was initially vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, it was overruled by a two-thirds majority in both of the state’s legislative chambers. 

In the veto vote, about 40% of the state’s Republican senators voted to overturn the death penalty. 

With New Hampshire overturning the death penalty, there are now no states in New England where capital punishment is legal. There is, however, one man on the Granite State’s death row: Michael “Stix” Addison was convicted in 2008 after murdering a police officer, Michael Biggs. Addison is still eligible for the death penalty, unless his sentence is commuted to life in prison. 

The last person executed in New Hampshire was executed in 1939. Several previous efforts in the 21st century to repeal the death penalty had failed. 

In Wyoming, the bill to repeal the death penalty died in the state Senate, which is composed of 27 Republicans and three Democrats. The bill’s main sponsor was Republican Sen. Brian Boner. 

The bill failed on a vote of 18-12. Wyoming has only executed one person since the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the death penalty is a legal punishment. There is nobody presently on the state’s death row.

Trump declares Jan. 22 'National Sanctity of Human Life Day'

Washington D.C., Jan 21, 2020 / 04:18 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump declared Jan. 22 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, in a proclamation signed Monday.

“On National Sanctity of Human Life Day, our Nation proudly and strongly reaffirms our commitment to protect the precious gift of life at every stage, from conception to natural death,” Trump wrote in the proclamation.

“Every person -- the born and unborn, the poor, the downcast, the disabled, the infirm, and the elderly -- has inherent value. Although each journey is different, no life is without worth or is inconsequential; the rights of all people must be defended,” the president added.

The landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which declared a constitutional right to abortion, was decided Jan. 22, 1973.

President Ronald Reagan declared Jan. 22, 1984 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, and annually declared a similar day each year of his presidency. President George Bush did the same, as did President George W. Bush.

President Donald Trump declared a National Sanctity of Human Life Day in 2018 and 2019.

The president’s 2020 proclamation said that the U.S. “must remain steadfastly dedicated to the profound truth that all life is a gift from God, who endows every person with immeasurable worth and potential.”

“Countless Americans are tireless defenders of life and champions for the vulnerable among us. We are grateful for those who support women experiencing unexpected pregnancies, those who provide healing to women who have had abortions, and those who welcome children into their homes through foster care and adoption.”

“On National Sanctity of Human Life Day, we celebrate the wonderful gift of life and renew our resolve to build a culture where life is always revered,” the proclamation added.

The proclamation noted a decline in U.S. abortions and the abortion rate since 2007, and a decrease in teen pregnancies, which, Trump wrote, have contributed “to the lowest rate of abortions among adolescents since the legalization of abortion in 1973.”

“All Americans should celebrate this decline in the number and rate of abortions, which represents lives saved.  Still, there is more to be done, and, as President, I will continue to fight to protect the lives of the unborn,” Trump wrote.

The president also noted that his administration has introduced restrictions that impede recipients of federal Title X funds from providing abortions, along with conscience protections for healthcare workers and employers who object to contraceptive coverage in insurance plans.

“Additionally, I have called on the Congress to act to prohibit abortions of later-term babies who can feel pain,” the proclamation added.

Since 1973, nearly 45 million abortions in the U.S. have been reported to the CDC. Several state legislative efforts to restrict or prohibit abortion have been challenged in court in recent years, and some pro-life activists predict those judicial challenges could lead to a reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Trump has said he believes laws regarding abortion should be decided at the state level, and that while he believes there should be exceptions to prohibitions on abortion, he considers himself to be pro-life.



Ruling against Trump executive order helps people flee danger, bishops say

Washington D.C., Jan 21, 2020 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- A federal judge’s ruling has halted President Donald Trump’s executive order that allows states and localities to refuse permission for refugee resettlement. The ruling drew praise from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which stressed the need to help refugees to safety and to maintain a uniform refugee policy.

“Today’s ruling is a welcome step in our ongoing ministry to provide refugees, who are fleeing religious persecution, war, and other dangers, with safe haven here in the United States,” said Bishop Mario Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop of Washington who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration.

“Jesus Christ, who was part of a refugee family, calls us to welcome the stranger, and our pro-life commitment requires us to protect refugees,” he said Jan. 17, adding, “the Church looks forward to continue working with communities across America to welcome refugees as we uphold the dignity of all human life.”

U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte temporarily blocked Executive Order 13888, issued Sept. 26, 2019, which requires written consent from states and local entities before groups may begin to resettle refugees within their boundaries.

The order “does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” said the judge. Messitte, citing a law review article, said there is a public interest in preventing the president from “slipping the boundaries of a statutory policy and acting based on irrelevant policy preferences,” CNN reports.

The judge said the order wrongfully gave to state and local government the power to veto refugee resettlement “in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings and Congressional doctrine to the contrary.”

In response, the Trump administration said, “This is a preposterous ruling, one more example of nationwide district court injunctions run amok, and we are expeditiously reviewing all options to protect our communities and preserve the integrity of the refugee resettlement process.”

Pending the outcome of the legal case, HIAS Inc., et al v. Trump, the order will not take effect. Resettlement programs will operate under the rules prior to the order.

Dorsonville noted the Catholic bishops’ previous “deep concerns” about the executive order.

“We feared the negative consequences for refugees and their families as this Executive Order would have created a confusing patchwork across America of some jurisdictions where refugees are welcomed, and others where they are not,” he said.

He said the injunction “helps to maintain a uniform national policy of welcome to refugees and serves to maintain reunification of refugee families as a primary factor for initial resettlement.”

Dorsonville cited “robust bipartisan support” for refugees in the wake of the order, noting 42 governors and many local officials said they would approve initial resettlement.

“Once more, we see the intention to act united as a nation in the effort to provide solidarity to those who need it most and are encouraged by the compassion that this nation has towards refugees,” Dorsonville said.

The U.S. bishops said that federal officials will “diligently engage” with state and local officials to ensure local concerns are taken into account, but federal officials will have the final decision over refugee resettlement.

Gov. Gregg Abbott of Texas said Jan. 10 that Texas will not participate in the refugee resettlement program this fiscal year.

“At this time, the state and nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless—indeed, all Texans,” he said in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said Texas has already been forced to “deal with disproportionate migration issues,” which he blamed on federal inaction and a broken immigration system.

He cited May 2019 figures indicating about 100,000 migrants were detained crossing Texas’ southern border.

