What Barack Obama (and the Democratic Party) Can Learn About Religion from W. E. B. Du Bois

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Mr. Blum teaches history at San Diego State University. He is the author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

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Barack Obama and W. E. B. Du Bois have a lot in common. Both had absent fathers whom they likened to dreamers; both relied on their mothers; both earned advanced degrees from Harvard University; both traveled extensively throughout the world; both ran for United States Senate (Du Bois lost his bid as a labor candidate from New York in 1950); both elicited questions of racial authenticity, of whether they could represent African Americans since they had mixed-ancestries and were highly educated; and both shared a desire to wrestle religious ideas and language away from conservatives. Perhaps, as Barack Obama and more broadly the Democratic Party attempt to engage religious issues, it will behoove them not only to look back to what Du Bois had to say about faith, but also to create a pantheon of spiritual liberals to revere as part of the quest to demonstrate historical and religious legitimacy.

Currently, Senator Obama has acknowledged that the Democratic Party is struggling to engage religious believers. “Democrats … are scrambling to ‘get religion,’ ” he writes in The Audacity of Hope. Obama, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and other leading Democrats are seeking every possible avenue to speak to the religiously minded without offending those in their camps who fear religion in the public sphere. The dilemma, as Obama sees it, involves embracing the faith-based and the “core segment of our constituency” who remain “secular in orientation” and fear “that the agenda of an assertively Christian nation may not make room for them or their life choices.”

Obama and Du Bois share a great deal in the realm of religion. Both primarily affiliate with Christianity but embrace pluralism. Senator Obama recalls that as a child, “On Easter and Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.” Du Bois was reared in a Christian household and attended church services throughout college, but as an adult read widely in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and a host of other faiths. Both Obama and Du Bois bristled at being labeled unreligious. In the Illinois Senate race of 2004, Obama found his opponent Alan Keyes irritating him to no end with claims that “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.”

Similarly, Du Bois encountered questions of faith throughout his career. He almost lost his first professorship for refusing to pray at a student meeting. Several years later, when he applied for a position at Atlanta University, he imagined that professors there thought, “he’s studied in Germany – perhaps if you scratch him, you’ll find an agnostic.” Both Senator Obama and Dr. Du Bois agreed that religious ideas, enterprises, organizations, and issues should not be avoided in the public sector. Obama claims, “over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid joining a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.” In 1945, Du Bois complained of the “dichotomy between religion and social uplift, the Church and sociology.” This division only “leads to deplorable loss of effort and division of thinking.”

Senator Obama and Du Bois have been committed to using religious language to counter its appropriation by conservatives. Senator Obama asserts, “Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and their social justice.” Then he assures his reader that “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelations – whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion.”

In 1950, as American leaders claimed religious legitimacy for their military, political, and cultural opposition to the Soviet Union, Du Bois used explicitly religious idioms to denounce the conflation of the United States with God’s kingdom. “Be not deceived,” Du Bois declared, “God is not mocked.” “No camouflage of prayer or vigil, no rite of bell, book and candle can or will replace that one supreme word: Peace on Earth, Good will Toward Men; and recogntion of the vast truth that among men are 200 million Russians and 300 million Chinese and 100 million Communists and socialists all over the world, whom no atom bomb nor hydrogen horror can drive out of the kingdoms of the Almighty God.”

Historians, especially those familiar with David Levering Lewis’s portrayals of Du Bois, may be surprised to hear Du Bois speaking in such religious terms. Surprisingly, while Lewis and other scholars on Du Bois debate nearly every facet of his career, they sound univocal in their appraisals of his religion: that he had none. Lewis writes that “Neither the god of Moses nor the redeeming Christ appears to have spoken deeply” to Du Bois. Arnold Rampersad claims that Du Bois’s “belief in science came … at the expense of religious faith.” Literary critic Shamoon Zamir needed only one word to describe Du Bois’s position on matters of faith: “unreligious.” Most recently, Susan Jacoby, in her Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism asserted that Du Bois held “antireligious views” and that he had “little regard … for Christianity.”

But anyone who begins to read in Du Bois’s canon will find significant spiritual reflection. He wrote prayers for his students; he taught Sunday School classes; he attended church in the 1950s; he populated his novels with prophets and priests, messiahs and martyrs; he wrote poems about black Christs and white devils; and hell, his most famous book is about the souls of black folk. Senator Obama, writing on another issue, may well explain why the religious vitality of Du Bois has been misunderstood and negated by most academics: “Ensconced in universities and large urban centers, academics, journalists, and purveyors of popular culture simply failed to appreciate the continuing role that all manner of religious expression played in communities across the country.” What was obvious to so many during Du Bois’s lifetime and has been missed entirely by academics – that Du Bois sought to speak to the spiritual conditions of the world – may be imperative to the contemporary political atmosphere.

