In his letter on civil religion and prophecy, George Shulman cites Gramsci to describe the Trump moment as “an interregnum between old and new gods.” We are now (provisionally) post-Trump, but we have not exited this interregnum. Rather, as people attempt to make sense of the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events, police murders, mass shootings, and economic instability, emergent ideologies, such as abolition, democratic socialism, fascism and conspiracy theories that transcend the left-right spectrum, contend for hegemony. Neoliberalism is no longer the common sense, but a new common sense has yet to cohere.
Shulman presents prophecy as a crucial means of shaking people out of complacency with injustice and solidifying popular support for the dramatic social transformations necessary to address problems like climate change and racism. Whereas theorists of civil religion have identified prophecy as a strand within this tradition, Shulman sees prophecy in “agonal relation” to civil religion. While the latter is tied to the nation state, its institutions, and their underlying principles, prophecy emerges as political actors seek “critical distance from the nation-state and those it enfranchises, its normative institutions, and their axiomatic assumptions.”
Shulman discusses this distinction within the Black radical tradition. Public figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Ta-Nahisi Coates have used Jeremiadic rhetoric to critique liberal axioms, “announce unspeakable truths and unescapable realities,” “make present what has been made absent,” warn of danger, and “compose songs of lamentation.”
Shulman powerfully illustrates the importance of prophetic speech to ongoing attempts to grapple with the contradictions and failures of American ideals and American institutions, starker than ever as the counter-majoritarian Supreme Court strikes down the constitutional right to abortion and the white power movement massacres Black Americans on the basis of its accurate understanding that settler colonial violence is inextricable from America’s founding. Certainly, prophetic leaders have a role to play in interpreting these events.
Social movements, too, have, in times of crisis, collectively articulated prophetic indictments of liberal norms and institutions, such as the demand to “defund the police,” which the Movement for Black Lives injected into the public sphere in the summer of 2020. “Defund the police” is a prophetic demand in that it illuminates a flawed conception of public safety at the root of American liberalism. It exposes the function of policing to protect property rights and enforce racial hierarchy. And it illuminates a choice—between funding public schools, public housing, and public healthcare and militarizing the police—where we have long seen an axiom.
But discourse, whether civil or prophetic, has its limits. Speeches and demands can shake people momentarily out of complacency, but they do not by themselves effect personal or social transformations. Since June 2020, public opinion of both the Movement for Black Lives and defunding the police has fallen significantly. While millions of people were moved that summer, both by prophetic demands and by their participation in mass protest, their understandings of policing, mass incarceration, and public safety were not fundamentally transformed.
In elevating prophecy above civil religion, Shulman risks giving discourse an outsized role in social transformation. For the left to prevail in the war between old and new gods, we need not only prophetic discourse, but forms of mass organization capable of cohering a social bloc. In this work, religion, understood not as prophecy but as missionary work, remains a crucial resource.
Like Shulman, I find Gramsci to be a useful partner in thinking through religion’s role in our moment. Gramsci’s central insight is that social groups maintain and transform the social order through struggles over hegemony, i.e. cultural, moral, and ideological dominance. A class wins hegemony by engaging the masses in practices that support a particular conception of the world. Gramsci frequently identifies the Catholic Church as a particularly effective hegemonic force.
In his discussion of the Church, Gramsci offers a distinctive definition of religion as “a unity of faith between a conception of the world and a corresponding norm of conduct.” By “conception of the world,” he refers not to belief but to the frameworks through which we interpret the social world, i.e. ideology. We can translate these frameworks into consciously-held beliefs, but we don’t usually experience them that way, particularly when they are hegemonic. By “norm of conduct,” Gramsci refers to collective practices. Organization is what unifies ideology and practice.
Gramsci follows this definition with a question: “But why call this unity of faith ‘religion’ and not ‘ideology’, or even frankly ‘politics’?” On Gramsci’s account of religion, the Communist Party and the Catholic Church are both equally religious (and political) organizations.