Refugee resettlement in Texas peaked in 2009, when about 8,212 people were resettled. About 7,500 people were resettled in Texas per year from 2012-2016, the Texas Tribune reports.

The Texas Catholic bishops said the governor’s decision was “deeply discouraging and disheartening.” They asked the governor to reconsider his decision, noting that refugees contribute a great deal to society.

“While the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops respects the governor, this decision is simply misguided,” they said. “It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans.”

“As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien,” said the Texas bishops.

In a Jan. 16 letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami criticized Abbott’s decision and noted the longtime work of Catholic Charities in Florida. The agency helped unaccompanied minors from Cuba in the 1960s, resettled refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s, and participated in the federal refugee resettlement program since it began in 1980.

He stressed the security of the vetting policies already conducted by the United States' government. He said refugees have to meet established criteria such as fleeing religious persecution or political violence.

“Often mentored by church volunteers and given resettlement support, refugees and their family quickly integrate into American society, finding work and making a positive contribution to their adopted country,” Wenski said.

“Dracula”: A Bland Betrayal of Vampire Lore

Vampires are literary and cinematic representations of what St. Peter tells us about in Scripture: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But Christ has given us very basic means to resist Satan and his allies, and the best vampire stories play them up for edifying effect, whether the writers are believers or not. In fact, vampire fiction usually presupposes the truth of Christ and the Church’s sacraments, and the inevitable victory of the Holy Spirit over the enemies of the Gospel. Demons are scary, but they’re losers. Here’s one example: A vampire has to be welcomed into a home or building in order to enter. This is a particularly frequent deterrent in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, where bloodthirsty creatures of the night are routinely stopped in their tracks at the threshold of humans’ abodes.

Idolatry in the Twenty-First Century

A hundred years ago, the famed German sociologist Max Weber published a revised edition of his classic work. Inserted into the new edition were a few uses of the word Entzauberung, a word that did not appear in the first edition. The word was meant to describe the general condition of the modern Western world. Zauber is the German word for “magic”; Entzauberung is literally the “un-magic-ing” of the world. It is usually translated “disenchantment.” Although Weber himself used the word sparingly, it has taken on a life of its own. Many people believe it captures something essential about our present condition. In his exploration of the causes of secularization in the West, philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not.” Our ancestors lived in a world inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts and angels, wood sprites and saints. The boundaries between the material and the spiritual were permeable, and the immanent world made frequent contact with the transcendent. The premodern world was full of what Taylor calls “charged objects,” such as saints’ relics, that had the power to alter reality. Today, we live in a disenchanted world, devoid of divine or demonic spirits, devoid of mystery, a world with no ordered meaning. Or so the story goes.

In Weber’s view, disenchantment was the end result of a long process of rationalization, of which science and ­capitalism were the principal drivers. Weber was himself a rationalist, who described himself as “unmusical” with regard to religion. But he did not simply celebrate the process of rationalization and disenchantment. He thought that the technical advances of modernity came at a price, and he feared that modern people had become “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ends with a melancholy description of the “iron cage” of modernity, a heartlessly efficient machine from which all enchantment had been ruthlessly eliminated, for better and for worse.

For an example of how this machine functions in practice, consider an Amazon “fulfillment center,” or warehouse. Not even Weber could have foreseen the lengths to which Amazon has taken rationalization. At an Amazon fulfillment center, poorly paid “associates,” who are often temporary workers with no benefits, scurry among bins retrieving and packing just about anything that can be imagined. A handheld device keeps track of their movements. After it directs them to the next item of merchandise, a timer starts: twenty-seven seconds to scan the next item four aisles over, for example. The device warns them if they are falling behind, and keeps track of their “pick rate.” Falling behind, calling in sick, and other offenses can cost a worker his or her job. Some “associates” have resorted to urinating in bottles so they won’t need bathroom breaks.

In January 2018 Amazon received patents on a wristband that can track a warehouse worker’s arm movements. An Amazon spokesperson presented the wristband as a boon for workers: “This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.” But according to James Bloodworth, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center for six months and described his experiences in Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain (2018), the company’s real goal was not to make the lives of its workers easier. “It was all obsessed with productivity…. They started treating human beings as robots, essentially. If it proves cheaper to replace humans with machines, I assume they will do that.” In the Amazon warehouse, Weber’s description of the “iron cage” seems fully vindicated.

But this is only one side of the story. For the consumer, the purchase of nearly anything via Amazon is nothing short of magical. Images of millions of products can be summoned onto a screen. One can spend hours lost in a virtual environment of endless abundance. A few clicks later the desired product appears on your doorstep, like magic. If you have the money, or at least access to credit, you can summon almost anything from anywhere in the world, abracadabra. The entire production process—the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacturing and transportation, the packing and delivering—is invisible to the consumer, as are the people involved in this process. All we see are images of the shiny finished products on a screen, and then the products themselves on our doorsteps.

So it seems that there are two sides to our economy: a rationalized, disenchanted side typified by heartless efficiency, and an enchanted side still filled with charged objects and magic. In fact, these are really two sides of the same coin. Each of them implies the other.


There are two sides to our economy: a rationalized, disenchanted side and an enchanted side. In fact, these are really two sides of the same coin.

Weber argued that religion is the original agent of rationalization, but also that rationalization eventually pushes religion out of the public sphere. Many summaries of Weber’s argument stop there, at the disenchantment of the world. But Weber also suggested that rationalization produces a new form of enchantment, a kind of “polytheism” of impersonal gods, which include the state and the market.

Let’s begin with the first part of his argument. Weber regards magic as a primitive form of religion. Early cultures practiced magic to try to control nature and mitigate its various dangers; if we perform a certain dance, it will bring rain on our crops. Magic was this-worldly—not ethical, but transactional. It tried to coerce or bribe the spirits that lived in material things. There is a sort of rationality in this quid pro quo. When the great salvation religions erupted in the Axial Age, however, they introduced a new kind of rationalization. The gods were now personal and otherworldly, transcending the material world, and so interactions with them took on an ethical tone. Such gods were universal rather than local, and this gave rise to the notion of stable and universal laws that govern nature and society. A rational social order was complemented by an intellectual order that answered the human need for coherent meaning. People needed a way to deal with senseless suffering. So salvation religions developed the myth of a savior and an ethical system in which the gods could punish the unjust and reward the righteous. Since the righteous often suffer in this life, while the unjust often prosper, explanations were sought outside of the present world. Present suffering was explained by the sins of a former life or by one’s ancestors, or an afterlife was posited to ensure that the guilty were punished and the righteous rewarded after death. 

