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Norm Allen on Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars

Excerpted From QBR, Quarterly Black Book Review:

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s superbly written and well-researched book stands out like a sore thumb among the books of “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Hutchinson puts forth a bold analysis of the political and religious culture wars raging across the U.S.  She examines the Religious Right, scientism amongst white secular humanists, the need for social and economic justice, the ethical imperative to defend the rights of LGBTQ people, etc.  She does all of this from the perspective of a progressive African American feminist.

Today many White Christians are insisting that America is a Christian nation.  Indeed, Mitt Romney is meeting a great deal of resistance to his presidential campaign from conservative Christians that do not believe Mormonism is part of the Christian faith…However, Hutchinson maintains that race and Christianity have become inextricably linked among many White conservatives in the U.S.  She maintains that the contention that America is a Christian nation is tied to a belief in White supremacy and fear of the “Other.”  This analysis helps explain how the Tea Party used the notion of a Christian nation to foster the “birther idea,” and to maintain that Obama is a Muslim in Christian clothing.

Hutchinson does not simply critique conservative White Christians.  She also has strong words for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the atheist and Somali-born darling of the Religious Right.  Ali has been a strong critic of Islam.  However, she has been warmly embraced by the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute, she has a Eurocentric world view, and she romanticizes the West.  Perhaps worst of all, she greatly downplays sexism and homophobia in the Western world.  Hutchinson eloquently takes her to task for her shortsightedness.

Hutchinson does not shy away from critiquing womanist icons such as bell hooks.  She notes that many Black women such as hooks point to the book Corinthians as a major source of spiritual strength and empowerment.  However, Corinthians also contains passages defending patriarchy…thus the Bible presents women with a crippling paradox, when they would be better off rejecting dogma altogether.

The author discusses the effects that storefront churches have on the collective psyche and identity of African Americans.  She writes: For example, in North Lawndale Chicago’s ‘community of 1000 churches’ there has been much debate about whether the proliferation of storefront churches is harmful or helpful to the local economy…A 2009 Chicago Tribune article documented community dissatisfaction with which church congregations utilize tax exempt status to open churches in areas where there is little sustainable commercial development…This concern is added to the concern over whether these churches are destroying the tax base of these neighborhoods and preventing job development that might otherwise be attained by developing commercial enterprises.  Indeed, Hutchinson refers to an article in which the writer maintains that some storefront churches provide opposition to business development in their neighborhood because it could lead to increases in their rent…

Just as many White conservatives assert that America is a (White) Christian nation, others go farther and link God to small-town (White) America.  This is set up in opposition to urban (Black and Brown) America…During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin frequently harped on the difference between the values of real Americans living in small towns and the bankrupt inauthentic values of urban Americans.

These code words have been crucial in mobilizing White conservatives to oppose Black candidates and stigmatize Black and Brown people.  Moreover, they have been used to identify liberals as ungodly and unlikely to look out for the interests of “real” Americans.

Moral Combat discusses much of the little-known story of Black atheists inside and outside organized atheism in the U.S. and deserves a place on the bookshelves of all atheists and readers interested in the past, present and future of Black people in the U.S.

Norm Allen is the editor of the groundbreaking book African American Humanism and The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion.  He is currently writing a book entitled Secular, Successful and Black: 25 Profiles.  He is also the editor of the journal The Human Prospect published by the Institute for Science and Human Values.