Just as Gramsci looked to the Catholic Church to demonstrate the role of organization in the struggle for hegemony within Mussolini’s Italy, we can, with Shulman, look to American religious traditions, including the Black church, to think through the role of political organization in our own moment. Applying a Gramscian lens to this history points us away from prophetic leaders like King and toward missionaries like Ella Baker, an organizer with the Young Negroes Cooperative League and the National Association of Colored People and King’s colleague at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
As Barbara Ransby argues, Baker’s approach to building leadership through lateral relationships was informed by her early participation in the Women’s missionary society of the Black Baptist Church. Baker’s mother, Anna Ross Baker, was deeply involved in the North Carolina Convention of the National Women’s Convention, a Baptist missionary society, and Baker attributed her later career as an organizer to her early religious experiences. In a 1979 interview with Lenore Hogan, she recalls, “I became active in things because my mother was active in the field of religion.” Whereas King preached from the pulpit, Baker built organizations in the background. Ransby describes how these divergent approaches to leadership brought the two leaders into conflict within the SCLC.
Baker’s early missionary work shaped her approach to organizing in another way: it instilled in her the belief that people change through sustained participation in organizations. The Women’s Convention was animated by a conception of the world known as uplift ideology, according to which racism and white supremacy were anomalies in an otherwise just social order. Black Americans would advance as they assimilated to the norms of white bourgeois society. The women missionaries thus sought to engage poor Black Americans in practices that would lift them into middle-class respectability. Evelyn Higginbotham describes some of these practices, including house-to-house visits to provide education and training on matters ranging from hygiene to financial management, mothers’ training schools, Sunday schools, and Bible study groups. Women missionaries proliferated forms of local, state, and national organization in order to educate individuals and to demonstrate, both to whites and to Blacks, the race’s collective capacity.
Baker’s conception of the world changed from uplift to radical democracy when she graduated from Shaw University and found herself in Harlem during the height of the Great Depression. Through her exposure to radical social theory and labor organizing, she abandoned the missionaries’ goal of inclusion on given terms in favor of a fundamental reconstitution of American society as a society in which all people, regardless of race or class, would have direct influence over the economic and political decisions that affected their lives.
Baker retained her instinct for organization and her insight that people transform through sustained participation, but the organizations she built as a professional organizer were oriented toward a different conception of the world. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth-led civil rights organization that Baker mentored, perhaps best exemplified her radically democratic worldview.
Traces of the missionary practice are present in the community organizing project that SNCC undertook in the deep south in the early 1960s. Like the Women’s Convention missionaries, SNCC organizers were often (though not always) outsiders to the communities they sought to organize. They tried to engage residents, who had many valid reasons to resist their program, in norms of conduct, such as voter registration drives, direct action, and mass meetings, that would gradually reshape their conceptions of the world.
Just as the house visit was central to the missionaries’ work, the canvass was a crucial encounter between SNCC organizers and the people they aimed to both transform and empower. Soon after arriving in McComb, Greenwood, or Albany, organizers would begin a period of house-to-house canvassing. This meant walking door-to-door, talking to people about the movement and trying to get them to register to vote. Charles Payne explains that tactics on the doors varied according to circumstances, but organizers developed a set of best practices, including bringing registration forms to the doors, asking people to try filling one out for practice, making small talk, and always having a clear ask: a manageable first step for the person to take toward participation in the movement. Their painstaking efforts helped lay the ground for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They also generated a theory of participatory democracy that profoundly shaped left-wing social movements in the following decades.
Before the summer of 2020, prison industrial complex abolition was a marginal idea. Now, it’s contending for hegemony. For abolition to become hegemonic, many more people would need to be engaged in abolitionist norms of conduct, such as participatory defense campaigns, municipal budget campaigns, reading groups, and campaigns for alternatives to policing. The canvass is again a relevant tactic in attempts to reach people who have doubts about the plausibility or desirability of a world without police and prisons—doubts that cannot be addressed through new discursive frames, prophetic speeches, infographics, and books alone.
Understanding the need to go beyond prophecy to dialogue and beyond discourse to practice, organizers across the country have been meeting people where they are, literally and figuratively: knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them about their experiences with the police, telling them about the origins of policing in slave patrols and strike-breaking, showing them graphs of the percentage of their municipal budget that is allocated to public schools and the percentage that goes to policing, and asking them where they think this money should go.
For scholars of religion to fully comprehend and further the work of personal and social transformation necessary in the present interregnum, we, too, must look beyond discourse to practice, and beyond prophecy to missionary work.