For Weber, this puts salvation religions in a state of permanent tension with the world, which leads to the second part of his argument: the more religion becomes rationalized, the more it becomes otherworldly, while the worldly spheres of politics, economics, family, sex, etc. take on increasing autonomy. Worldly activities like business and war cannot meet the high ethical standards of the great salvation religions, so the religious person either flees from the world into mysticism or becomes a worldly ascetic, like the Puritan. According to Weber, the Puritan accepts the ultimate meaninglessness of this world but tries to work out his salvation in inner dialogue with God while following his worldly vocation as a businessman. This is how Protestantism led to capitalism. For the Puritan, the Catholic sacraments were mere magic, an attempt to manipulate God. The Reformation swept the world clean of such idols, so that God would be all in all. But removing God from the material world to protect God’s holiness would eventually lead to the disenchantment of all worldly pursuits. Science, for example, deals only in facts; it cannot produce meaning. Capitalism responds to whatever the market dictates; values are irrelevant to it. The bureaucracy of the state seeks efficiency; it does not respond to the will of God.

For a lot of people, what they know of Weber ends there, in disenchantment. But Weber himself took a third step, writing not only of the godlessness of the modern world, but also of its “polytheism.” Weber was convinced that human beings have an elemental need for meaning. For Weber, the split between fact on the one hand and meaning or value on the other is both a reality and a serious problem, because we still urgently want to know what the meaning of our lives is. According to Weber, “Science is meaningless, because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” Weber rejects the idea that we can return to religion; he regards that route as suitable only for the person too weak to face “the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time.” But Weber translates the question “What shall we do and how shall we live?” into the question “Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?” Polytheism is a direct consequence of rationalization. The divorce between fact and value means that “the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other,” with no factual basis for adjudicating their rival claims. There is no rational way to resolve such conflicts. We must take the irrational leap of simply choosing some values rather than others. Weber writes:

We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed to the gods of his city, so do we still nowadays, only the bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity.

Here it is important to note that Weber seems to see no difference between the observable behavior of people in the ancient world and that of people in the modern world. Weber continues, “Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another.”

In Weber’s view, Apollo has been replaced by impersonal forces like capitalism, but “gods” is not a casual metaphor. As Weber says, “they strive to gain power over our lives.”  Weber believed the individual has the freedom to choose among the various gods on offer, but this choice is made in the context of unchosen constraints. The new gods we can choose must struggle not only against each other, but against the gods we do not choose. Weber writes of how Puritan asceticism 

did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. 

Weber concludes that “material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.”

In the nineteenth century, figures like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche thought that doing away with God or the gods would lead to liberation for human beings. Humanity would finally take the reins of its own destiny. Weber was much more pessimistic. He emphasized the fragmented nature of human meaning in the modern world and the power and inertia of large social institutions. Together, these make complete liberation impossible. Weber seems to agree with Marx and Nietzsche that there is no pre-given order, that we humans are making it all up as we go. For Weber, however, human technical prowess produces wonders that end up dominating us. As the monster says to Dr. Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”

So the gods eliminated by rationalization return in a different form to rule over us. In the political sphere, Weber describes how nation-states employ rationalized violence to protect borders, pushing religious scruples—like the pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount—into the private sphere of values. But war then out-religions religion, creating a new form of devotion to the nation-state. War, Weber writes, “makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need…. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness.” Weber goes on to argue that the state does a better job than religion at giving meaning to death. In the economic sphere, Weber describes capitalism as the height of rationalization, precisely in its ­depersonalization of transactions. Money is “the most abstract and ‘impersonal’ element that exists in human life.” Weber adds, “For this reason one speaks of the rule of ‘capital’ and not that of capitalists.” Making money is no longer just a means to serve the life of people: Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.” In short, we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market. 


The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

What about the Amazon packages that land on our doorsteps? Do they belong to a realm of disenchantment, of rationalized materialism? Marx did not think so. When a table is made for use, there is nothing mysterious about it. But when it becomes a commodity for exchange, Marx writes, “it is changed into something transcendent.” It becomes a strange thing, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” As commodities, things float free from both the material conditions of their production and from their own physical properties as use values: 

In order…to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor.

By “fetishism” Marx meant more than people obsessing about material things. He meant that material things become enchanted and take on a life of their own. When an object becomes a commodity, its value depends not on its usefulness, but on what it can be exchanged for. A contemporary example: despite widespread hunger, farmers dump milk and the government warehouses cheese in order to support the price of dairy. What matters is the exchange value—the price—not the use value. Cheese is not primarily food for people to consume, but a commodity to be exchanged for money. Because their value is expressed relative to other commodities, Marx says, commodities establish social relations among themselves. 

And as commodities take on life, life is drained away from actual people. Hungry people don’t count in the market unless they have money, and workers are regarded as “labor costs,” which need to be minimized. Commodification also hides the conditions of work. All the consumer sees in the store or on Amazon’s website is the commodity and its price. It takes a Herculean effort to uncover the people who actually made the product and delivered it, and the conditions in which they worked. 

Before the industrial revolution, people made nearly everything they had in their homes, and what they didn’t make was usually made by people they knew. Things were closely linked to their makers and to their use value. Now we make almost nothing for ourselves, and buy almost everything we use. It is hard to overestimate what a change this is in how we relate to the material world and to other people. When the sheer volume of things in the world took a quantum leap in the nineteenth century because of mass production, people needed to be taught, as one advertising manual put it in 1901, that “they have wants which they did not recognize before.”

If we look at the history of advertising, we see how merchandise took flight from the material world and entered into the realm of transcendence. In the nineteenth century, advertising was largely informational: you can buy shoes at John H. Johnson’s shop. By the early twentieth century, advertising had become more about persuading than informing, but it was still closely related to the physical product. An ad might show a picture of a shoe and then describe its virtues. The objective would be to convince the reader that this was a comfortable, reasonably priced, well-made, and stylish shoe. Such an ad would appeal both to the consumer’s rational sense of use value—shoes should be easy to walk in and not fall apart too quickly—and also to the buyer’s more intangible sense of fashion, of being recognized by others as stylish and as having the good sense to buy a reputable brand.