Secularizing Du Bois, as scholars have, only hurts progressive political efforts to engage religious issues. Du Bois had much to say about the relationships between faith, religious organizations, poverty, civil rights, international affairs, and world peace. For contemporary progressives, liberals, and Democrats like Barack Obama, they may want to consider W. E. B. Du Bois for the ways he mixed liberal politics with spiritual strivings.

One place to start would be in the prayers that he wrote for his students at Atlanta University. They have been collected and published as Prayers for Dark People. They call with clarion simplicity for a joining of liberal hopes and religious dreams. “Mighty causes are calling us,” he told his young scholars, “the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more.” For those distressed by war and imperialism, Du Bois prayed, “May we strive to replace force with justice and armies of murder with armies of relief. May we believe in Peace among all nations as a present practical creed and count love for our country as love and not hate for our fellow men.” And for those who have lost heart in our contemporary politics and world, Du Bois offered courage: “It is never to late to mend … Nothing is so bad that good may not be put into it and make it better and save it from utter loss.”

If Democrats and Barack Obama want to “get religion” and if historians want to witness a deep commitment to leftist politics and spirituality, they should get to know the spiritual side of W. E. B. Du Bois.

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/20/2007

It is not that their (the Democrats')
views are mine as well, or I care for their victory or defeat much more that I do it for Republicans.
I consider the both parties as being thoroughly corrupted by corporate and other anti-democratic interests and deserved to be thrown out into the place designed for political and demagogic garbage.
The US political, social, and economical system desperately needs
a massive injection of a new, fresh blood, such, as for example, Independent Party leadership, the head of which, if acts the way he sounds, is promising.

Stephen Cipolla - 7/18/2007

Thank you for your remarks on my reaction to Blum's piece. I also appreciate that I might have been a bit obscure in my comments on the founders and the place of religion. I certainly do not believe that religion or discussion of religion is innappropriate in the public sphere. More discussion is better, the broader the scope of the critique the more like a democracy we will be. But, a discussion that identifies a presidential candidate's religious inspirations as though they provide a reliable key to his / her policy policies has turned out to be notoriously unreliable, if not down right misleading. To his credit Obama does talk about policy more than his competitors, including Clinton.

Iguess I had a somewhat visceral reaction to the idea that Obama and DuBois were somehow comparable politically, philosophically and "spiritually." I admit that DuBois is one of the people on my very short list of American heroes, and a man I consider to be one of the greatest Americans of the past century. One aspect of his character that is not mentioned in any of the comments I have read here is his courage. Barak has a very long road to walk before he can put his feet in DuBois shoes, let alone stand on his shoulders.

Craig Allen Forney - 7/18/2007

Good point. How are we or can we be a "free" society if individuals cannot freely express personal thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences? The key is not whether people use religious or private convictions in public but whether a person can also articulate and live up to a commonly-held or civil set of values. Perhaps our political life would not be so stagnant and predictable if people were more honest and free in pursuing private motivations.

Craig Allen Forney - 7/18/2007

I had not thought of Obama and Du Bois as particularly related, perhaps because the latter was too much the prophet and not a good candidate for office. However, Blum provides insightful connections between the two as public figures quite willing to engage in discussion about strong convictions of personal faith. Though the shape of his theological beliefs changed several times, Du Bois remained directed by sense of someone or something far greater than the tangible aspects of life. This awareness of the transcendent was the source for his authoritative voice, ever drawing him to ethical absolutes like justice, freedom, and human rights. Blum accurately refers to the somewhat marginal status of Obama and Du Bois in the African American context. Like Du Bois, Obama finds closer ties to African Americans by way of participation in religious institutions and beliefs, important for both men development of base support.
I wholeheartedly agree, Du Bois should be a prime source for rediscovery of religious foundations for liberal and left politics. His voluminous writings provide a wealth of theological, ethical, and experiential (spiritual) intersections with political life, Christian and more universal in character. Du Bois freely pursued and publically shared his private convictions, inspirational matters related to what he described as “the soul” and “spirit,” very much the source of his distinctive voice. To further extraordinary quality of his message, he skillfully combined quite personal beliefs with themes of broad public concern. Like Obama, Du Bois aspired to identify key elements of shared belief and practice to create strong links between people of diverse beliefs. He exemplified the goal to integrate personal religiosity with a more civil and pluralistic faith, a balance of private and public.
Obama would be well guided to follow the way of Du Bois, freely and passionately pursue personal convictions in search of broad points of connection with the larger nation. However, Du Bois pulled no punches, unconcerned with polls, political consultants, and party officials. He pursued life of the spirit that made him highly dissatisfied, critical, and oppositional. Can such a prophetic figure be President? Undoubtedly, Mr. Obama will have to pull up short of such posture to succeed. Perhaps presence of a prophet figure such as Du Bois would allow individuals with seemingly fresh perspective like Obama to be successful politicians.

