The power and problem of progressive Christian dramaturgy for activists in Durham, North Carolina
Christian rhetoric and progressive political activism have had a long and prosperous history together in the American south. However, at a time when younger generations are growing increasingly agnostic and activist movements strive to fulfill the “intersectional” moral prerogative, biblical references run the risk of proving offensive or confusing rather than inspirational. In this paper, we investigate the success and failure of Christian rhetoric in motivating intersectional political activism in Durham, North Carolina. We draw from participant observation at meetings, rallies and church services to illuminate the biblical narrative employed by Christian progressives to frame their political agenda. We then interrogate how this narrative is negotiated in spaces where “the movement” is co-driven by non-Christian allies. Our research corroborates the semiotic hypothesis that framing is an essential part of any political movement. In addition, we argue that there is significant potential for Christian framing to be adapted successfully for intersectional political movements.
“Now y’all know this, this here is a moral movement!”
These words are met with a deafening roar of approval from the more than 10,000 people gathered in the streets of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. They are here for the annual “Moral March on Raleigh,” an event organized by the NAACP in coalition with more than 20 other groups to mark the 11th year of their statewide “love and justice movement.” This is the march’s most attended incarnation since its inception in 2006, and this year “love and justice” means defending the Affordable Care Act, advocating for the rights of marginalized groups ranging from transgender folks to black men killed by local police, and generally affirming the moral superiority of progressive ideals in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration. The current speaker, who standing on a pop-up stage and being projected on giant video screens, is an elderly, pink “pussy” shirt clad representative of the North Carolina Council of Churches.
“And y’all also know,” she continues, “any moral movement must also have moral leadership. Luckily, we got that!” The crowd responds with cheers and cowbells. A purple haired woman standing in front of me throws in an enthusiastic “Amen!”
“I’m honored to introduce a man who embodies what it means to walk humbly with your God. Our brother, our leader our profit, REVEREND BARBER…”
The cheering has grown so loud that I can barely catch her final words. I do, however, hear an exaggerated groan from a girl standing beside me. She’s dressed all in black apart from a gray beanie that’s pulled low over short, red hair. Earlier in the march I’d seen her with a group carrying a sign that read “Anarchists for Peace.” She seems to be alone now. When I ask her what’s happened to the people she came with she replies that they “ditched” when the speakers started invoking “the inherently oppressive notion of the Judeo-Christian God.” As the crowd cheers on the eminent arrival of Reverend Barber, I wonder how many other marchers left before “our prophet” had a chance to galvanize their revolutionary spirit and drive home the day’s catchphrase: “Forward together; not one step back!”
Christian rhetoric and progressive political activism have had a long and prosperous history together in the American south. This partnership appeared most visibly in the religious undertones of the Civil Rights Movement (epitomized by the iconic sermons delivered by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.), but southern labor activists have also consistently found one of their strongest assets in the moral framework provided by biblical teachings. However, at a time when liberal Americans are growing increasingly agnostic and activists feel pressured to fulfill an “intersectional” ideal, it seems likely that an appeal to Christian values would have lost some of its discursive power in progressive spaces. That, at least, was what we expected to find when we set out to study progressive political issue framing in progressive activism in Durham, North Carolina. While we knew Christianity was likely to come up in a project on the Bible belt, we assumed it would be more or less confined to specifically Christian spaces. The Moral March on Raleigh, which was easily the largest intersectional, progressive gathering that took place during the time we were conducting research, was one of many instances that demonstrated just how wrong this assumption was. The march’s “moral” framework, which served as the foundational narrative for any speeches, chants and public statements regarding its organizers’ political agenda, was Christian at its core.
The Christian undertones that pervaded the march in Raleigh (which is a roughly 30 minute drive from Durham) proved consistent in almost all the spaces where we conducted fieldwork. At events where we joined environmentalist condemning the construction of a natural gas plant, labor activists demanding a higher minimum wage, and prison abolitionists protesting police brutality, we were consistently surprised to find references to Jesus where we–– two anthropology students at Duke University––were expecting to find Marx or Fanon. This began to make sense as we realized that the majority of the progressive organization in Durham are either run by, or affiliated with, Churches. However, because of its location in the research triangle, Durham is also home to a growing number of young artists and intellectuals who fall directly in the national demographic most likely to identify as agnostic. While Christian moral framing is clearly still extremely popular among progressives, clashes like the one I witnessed with the “anarchists for peace” at the Moral March reveal that it is nevertheless becoming more controversial. These self-identified anarchists were certainly among the most vocal dissenters from the Christian norm, but we found that, when specifically asked, many of the younger activists admitted to doubting the existence of the God who seemed so central to the movements they were a part of.
At a time when progressives in North Carolina are up against hostile governments at the State and Federal level, this ideological break over Christianity seems like a source of division that these activist “movements” simply can’t afford. The fact that movement leaders like Reverend Barber insist on using Christian terms to articulate their political goals, therefore, raises a number of questions. In this project, we set out to investigate a) why the Christian moral framework remains so prevalent in progressive rhetoric in North Carolina and b) whether this is causing a significant problem for movements that must successfully preach to a “post-marxist” (a term one local used to describe social activism that incorporates a variety of different identities and struggles) choir. Ultimately, we find that a Christian moral framework is surprisingly adaptable in secular terms and conclude that it has the potential to do more to unite than divide progressive movements in the American south.