By the mid-twentieth century, there had been a shift further away from use value and toward the more intangible and spiritual aspirations of the consumer for freedom, sex, prestige, recognition, and other forms of transcendence. A shoe might still appear in a shoe ad, but there would no longer be any mention of its use value. Indeed, there might not be any mention of the shoe itself. Under the influence of Freud, Pavlov, and other psychologists, advertisers began to appeal not to the conscious self but to the subconscious. Such ads did not lie, because they didn’t make any explicit claims at all. They simply associated a physical commodity with non-physical aspirations. As in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, two completely different things—meat and a bell, domination and dress shoes—were associated in the subconscious. And just as Pavlov could have used a whistle instead of a bell, sex could as easily be associated with cars or shampoo or soda as with shoes. The actual material objects began to matter less than the fantasy world associated with them.

As consumerism became aspirational, the brand came to take on more importance than material objects. Beginning in the 1940s, corporations began exploring what brands mean to culture and to people’s lives. Brands increasingly became ways of marking one’s identity. Corporate marketers like Bruce Barton began to encourage businesses to discover their “souls.” More and more, corporations used theological language to describe themselves. As one corporate manager put it, “Corporate branding is really about worldwide beliefs management.”

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the actual product could vanish entirely. A recent Nike ad shows nothing but the swoosh and the words “Write the Future.” Today the leading corporations are more concerned with manufacturing brands than with manufacturing products. Products are made in a factory; brands are made in the mind. According to Naomi Klein, the key moment came in 1988, when Philip Morris bought not Kraft the company, but Kraft the brand for $12.6 billion dollars. In No Logo (1999) Klein writes: “In the new market…the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.” Empirical research supports Klein’s claim. In a series of studies published as “Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?” in the journal Marketing Science, researchers from the United States and Israel found that subjects with strong traditional religious ties were much less likely to choose name brands for products that are used as a form of self-expression. The authors conclude that brand loyalty functions as a substitute for traditional religion.

Commodity fetishism is not simply an obsession with things. It is not materialism, but rather a kind of dematerialization. When use takes a back seat to exchange, commodities become vehicles for a flight into transcendence.


As commodities take on life, life is drained away from actual people.

These themes can all be found in the biblical critique of idolatry. We tend to shy away from critiques of idolatry because they seem intolerant: “You don’t worship like we do, so you’re an idolater.” And yet the concept of idolatry seems to capture something important about the contemporary scene. Even though Pope Francis is renowned for his optimism and love for all, he makes frequent recourse to the language of idolatry. In his first encyclical, Lumen fidei, he states that the opposite of faith is not a simple lack of belief but idolatry. When one stops believing in God, one does not simply stop believing; rather one believes in all sorts of things. Francis describes this as “an aimless passing from one lord to another.... Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” Francis has repeatedly used the language of idolatry when describing the contemporary economic system. In Evangelii gaudium he writes, “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:1–35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

Idolatry as Francis uses the term here does not refer to the explicit worship of gods with proper names. Although the Bible often does use the term in this way—in its description of sacrifices to the god Baal, for example—the Bible treats idolatry principally as a matter of behavior, not belief. Idolatry is considered not primarily a metaphysical error, but a betrayal of loyalty to the God of Israel. For this reason, the primary biblical images for idolatry are adultery and political disloyalty. The image of adultery is exemplified by the story of Hosea, who is told to marry a prostitute to symbolize the dalliances of Israel with other gods. The political image is exemplified by 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites ask for a king to reign over them. God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected but me, not wishing me to reign over them anymore. They are now doing to you exactly what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt until now, deserting me and serving other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7–8). Although the king is not explicitly worshiped as a god, the Israelites have trusted the king rather than God to protect them, and this is idolatry.

Note, though, that God does allow Israel to have kings as long as they don’t replace him. Idolatry in a general sense is when people give an inordinate amount of trust or loyalty to something other than to God. Isaiah, for example, accuses the Israelites of idolatry for putting trust in an alliance with the Egyptian army. “Woe to those going down to Egypt for help, who put their trust in horses, who rely on the quantity of chariots, and on great strength of cavalrymen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 31:1). Isaiah links this turning away from God with the idolatrous reliance on what is created rather than on the Creator: “The Egyptian is human, not divine, his horses are flesh, not spirit” (Isaiah 31:3). In the biblical view, any created thing can be an object of idolatry. So Paul criticizes those whose “gods are their bellies…[and] their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19), and warns against “greed, which is the same thing as worshipping a false god” (Colossians 3:5).

Weber’s and Marx’s idea that we become dominated by our own creations is embedded in the biblical critique of idolatry. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people ask for a king to replace God, Samuel warns them that the king will take their sons for his armies and their daughters as servants, will confiscate their land and harvest and animals for his own benefit, and finally, “you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:17–18). So Jesus is drawing on a long tradition of idolatry as domination when he warns, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The Greek scripture leaves the Aramaic term “Mammon” untranslated here to personify money as a god, one that demands service. The idea in Weber and Marx that inanimate objects come alive by taking life from us is also found first in the Bible. Psalm 115 says “their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see…. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”

The biblical concern with idolatry implies that humans are spontaneously worshiping creatures. In Exodus, the Israelites could stand only a little less than six weeks of Moses’s absence before they demanded new gods to worship: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us’” (Exodus 32:1). The story of the Golden Calf is a story not only of the human capacity for self-deception, but also of the inherent human need to worship. This recognition allows for a sympathetic account of idolatry. When Paul is in Athens, the Book of Acts reports that he is “distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). But he also recognizes the Athenians’ idolatry as evidence that they are searching for meaning and ultimately for the true God.

Weber explains the basic human need to worship in terms of the need for meaning, a need that leads us inevitably to make gods. He is pessimistic that this need can be overcome. Marx, on the other hand, is convinced that people will cease making gods after the revolution. Once workers control the means of production, labor will cease to be alienated from its own products. But the revolution came and made a new god of the Communist state, to which tens of millions of lives were sacrificed. Unlike Weber and Marx, the Bible insists there is a real God, different from all our manufactured gods. We don’t need to create gods because there is a God who created us, a God who loves us and wants us to build a kingdom of peace and justice here on earth.

In his famous Kenyon College commencement address in 2005, the novelist David Foster Wallace told the graduates, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He goes on to say that the reason you might want to worship a real God “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Worship money, and you’ll never have enough. Worship your body, and you’ll always feel ugly. Worship power, and you’ll always be afraid. And so on.

