The Limits of the Liberal Political Imagination

It was a sobering experience to discuss David Chappell’s phenomenal A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (UNC Press, 2004) with my graduate students the week before the election. (Well, the week before the election is sobering whatever you read.) The book is a great text to dissect in a seminar: it has a provocative thesis, it drips with theoretical precision, and the prose are (mostly) clear. It makes great points not only about the importance of prophetic religion to the Civil Rights leaders, but also the surprising impotence of the southern Christian churches when segregationalists required the support; in the end, the Civil Rights protesters won because they had religious tools at their disposal, while the segregationalists could not marshal ecclesiastical back-up like southerners had during the nineteenth century. It helps, in a seminar on religion in American history, to discuss a book that foregrounds the significance of religion to one of our nation’s most important moment. (It also has a very brief essay on materialistic and ideological methodologies as an appendix, which jolted some good conversation.) We had some good debates and disagreements, but overall it was well received and I plan to use it again in the future.

But that portion of Chappell’s narrative wasn’t what really grabbed me this time. Rather, I was struck—indicted, even—by his discussion of the limits of liberal politics and the progressive ideology. Here is a passage from the introduction:

The black southern movement’s political successes depended on an alliance with northern liberals. Yet the liberals’ animating faith was radically different from that of the southern movement. Liberals believed in the power of human reason to overcome “prejudice” and other vestiges of superstitious, unenlightened past. Liberals believed…that “progress” was under way: further education, along with economic development, would lead white southerners to abandon their irrational traditions. Therefore liberals, though sincere in their devotion to black rights, did not see any reason to do anything drastic to promote them. Indeed, they thought that pushing too hard for black rights would provoke a violent reaction in the backward white South.

On the other hand,

The black movement’s nonviolent soldiers were driven not by modern liberal faith in human reason, but by older, seemingly more durable prejudices and superstitions that were rooted in Christian and Jewish myth…[They] believed that the natural tendency of this world and of human institutions (including churches) is toward corruption. Like the Hebrew Prophets, these thinkers believed that they could not expect that world and those institutions to improve. Nor could they be passive bystanders. They had to stand apart from society and insult it with skepticism about its pre-tensions to justice and truth. They had to instigate catastrophic changes in the minds of whoever would listen, and they accepted that only a few outcasts might listen.

A few thoughts. First, I love it when historical books make profound points that transcend the particular topic they are discussing. Second, this highlighted once again for me the lack of a religious core for the modern American left–we have lost the prophetic voice that animated some of the most profound political moments of progressive history. And third, and most poignantly, it reminded me of how easy it is slip back into privileged complacency when it comes to my progressive values. I assume the world is improving and bending toward justice. I am often fine with incremental changes. I get frustrated with Bernie Bros who seem to be instigating for more than our nation is currently ready to embrace.

I realized that we still have two prominent voices even within America’s black tradition: on the one hand, we have the optimistic Obama, whose The Audacity of Hope is a textbook for the classic liberal imagination and commitment to successive progress. His presidency has been criticized—and often rightly so—for not taking the radical action that the left assumed he’d inaugurate. He is far too staid, too resolute, and too hesitant. On the other hand, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me embodies the pessimism that reflects a corrupt world requiring revolutionary action. In many ways, Coates speaks for millions of disenfranchised Americans not satisfied with the incremental progress in the Age of Obama.


Ironically, Coates’s utter lack of religion in his narrative demonstrates the long distance the American left and the progressive movement has come since the theologically drenched Civil Rights protesters.

There is no element of modern America that assaults the liberal belief in steady progress than the Rise of Trump. The racist, misogynist, bigoted, backward, and xenophobic factions of our nation’s society—particulars that have never disappeared yet remained on the outskirts of respectability—demonstrate the frustrating limits of the liberal imagination. And these wounds will remain long after whatever happens next Tuesday.

In order to confront these demons, perhaps it is time to resurrect our prophetic voice.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary Bergera says:

    Ben, This is equal parts great, sobering, and frightening. One question that occurred to me: When you write about the lack of the left’s religious core, I wonder if there are actually a variety of religious cores, each influencing to various degrees and in various ways one’s politics. Or are you suggesting the left (and to be honest I’m not entirely sure how you define this or what it means) has no real religious core?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Benjamin Park says:

    That’s a great question, Gary. I think there are some segments of the American left that maintain some religiosity. The Black Church still has some heft, though they have been mostly silenced in the national discourse. A number of religious organizations have mobilized around gay rights issues. The Catholic Church still provides a lot of relief to the poor in inner cities. But the Left lacks the same type of religious mobilization that the GOP does with the Religious Right. In some ways I think that’s expected: the progressive movement is a diverse coalition that rightfully eschews homogeneity and dogma. However, the real-time implications of that is a sacrifice of unified organization and a consistent voice. That’s just something we have to live with, I guess.

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