Edward Carson - 7/17/2007

I am not sure the Democrats have really made a true commitment to the left, esp. the Christian left. Many took a moderate position during the mid-term election. The coutry's shift to the right has allowed a conservative to be electable but a leftist to face a tough challeng. And, I still question Clinton and Obama's commitment to the left.

I believe much of it has to do with electability. Also, I see the similarities between DuBois and Obama; however, when it comes to religion, I struggle here. I too read Audacity of Hope; his discussion on faith was more shallow and not as intellectual in reasoning as I would have thought.

I do agree that both men struggled to some extent with faith. Of course, according to Obama's book, it had more to do with his mother than intellectual reasoning, as found with DuBois.

Phil L. Sinitiere - 7/17/2007

Defining our terms is crucial in such a discussion, no doubt, but instead of offering counter-claims and competing narratives, why don't we discuss what Du Bois wrote? A discussion board is not the ideal place to do this, but why not begin to tackle what Blum proposes "we" discuss?

Phil L. Sinitiere - 7/17/2007

I agree, Arnold, that this has been and remains an issue for the Democratic Party.

I remember reading an article in early 2005, in Mother Jones I believe, that suggested one key to future political victories was for Democrats to more robustly engage religious issues. Whether or not this is tantamount to playing the "religion card" remains to be seen, but I'm persuaded that religious issues matter deeply to Democrats as well and hopeful voters wish for more critical engagement with these topics by candidates.

Matthew Vaughn Johnson - 7/16/2007

What is really at stake in how religion is employed by conservatives and progressives or liberals is most clearly viewed in terms of evaluation. The issue is whether religion is viewed on terms of its contribution to human uplift as its litmus test for its value to the human project (DuBois)or whether personal religious beliefs of professions of faith are used as the litmus test of personal political viability. The first intelligently considers and recognizes the sometimes dangerous ambiguity of religion and the second does not. If you choose the later conservative approach to religion which is a mere test of conformity can confirmation of the status quo, you can not avoid fideism and its inherent threat to a pluralistic society and ultimately a free and democratic order. DuBois used the central values of religion derived from the deep telos of faith and faiths employed to evaluate organized religion and religious expression.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/16/2007

The principal issue here is whether
Democrats has to stick to the original and best liberal principles of the Democratic Party or
essentially "play religious card" for the sake of winning the upcoming elections. My opinion, which coincides with the view of many other observers, that the Achilles'
heal of contemporary Democratic party
is (and has been for a while) its unwillingness to fight with clenched teeth for those principles, regardless of their chances for the immmediate political victory.
It is in that department where they loose battles with Republicans today.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/16/2007

Name just one moral, non-religious (though, perhaps originated from religion) idea/principle, officially acknowledged by the Western civilization, the "obtuse secularists" are unable to comprehend or follow?
And if you, as I suspect, won't be able to, what is the purpose of your reference to such poorly defined term as "spirituality" (do you mean Holy Spirit?) that allegedly has to be restored within Democratic, or any other party?

Joanna Brooks - 7/16/2007

Comments like those from Wiznitzer and Cipolla--moribund in their obtuse secularism; penurious in spirit, insight and imagination--exemplify what has been lacking in American liberalism. They demonstrate precisely why the example of DuBois, the efforts of Obama to restore spirituality to his party's vocabulary, and the scholarship of historians like Blum are so necessary.

Phil L. Sinitiere - 7/16/2007

In the tricky venture of discussing religion and politics, Mark L Wiznitzer and Stephen Cipolla provide helpful clarity with respect definitions of “Democrat” and “liberal,” and Stephen Cipolla’s challenge for candidates to address the role of religion in the founding period is important to note. Equally important are Cipolla’s points about Democrats’ authentic embrace of an “unstinting commitment to principles of equality,” etc., along with the question of Du Bois’s reception among religious folks with knowledge of his affiliations with Marxism and socialism (the latter question Blum addresses in his book). Well said and duly noted.

Yet the claims that the “resurrection” of a religious or spiritual Du Bois for the Democrats is preposterous and that this could tantamount to playing the religion card may misunderstand what I understand Blum suggests in his piece.