As Weber and Marx and the Bible intuit, however, avoiding idolatry is not as simple as making a personal choice to change one’s attitude about worship. Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible. But as Jesus tells the disciples, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). 


The nuns who witnessed the life and death of Martin Luther King

Washington D.C., Jan 20, 2020 / 04:17 pm (CNA).- Last year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day marked the first without Sister Mary Antona Ebo, the only black Catholic nun who marched with civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala in 1965.

“I'm here because I’m a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness,” Sister Mary Antona Ebo said to fellow demonstrators at a March 10, 1965 protest attended by King. Ebo was, in fact, the only African-American nun at the protest.

The protest took place three days after the “Bloody Sunday” clash, where police attacked several hundred voting rights demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, causing some severe injuries among the non-violent marchers. 

She passed away Nov. 11, 2017 in Bridgeton, Missouri at the age of 93, the St. Louis Review reported at the time.

After the “Bloody Sunday” attacks, King had called on church leaders from around the country to go to Selma. Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis had asked his archdiocese’s human rights commission to send representatives, Ebo recounted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2015.

Ebo’s supervisor, also a religious sister, asked her whether she would join a 50-member delegation of laymen, Protestant ministers, rabbis, priests and five white nuns.

Just before she left for Alabama, she heard that a white minister who had traveled to Selma, James Reeb, had been severely attacked after he left a restaurant.

At the time, Ebo said, she wondered: “If they would beat a white minister to death on the streets of Selma, what are they going to do when I show up?”

In Selma on March 10, she went to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, joining local leaders and the demonstrators who had been injured in the clash.

“They had bandages on their heads, teeth were knocked out, crutches, casts on their arms. You could tell that they were freshly injured,” she told the Post-Dispatch. “They had already been through the battle ground, and they were still wanting to go back and go back and finish the job.”

Many of the injured had been treated at Good Samaritan Hospital, run by Edmundite priests and the Sisters of St. Joseph, the only Selma hospital that served blacks. Since their arrival in 1937, the Edmundites had faced intimidation and threats from local officials, other whites, and even the Ku Klux Klan, CNN reported.

The injured demonstrators and their supporters left the Selma church, with Ebo in front. They marched towards the courthouse, then blocked by state troopers in riot gear. She and other demonstrators then knelt to pray the Our Father before they agreed to turn around.

Despite the violent interruption, the 57-mile march would draw 25,000 participants. It concluded on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, with King’s famous March 25 speech against racial prejudice.

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said.

King would be dead within three years. On a fateful April 4, 1968, he was shot by an assassin at his Memphis hotel.

He had asked to be taken to a Catholic hospital should anything happen to him, and he was taken to St. Joseph Hospital in Memphis. At the time, it was a nursing school combined with a 400-bed hospital.

There, too, Catholic religious sisters played a role.

Sister Jane Marie Klein and Sister Anna Marie Hofmeyer recounted their story to The Paper of Montgomery County Online in January 2017.

The Franciscan nuns had been walking around the hospital grounds when they heard the sirens of an ambulance. One of the sisters was paged three times, and they discovered that King had been shot and taken to their hospital.

The National Guard and local police locked down the hospital for security reasons as doctors tried to save King.

“We were obviously not allowed to go in when they were working with him because they were feverishly working with him,” Sister Jane Marie said. “But after they pronounced him dead we did go back into the E.R. There was a gentleman as big as the door guarding the door and he looked at us and said ‘you want in?’ We said yes, we’d like to go pray with him. So he let the three of us in, closed the door behind us and gave us our time.”

Hofmeyer recounted the scene in the hospital room. “He had no chance,” she said.

Klein said authorities delayed the announcement of King’s death to prepare for riots they knew would result.

Three decades later, Klein met with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, at a meeting of the Catholic Health Association Board in Atlanta where King was a keynote speaker. The Franciscan sister and the widow of the civil rights leader told each other how they had spent that night.

Klein said being present that night in 1968 was “indescribable.”

“You do what you got to do,” she said. What’s the right thing to do? Hindsight? It was a privilege to be able to take care of him that night and to pray with him. Who would have ever thought that we would be that privileged?”

She said King’s life shows “to some extent one person can make a difference.” She wondered “how anybody could listen to Dr. King and not be moved to work toward breaking down these barriers.”

Klein would serve as chairperson of the Franciscan Alliance Board of Trustees, overseeing support for health care. Hofmeyer would work in the alliance’s archives. Last year both were living at the Provinciate at St. Francis Convent in Mishawaka, Indiana.

For her part, after Selma, Ebo would go on to serve as a hospital administrator and a chaplain.

In 1968 she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference. The woman who had been rejected from several Catholic nursing schools because of her race would serve in her congregation’s leadership as it reunited with another Franciscan order, and she served as a director of social concerns for the Missouri Catholic Conference.

She frequently spoke on civil rights topics. When controversy over a Ferguson, Mo. police officer’s killing of Michael Brown, a black man, she led a prayer vigil. She thought the Ferguson protests were comparable to those of Selma.

“I mean, after all, if Mike Brown really did swipe the box of cigars, it’s not the policeman’s place to shoot him dead,” she said.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis presided at her requiem Mass in November, saying in a statement “We will miss her living example of working for justice in the context of our Catholic faith.”


A previous version of this article was originally published on CNA Jan. 14, 2018.

Homely Holiness

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. — St. John Paul II I met him first in 1998. He has large calloused hands and dirty fingernails and speaks with a southern twang. He’s been fixing cars since he was a kid, under his dad’s tutelage. He works days, nights, and weekends to keep his small business open, and the enormous commitment has cost him a lot in life. Not all good, he admits. But, he once said, “it put food on the family table…

King & His Mentors

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Two days later, after the first day of a boycott to challenge bus segregation, its organizers discussed whether they should end the boycott. They put off a decision and headed to a protest rally at Holt Street Baptist Church, where lightning struck. Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor lacking almost any background in social activism, electrified the Holt Street gathering with a sensational address. King had no time to prepare his speech, but like Parks, he had prepared for this moment without knowing it. She was a department-store seamstress who acted spontaneously on December 1, though she was also the secretary of the local NAACP and knew that a plan existed to challenge bus segregation. He was uniquely suited to inspire and hold together America’s greatest liberation movement. Had King not lived in Montgomery, someone else would have had to emerge to lead the civil rights movement. But had King lived anywhere else, lightning would not have struck in Montgomery.

