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

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.