Political Emotion, Religion, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice
July 2, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act. Political emotion emanating from the religious particularity of the African American Civil Rights movement was a key factor in forging this landmark legislation. This milestone approaches at a time when sibling civil rights victories (e.g., Brown v. the Board of Education 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) suffer from diminished public and legal support. With the fragility of civil rights, the U.S. faces also renewed debates about the rights to religious freedom and the role of religion in public life. This uncertain legal and political landscape threatens to destabilize political society by allowing discrimination, segregation, and other inequalities to seep further into the basic political structure of the United States. In the midst of these political currents, how ought Catholic moral theology respond to the erosion of civil rights protections?
A paucity of public and, perhaps, Catholic sympathy for racially marginalized persons could be one source of this destabilization. Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in her Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Belknap 2013), argues that political emotions—affections that take the nation, its citizens, institutions, and goals as their object—are a politically stabilizing force in liberal political societies seeking to foster justice and equality for all citizens. She considers that affection for the nation and sympathy for fellow citizens are foundational emotions for a liberal and plural democracy: political emotions are a vital force in resisting political inequality. She continues, “People who feel keen sympathy for a particular plight will seek not only to energize the emotions of their fellow citizens, but also to create laws and institutions that give stability to their cause” (135). Moreover, since political emotions can be intense they ought to be tutored by reason; a society devoid of that formative tutoring will lack the emotional intelligence necessary to stabilize democracy and make institutional gains supportive of the common good.
Emotions such as sympathy sustain efforts to institutionalize equality. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that US citizens struggle to muster sympathy for people outside of their own social group, especially for young men of color; the 2013 trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin exemplifies this phenomenon. As the public lacks basic sympathy for the plight of racially marginalized persons, it will struggle to establish and sustain basic civil rights protections against personally dehumanizing and politically destabilizing discrimination.
But Nussbaum places limitation on religious narratives and symbols as sources to tutor political emotion. This limit is motivated by what she claims is the risk to use political emotion as a religious exclusionary mechanism. Nevertheless, the Christian underpinnings of the Civil Rights movement exemplify how political emotions can foster institutional change that resists politically destabilizing inequalities. Movement leaders used powerful rhetoric about equality emerging from US civil religion—to God and country—to garner solidarity for the cause of racial justice. Surely the Movement exemplifies Nussbaum’s argument in favor of formation of political emotions in support of liberal democracy. Yet, interpreters widely note the centrality and influence of African American social thought, deeply rooted in Black Christianity, in the movement’s successful rhetorical strategies. Those commitments aroused the political emotion of social sympathy that built a powerful coalition for civil rights. Black Christianity’s paramount role in shaping public emotional responses to segregation and discrimination were critical in forging institutional changes that subsequently promote equality for all US citizens.
While Nussbaum acknowledges the potential of religious language, narratives, and symbols to shape political emotions, especially in situations of great injustice, her theoretical framework excludes drawing on religion as a sustaining force for conversations about justice that pertain to the basic structure of society. Excluding religious thought from public discourse is counterproductive; on the contrary, emotion tutored in particular religious commitments—for example, to human dignity, participation, solidarity, preferential option for those treated unjustly, and the common good—can contribute positively to forging a societal consensus that sustains and advances civil rights legislation. Further, protecting equality in a liberal society demands the protection of religious freedom for all persons. Catholic moral theologians should pursue an ethical framework that simultaneously acknowledges the rich potential of theologically tutored emotion to foster justice while protecting the public priority of equality in a liberal society essential to defending religious freedom for all.