He did not come from nowhere. Long before King burst on the national scene, there was a tradition of black social-gospel leaders who tried to abolish Jim Crow and the mania of racial lynching, refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity, and formed a succession of protest organizations. They showed that progressive theology could be combined with social-justice politics in black-church contexts. They refused to give up on the black churches, even as a chorus of black and white intellectuals contended that black churches were hopelessly self-centered, provincial, insular, anti-intellectual, and conservative. The black social gospel is strangely overlooked, but it provided the theology of social justice that the civil rights movement preached and sang, and without it King would not have known what to say when lightning struck in Montgomery.

To black social gospel leaders, the Gandhian revolt was thrilling without qualification, whatever one made of the strategic factors.

King’s role models were black social-gospel leaders who came of age in the 1920s, and their role models were founders of the black social gospel. Both groups were enthralled in the 1920s by the spectacle of unarmed people of color rebelling against British colonialism in India. They noted the parallels and debated the differences between Indian and black American oppression. In the early going, they didn’t know that Mohandas Gandhi was deeply influenced by Booker T. Washington, or that Gandhi took white supremacy for granted during his earlier campaign for equal rights in South Africa, counting South Africa’s wealthy Indian Muslims and poor indentured Indian Hindus as white. To black social gospel leaders, the Gandhian revolt was thrilling without qualification, whatever one made of the strategic factors. Reverdy Ransom, in AME Church Review, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, future Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays, in the Pittsburgh Courier, and future Howard University President Mordecai Johnson, on the lecture circuit every week, talked about Gandhi constantly. For many, the “Gandhi issue” reduced to one question: Where is our Gandhi?

Every call for a Gandhi-like savior evoked cheers, caveats, and rejoinders. India was different from the United States, and Gandhi was different from any conceivable black American equivalent. India had traditions of holy figures who fasted and sacrificed for a cause. Too much focus on moral heroes was disabling. Gandhi spoke for India’s entire working class, a far cry from the African-American situation. Gandhi rebelled against colonialism and untouchability, not the Indian caste system, but Jim Crow segregation was like the caste system. Black Americans had more to lose by opting for civil disobedience, because black Americans were a small minority in the United States and they had real economic gains to lose.

W.E.B. Du Bois was America’s leading proponent of global solidarity for non-white peoples. He did more than anyone to inform African Americans about Gandhi’s campaigns and importance, and he did it with colorful, quotable zingers. Yet Du Bois was also a leading exponent of every objection just summarized. Du Bois said nothing came close to India in exposing the rotten tyrannical core of European imperialism. He lionized Gandhi repeatedly as the apostle of an almost miraculous anticolonial revolution. He treasured Gandhi as the world’s leading enemy of white supremacy. But Gandhi-like civil disobedience, Du Bois judged, would not work for black Americans, who needed to stick with agitation and publicity.

W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1911

Black social gospel ministers of the 1930s and ’40s were schooled in this debate over the meaning of the Gandhian revolution and the applicability of the Gandhi example. Some agreed with Du Bois about the limits of Gandhi’s approach in the United States. Some were the opposite, spurning black internationalism while pining for a Gandhi-like rebel. Most agreed with Du Bois that Gandhi was singularly exemplary regardless of how one came out on strategic considerations, and nearly all agreed with Du Bois that the protest tradition in black politics represented by the National Association of Colored People, of which Du Bois was a founder, needed to prevail. Mordecai Johnson folded a pro-Gandhi section into his stump speeches in 1930 and delivered it tirelessly for the next thirty years. Benjamin Mays and spiritual theologian Howard Thurman had personal encounters with Gandhi in India that shaped their activism and teaching. All were major influences on King before and after Montgomery.

Johnson, the first black president of Howard, was a graduate of Morehouse College, the University of Chicago, Rochester Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School. A legendary speaker on the social-gospel lecture circuit, he espoused liberal theology, democratic socialism, anticolonial internationalism, civil rights progressivism, anti-anti-Communism, and Gandhian nonviolence. One of Johnson’s trademark lectures on Gandhi made a riveting impression on King. But Johnson was consumed by Howard University and embattled there. Many Howard professors looked down on ministers, claiming that Johnson ran the university in tyrannical preacher fashion. Some choked on his politics too, as did many alums and outsiders. Johnson prevailed over his critics, guiding Howard until his retirement in 1960. His sparkling lecture career and persistent battling for racial justice established the gold standard for Mays, Thurman, and King. But Johnson’s long embattlement at Howard disqualified him from the role that fell to King.

Doctrines that got in the way of preaching about social evils, social justice, and God’s favor for the poor and oppressed were useless and distracting.

Like Johnson, Mays was a schoolmaster disciplinarian and quintessential social-gospel progressive. He grew up viciously oppressed in South Carolina, clawed his way to an education, and earned a PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Then he served as dean of the School of Religion at Howard, forming a social-gospel trio with Johnson and Thurman that lifted the university. Then Mays took command of Morehouse College, where he mentored King. Mays implored black churches to adopt his combination of social-gospel theology and racial-justice politics, and he pushed the American and international ecumenical movements to deal with racism. At bottom, Mays was a moralist and, as he said, “a race man.” Theologically, by his lights, he stuck to what mattered, preaching about the kingdom of God, the social ethical teaching of Jesus, the sin of individuals and society, the way of the cross, and the providential grace of God, very much like Johnson. Mays emphatically rejected conservative claims that the social gospel substituted progressive politics for Christian doctrine. To him, doctrines that got in the way of preaching about social evils, social justice, and God’s favor for the poor and oppressed were useless and distracting.

Thurman had the usual Southern-black childhood experience of never imagining that a friendly relationship with a white person was possible. The Klan controlled politics in his hometown, Daytona Beach, and the entire state of Florida had only three public high schools for black children. His life changed when he heard Johnson give a stirring speech at a YMCA Conference. Listening to Johnson, Thurman found a model of who he wanted to be. He took Johnson’s path to Morehouse and Rochester Seminary, joined the faculty at Howard after Johnson became president, and became a star performer on the lecture circuit. 

