Note: Today is Martin Luther King’s Birthday, a national holiday in the United States.
Forty-nine years ago, with the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an era ended. King’s assassination marked not only the end of the civil rights movement, it also marked the end of a certain way that religion seeks justice in public. In the decades that followed, religion may have continued to play a role in social justice struggles, but it was no longer an essential component of the swirl of feelings, ideas, rituals, and rhetoric that animated those movements.
Today, America is seeing a renewal of religion in politics. The election of Donald Trump has perplexed observers of evangelical Christianity, but on the left a new sacred politics is gaining momentum. In line with our spiritual-but-not-religious age, grassroots social movements are embracing the sacred, leaving behind the secular idiom of identity politics.
On learning that the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline would not be built a half mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, a tribal leader exclaimed, “Our prayers have been answered.” This was not just a figure of speech. The months-long protest had been infused with prayer – indeed, a Native Hawaiian participant described the hub of protest as a “prayer camp.” Fundamentally, the issue at Standing Rock concerns the sacred: land believed to be sacred by indigenous peoples threatened by an oil pipeline.
The Movement for Black Lives also concerns the sacred. Despite the common story of secularization – the Christian preacher-led civil rights movement contrasted with the secular, youth-led racial justice protests of today – spiritual language and practices circulate widely in movement organizing. In February, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who tweets with the handle Love God Herself, told an audience “the belief that everybody’s life is sacred” is an integral component of the movement.
With the rise of the religious right and the election of George W. Bush, Democrats desperately sought to tap into religious enthusiasm themselves. Michael Lerner at Tikkun and Jim Wallis at Sojourners offered models for engaging a religious left. In part, Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations were made possible by the way he could speak comfortably in a vaguely Christian idiom. These efforts generally appealed to those who shared left-liberal political commitments; they did not make new political alliances possible.
In contrast to liberal elites’ aspirations to create a religious left, the new sacred politics emerging today comes from the grassroots. It does not seek to mobilize new constituencies that map onto a denominational map, but rather taps into the post-denominational religiosity that persists in the United States despite the perception of elites that we live in a secular age. Many Americans continue to identify as spiritual and to hold beliefs about the sacred. While such beliefs, when identified with New Age religiosity, seem apolitical, today blacks, Native Americans, and others are demonstrating the political force of those beliefs.
The new sacred politics may lead to unexpected alliances. For example, Emory-based Protestant ethicist Timothy P. Jackson has recently argued that the religious language of sanctity offers a better basis for defending human rights than the secular language of dignity. Jackson’s politics are hard to classify: he is opposed to euthanasia and abortion, but he is also opposed to the death penalty and a supporter of gay marriage. He bases all of these positions on a core commitment to viewing human life as sacred.
Of course, religious traditions all understand the sacred differently. These differences are important to appreciate, and they offer resources for critically examining social issues. However, unlike the language of love that so turns off potential non-Christian allies, or the equally Christian triad of faith, hope, and love, the language of the sacred is an invitation to dig deeper into religious practices, values, and histories. Most importantly, it is a language that is emerging from below, from political organizing among the most marginalized – for whom the divides between religion, spirituality, and politics are far from clear.
But what do appeals to the sacred really mean? Is there any connection between the Standing Rock Sioux’s “sacred land,” the “sacred life” of Black Lives Matter, and “sanctity” at the basis of human rights for Jackson? Rather than answer this question with a definition, what the sacred is, I would answer by describing effects, what the sacred does. In each case, the sacred evokes deeply held commitments that cannot be reduced to secular terms.
In each case, secular language is not neutral: it is the language of the powerful, used to further marginalize those already at the margins (“treaty rights,” crime statistics, human rights masking cultural imperialism). Whether we agree with the specifics of each case or not, the language of the sacred challenges the domination of the secular, voicing concerns muted by the powerful.
This is not a necessary feature of the language of the sacred: this language certainly can be and has been colonized and coopted by those in power. Moreover, secularism has been decried by the political right, charged with ignoring an imagined Judeo-Christian heritage. But the right’s antidote is often a return to a specific form of religiosity based on an evangelical Christian mold – whereas the left culturally embraces a diffuse spirituality without recognizing the potential political implications of that spirituality.
My invitation is to consider that, in the very particular circumstances of the contemporary United States, spirituality might very well have powerful political implications when marginalized communities appeal to the sacred.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some observers have worried about the way Democrats’ embrace of identity politics has limited that party’s appeal. Mark Lilla, writing in The New York Times, calls for a “post-identity liberalism” that focuses on shared American values. Lilla may be right that identity politics has lost its appeal, but that is because identity politics has transformed into the new sacred politics. Indigenous communities fight for their sacred land, blacks fight for the sanctity of human life, and queer communities fight for what they believe to be the sacred right to love.
Does the Trump era mean that politics is no longer rooted in right reason or truth? The rise of the new sacred politics suggests that this question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. A commitment to the sacred as the basis of politics is a commitment to higher truth, truth beyond secular reason, beyond pragmatic, worldly concerns.
Activists have realized that adopting the style of reasoning that characterizes conventional, electoral politics does not lead toward justice. They have also realized that higher truth need not be named in sectarian terms in order to have a real, worldly effect – the language of the sacred will have that effect.
Our age is a spiritual age, and it is also an age of social media. The two go hand in hand, and together they enable the new sacred politics. A book or magazine article may be able to articulate the theological position of a specific religious tradition, but a Facebook status or tweet is conducive to a more diffuse language the sacred.
This allows for new alliances that mobilize when social justice issues erupt. Moreover, just as an article in The Christian Century or Christianity Today points to rather than exhausts the resources of the Christian tradition, a social media post may serve as a prompt to delve more deeply into a religious tradition.
Despite the growing momentum of the new sacred politics, secular commentators and politicians often ignore this phenomenon. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell praised the U.S. Army’s decision to halt pipeline construction, but she did so using the language of “tribal rights” rather than sacred land. Otherwise astute academic observers of the Movement for Black Lives such as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Eddie Glaude have often ignored organizers’ spiritual language, re-describing it in largely secular terms. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights advocates for human dignity, not for respecting sanctity.
The proposition that “Love Trumps Hate,” advocated by the Clinton campaign, failed to capture the American imagination. In contrast, advocates of the new sacred politics are using spirituality to speak to the emotions. Rooting politics in the sacred does not demand blind allegiance. Rather, it is an invitation to reflect more deeply on what we hold dear. It is an invitation to privilege the most marginalized voices, those whose concerns are nearly illegible in secular terms. It is an invitation to join together with neighbors near and far to struggle for world-transcending, world-transforming justice.
Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He co-edits the journal Political Theology. His most recent books are Black Natural Law (Oxford, 2016), and the co-edited Race and Secularism in America (Columbia, 2016).