While America is by (legal) definition a secular nation, it is clear that many of its citizens have religious and spiritual commitments that place them at various places across the political spectrum and inform decisions they make—including who or who not to vote for. And I’m not sure that the founders intended that religion would be absent or obliterated from the public sphere entirely (which may or may not be what Wiznitzer and Cipolla are suggesting; please clarify if I misunderstand). Certainly religion has been used as a political tool to justify gross injustices both past and present, but it has also informed a large number of social, political, etc. movements of and for justice throughout the nation’s history. While in a legal sense there is a what one might call a sacred-secular divide, the ways that these impulses play themselves out is (and has been) rather complex, and Du Bois, as Blum shows in his book, is one case in point. It seems to me that some of the prophets of the secularization narrative of American history have changed course, and an interesting place to start is Peter Berger’s work and commentary on religious resurgence.

I’m in no way arguing that American was or is a Christian nation, and not suggesting that playing the religious card is a viable course for Democrats. And I’m not sure Blum is either.

Rather, religion and questions about pluralism, etc. remain key subjects for voters—and I’m not just talking about partisans of the religious right. After all, folks like Jim Wallis of Sojourners (and many others) say that they maintain evangelical religious convictions and commitments to social, racial, and economic justice, etc. that place them among Democrats, a point they clearly make. Not all evangelicals are Republicans. The lay of the land seems to be far more complex.

In the complex swirl of commentary on and about religion and politics in this campaign season, I read Blum’s reflections as a suggestion to Democrats (and I suppose Republicans too) that as discussions of religion crop up (and have cropped up) in forums and debates, that history is duly noted and it be acknowledged that for many in America’s past religious and/or spiritual commitments informed strivings for justice, equality, inclusiveness, etc., even as these folks respected disestablishment. I read Blum to be saying that this is a past that religious folks and non-religious folks can embrace, and a past Republicans must learn from, and a past Democrats can respect as well.

Stephen Cipolla - 7/16/2007

I agree with Mr. Wiznitzer. Indeed, most Democrats are not "liberals" in any meaningful political sense and already too fearful that they will be tagged as non-religious by pious Republicans, who long ago appropriated the New Testament as though it was a Founding Fathers' text written specially for Americans. Let's see how much energy these Democrats put into protecting themselves from being smeared as soft on so-called "Islamic Terrorism."

Most of the early leaders of the US were not especially religious personally, the Founders were strongly committed to secular state, although they may have believed in the existence of a diety.

The historical record they left to us includes an exemplary rejection of
the idea that the US is a sectarian nation. And, the wisdom of their hostility to Rome and it's centuries-long lineage of Papal despots has repeatedly been justified over the past 200+years. Most recently, a couple of days ago, after the Los Angeles Diocese agreed to cough up $600,000,000.00 to settle its outstanding sexual abuse cases. Let's see how many Democratic candidates comment on this tidbit of America's history.

How far did Du Bois' religiosity get him once people figured out that his academic work was heavily influenced by Marx's historical materialism and his political philosophy distinctly socialist? Read his magisterial work Black Reconstruction, to which Eric Foner gave due recognition in his own book on the subject.

To Mr. Wiznitzer's reading list, I would include the writings and speeches of Mark Twain on religion, and the recent NYT bestsellers by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on the "God Delusion." And, if they are searching for something spiritually moving, how about Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk."

Playing the religion card, like the race card, and the missle gap card, the state's rights card and any other in the deck will serve to divide far more often than unite. How many Christians will be impressed with the observation that Obama would consider equally the religious insights of an anti-abortion zealot and those of a lesbian? And,how about an atheist lesbian?

If the gaggle of Democrats sqealing for money and the votes that it can purchase want to infuse their respective campaigns and policies with energy, it should be unstinting commitment to principles of equality, inclusiveness, political, juridical, and environmental and economic justice and a rejection of the current administration's imperial adventures, along with a strong Constitutionally based skepticism of tyrannical "majorities."

Oh, and by the way, they should perhaps read, or re-read, the document written explicitly to protect unpopular minorities and their beliefs, the Bill of Rights, especially that part right in the First Amendment, called the Establishment Clause.

Mark L Wiznitzer - 7/15/2007

The suggestion, that it behooves to understand DuBois or anyone else for that matter, in order to provide a context for Democrats of faith like Barack Obama, is preposterous. A tagging Democrats as "liberals" is equally ogg the mark. If anyone is interested in Obama's views, just read his article, "My Spiritual Journey" (it's a free article on TIME's website). If anyone cares to know about DuBois, they can buy your book (how much does it cost?) or take out something from the library. But the last thing this world needs is a "pantheon of spiritual liberals" or any other kind of Pantheon, of Gods, saints or mere mortals.