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. addressing the citizens' committee mass meeting, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

The trio of Johnson, Mays, and Thurman, upon establishing black internationalism and Gandhian nonviolence at Howard, compelled Howard professors to reconsider their low opinion of theologians, religion, and the School of Religion. All three came up through YMCA ecumenism. For them, the path to Gandhian internationalism ran through Protestant missionary societies, especially the YMCA and its youth activist offspring, the Student Christian Movement. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Thurman was supposed to be the answer to the Gandhi question. He heard it constantly on the lecture circuit.

But Thurman did not have the temperament to be a political leader, or even the willingness to speak for racial justice in the manner of Johnson and Mays. Political advocacy felt crude to him, and he tired of the classroom too. Increasingly he gave himself to his inward mystical spirituality. He disappointed his friends and spouse by accepting a ministerial call to an interracial congregation in San Francisco, applying to himself the advice he gave to others, his best-known saying: “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and do it. For what the world needs is people who are fully alive.” Thurman had his greatest influence on the black freedom movement in the early 1940s, on the lecture circuit, where he fended off the Gandhi question. Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence. And his influence grew after he was gone.

For a long time the symbol of church-based racial justice militancy was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. His father was a famous social gospel pastor at the Abyssinian Church in Harlem, and in 1930 he joined his father at Abyssinian. Powell became a prominent community leader, crusading for jobs and affordable housing. In 1938 he succeeded his father as pastor at Abyssinian, preaching social-gospel progressivism. In 1944 he became New York State’s first black representative in Congress and the first from any Northern state besides Illinois since Reconstruction.

Powell ended business as usual in the House of Representatives. Stubbornly, proudly, defiantly, by himself, sometimes gleefully, he forced the House to deal with racial segregation, week after week. He blasted segregation and challenged segregationists to defend their policies. He condemned racist language on the House floor, defied segregationists in his party, and goaded liberals to take a stand against racial caste. He added “Powell Amendments” to bills proposing federal expenditures, denying federal funds to segregated jurisdictions. The Powell defunding strategy was engrafted in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Powell steered much of the Great Society legislation through his congressional committee.

For most of his career, Powell was the only nationally prominent black politician, period. He had a vivid theological imagination, a liberal theology steeped in romanticism, and a devoted following at the Abyssinian Church. But Powell clashed with King and other civil rights leaders, offending King in 1960 with a malicious threat that severed King’s alliance with pacifist and movement-organizer Bayard Rustin for three years. When Rustin, King, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph pulled off the historic March on Washington in 1963, they kept Powell off the speakers’ platform, and Powell’s congressional career ended badly in 1971. He was charismatic and arrogant, righteous and corrupt, and religious and cynical. He mystified allies and enemies alike with his contradictions. Among black social-gospel leaders, only King accomplished more than Powell, but Powell damaged his own legacy.

Among black social-gospel leaders, only King accomplished more than Powell, but Powell damaged his own legacy.

The person who tried hardest to play the Gandhi role was James Farmer. When Montgomery erupted in 1955, Farmer had been trying for fourteen years to spark a civil rights revolution with exactly the Gandhian tactics that King subsequently employed, working with the same movement professionals who joined King. Farmer studied in the late 1930s under Thurman and Mays at Howard, where his father taught theology. In 1941, while working as an organizer for the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Farmer tried to convert FOR to Gandhi-style agitation against racial segregation. The following year he co-founded CORE—the Congress of Racial Equality—a scrappy, scattered, interracial offshoot of FOR. Both organizations were small leftwing groups with little chance of scaling up. In addition, Farmer worked with trade unions that did the minimum, or less, for racial justice.

Farmer tried and failed to win for his organizations some of the spotlight that fell on Randolph, America’s only prominent black labor leader. He and Randolph never quite worked together, although each had something the other needed, and Farmer cut himself off from churches not belonging to his leftist orbit. Farmer, Randolph, Du Bois, and many others were shocked when America’s Gandhi turned out to be a young Baptist minister lacking any activist experience. Years later Farmer recalled, “We knew what we were doing, but no one else did.” CORE, to him, seemed like a flea gnawing on the ear of an elephant. Not only did CORE’s numerous sit-ins and pickets fail to bring the beast to its knees. It was hard to pretend that the beast even noticed.

Pauli Murray, a lawyer who became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, was involved in those early demonstrations during the same period that she was the only female member of her class at Howard Law School. In my second volume on the black social gospel tradition, Breaking White Supremacy, I had a difficult time placing her in this story. Diane Nash, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer were easy to place, because they were movement organizers. They were marginalized for being female, but very much on the scene. Murray, on the other hand, overlapped the entire story of the black social gospel in the civil rights movement, but never gained entry. For a while I sprinkled her into every chapter, showing what excluded her this time or that time. But that diminished her importance, so I held her entire story until the end, making her life a commentary on a tradition that silenced women.

Marchers with SCLC sign for the Savannah Freedom Now Movement, during the March on Washington, 1963

The civil rights movement was a phase, from 1955 to 1968, of the black freedom movement, and it made King, not the other way around. There is no King without the black social gospel forerunners who inspired him and the civil rights activists who lifted him up. But King is the shining star of the civil rights movement. His brilliance electrified the Montgomery boycott on its first night and sustained that campaign against enraged opposition. Then he linked the two different movements that constituted the civil rights movement, personally fusing the fledgling, theatrical, church-based movement in the South to the venerable, professional, mostly secular movement in the North. Rustin and FOR stalwart Glenn Smiley rushed to Montgomery to offer Gandhian expertise, King met socialist organizers Randolph, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison through Rustin, and in 1957 Rustin persuaded King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King stocked SCLC with high-voltage preachers who deferred to him: Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Joseph Lowery. Later he added Wyatt Walker, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and C. T. Vivian, eventually placing Andrew Young in charge of corralling an unruly crew.

King rightly figured that the movement needed a church-based organization dedicated to spreading protest wildfire. The NAACP was too formal, membership-based, and consumed with marching through the courts to light a fire. For a while, SCLC did not do much better; it took the student sit-in explosion of 1960 and the founding of the confrontational Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to push King’s organization into actual Gandhian disruption, not merely talking about it. Gradually King realized that his group needed to raise hell in the most hostile cities it could find, so he got more intentional about choosing combative personalities for it. SCLC became a fire-alarm outfit relying on street theater and heroic agitation, spurning the preference of Baker and SNCC for long-term, grassroots, community organizing. The preacher spellbinders of SCLC thus seemed older than they were, compared to SNCC. But both organizations stoked protest wildfire in ways that King’s leadership inspired. His ability to galvanize and personify the civil rights movement symbolizes why the black social gospel matters and what made him singularly important.

There is no King without the black social gospel forerunners who inspired him and the civil rights activists who lifted him up.

His Southern clerical-family upbringing and his graduate education at Northern theological schools prepared him to play this role. Any reading that minimizes King’s upbringing or graduate education misconstrues him, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel tradition he embraced. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him, and then at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the prominent Baptist preacher and writer J. Pius Barbour was his pastor. At Crozer and Boston University, King adopted a socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. He fashioned these perspectives into the most compelling public theology of the twentieth century, mobilizing religious and political communities that had almost no history of working together.

King’s understanding of democratic socialism and his commitment to it came straight out of the social gospel. As a student at Crozer Seminary and Boston University School of Theology he absorbed Walter Rauschenbusch’s seminal Christian socialist books Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), which argued that capitalism is hostile to democracy and inimical to Christian ethics. Rauschenbusch championed radical economic democracy—cooperatives, mixed forms of worker and community ownership, syndical-based unions, socialized banks, and nationalized monopolies and major industrial enterprises—contending that political democracy cannot survive without economic democracy. These arguments defined Christian socialism for decades after Rauschenbusch’s death in 1918, shaping the Christian socialists who influenced King. It mattered greatly to King that Johnson, Mays, Thurman, Farmer, and Barbour were followers of Rauschenbusch on political economy. Moreover, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote his most important works during his socialist phase, and King’s dean at Boston University, Walter Muelder, was a Rauschenbusch socialist. King lamented to insiders throughout his career that he could not talk about democratic socialism in public, a constraint that frustrated him immensely in his last years.

His commitment to personal idealism was nurtured by black-church preaching that he was “somebody” in God’s image and deepened by his studies at Crozer and Boston University. King chose Boston University because it taught personal idealism and half of America’s black doctoral students in religion went there. On Gandhian nonviolence, King was vague and uncertain until Montgomery erupted and Rustin rushed to Montgomery. King had a socialist-personalist-Gandhian model in Muelder, but more important, when King entered the ministry he had models of everything he cared about in Johnson, Mays, Thurman, and Barbour. If they could blend black-church religion, modern intellectualism, and social-justice politics, so could he; in fact, he was called to do so. King stuck to these commitments throughout his career, in changing configurations. He liked that he had a philosophical foundation, a variant of post-Kantian idealism, although he acquired critics who thought it quaint that he wanted one. He insisted repeatedly that he was committed to Gandhian nonviolence as a spiritual-ethical way of life, not merely a movement strategy, although he accepted Niebuhr’s critiques of both.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Boston University President Harold C. Case

When King told the story of his intellectual development, he emphasized the white theologians and philosophers he read in seminary, which obscured the role of his cultural and religious formation. It took a great deal of scholarly deconstruction to correct the misleading account that King provided in playing to white audiences. Then scholars reacted to revelations about King’s sexual behavior and faulty citation practices by claiming that his graduate education was not much of an education and he never cared about it anyway. Some of our best King scholars, notably David Garrow, Keith Miller, and David Levering Lewis, demeaned King’s intellectual seriousness and his teachers by claiming that King only pretended to learn what his professors pretended to teach him. Others piled on by claiming, wrongly, that the liberal theology taught at Crozer and Boston was thin religious humanism not worth studying.

Personal idealism was a theory of the transcendent reality of personal spirit and the organic unity of nature in spirit. King’s teachers put a personalizing Christian stamp on strains of philosophical idealism deriving from Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Rudolf Hermann Lotze. King wrote a dense dissertation that defended the existence of a personal God and a moral order, identifying personality with self-consciousness and self-direction. He criticized impersonal theologies that conceded too much to materialism and positivism, explaining that moral truth, not merely a theological position, was at stake. I have much at stake in showing why King prized the personal idealism he studied and why it mattered to him for the rest of his life. Thus my book Breaking White Supremacy goes long on this subject.

If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, racism is distinctly evil.

King’s mainstay in a turbulent world was the fusion of black-church faith and personal idealist theology that he brought with him to Montgomery—a belief in the divine ground and infinite value of human personality. He said so repeatedly, riffing for his entire career on the barrel of sermons he preached during his one year of parish ministry. If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, racism is distinctly evil. Evil is precisely that which degrades and destroys personality. King was an exemplar of his twofold theme that freedom has no reality apart from power and that power is integral to hope and liberation. Freedom is participation in power. To King, the goal of the civil-rights movement was to transform the lack of power of black Americans into creative, vital, interpersonal, organized power—the ability to achieve a purpose. All could be free, but only if all were empowered to participate. King epitomized the black social gospel at its best and most radical, which made him the first in the line of what came to be called, shortly after his death, liberation theology.

I have framed my two volumes on the black social gospel to explicate the tradition of social-justice theology that led to King, and to emphasize King’s radicalism. I am therefore making a continuity argument about a wrongly overlooked tradition, but always in a way that emphasizes its multiple ideological and theological currents, some of which were quite conservative. King’s father, for example, identified with the social gospel in a broad sense of the category, and was a prominent pastor in Atlanta. But for all that Daddy King influenced his son, neither Daddy King nor any of his Atlanta civic leader buddies would have kept the bus strike going in Montgomery, or struck hard in Birmingham, or raised hell in Chicago, or opposed the Vietnam War, or spurned President Lyndon Johnson, or marched with garbage workers in Memphis, or called a Poor People’s Campaign of marchers to Washington, D.C. The King movement must be continually re-narrated, refashioning what happened and why it fell far short of Martin’s Dream of a decent society, much less the Beloved Community.


Atheism and the Problem of Beauty

A lot has been said about the “problem of pain.” Why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, is there still suffering in the world? The question is a challenge for Catholics, as for all theists. As believers, we have some sense of why a loving God would permit suffering. It’s easy enough to see that love is a good (the highest good, even), and that love requires free will. And it’s just a small step from there to see how that free will could be used in some dastardly ways. Likewise, it’s clear enough that a loving God might permit his creatures to suffer, in certain cases, for their (our) own good. This answer to the problem of pain is sensible but not satisfying. There’s no shaking that there’s still something out of whack, something not quite right about this world. Christianity hasn’t been shy about this point the…