Religion and Politics in the US

Welcome to RelPol, a student peer reviewed online magazine. This magazine is part of the assessment for the module "In God We Trust" @ the University of Hull.

The Role of Religion in Ferguson: What Would Jesus Protest?

Pictures taken from @ChrisMcGreal on twitter, author of 'Chaplains of the Militia'.

Pictures taken from @ChrisMcGreal on twitter, author of ‘Chaplains of the Militia’.

Ferguson2

The above pictures were both taken during the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of a young African-American man, Michael Brown, by a member of the Ferguson Police Department. St Louis County where the shooting took place has been listed as the 15th most racially segregated county in America, and in 2013 92.7% of the arrests there were of African-Americans (Goyette, 2014). Outrage over Michael Brown’s death and this tension between the majority white police and the black population lead to protests and riots that gained national and international media attention. Amongst the headlines about this event are featured many stories of clergy joining the protests, not only local Christian Pastors but also faith leaders from a variety of religions nationwide. This includes Pastor Michael McBride, who was eventually arrested on the 13th of October, who stated that he had come to Ferguson specifically to be arrested, and called his arrest “an act of resistance and of repentance” (McGreal, 2014). The events which sparked the unrest in Ferguson are not implicitly religious, and also don’t have a strong connection to modern church doctrine in America, unlike gay rights or abortion rights. The clergy has also not been a big presence in other recent American protests, so why are they so they so visible in Ferguson?

These events are not specifically religious, however they were sparked by a specific violent event. Unlike more political protests this could invoke a moral reaction in members of the church, who might then feel like it is their moral duty to protest. This act of protest itself is unusual amongst the clergy. Traditionally many religions have a pro-police attitude, since most religious texts argue for respect to authority figures in society (Hawdon and Ryan, 2011). The police in turn often work with religious groups, to promote community engagement. Since religious communities and the police have shared a history of positive engagement, the fact that religious leaders were protesting in these events shows not only their moral opinion of the events, but also shows how poorly connected the community and the police in this case have become. This year another case of police violence brought criticism from the clergy, the case of Eric Gardner who was killed by a NYPD officer, while being placed under arrest. At his funeral several Pastors came forward to speak against the role of the police in Gardner’s death, calling the event “immoral”. Like Michael Brown, whose death instigated the Ferguson unrest, Eric Gardner was African-American.

The link in both of these cases between police violence, blackness and religion is not a coincidence. Firstly the African-American community is more religious than most with the Pew Forum reporting that 79% of African-Americans state that religion has an important impact in their lives, compared to only 56% of the total population (Pew Research, 2009). While it isn’t widely known how religious Michael Brown or Eric Gardner were, they both had Christian funerals. The civil rights movement in America also has a long history of religious involvement. Perhaps the most famous civil rights leader of all, Martin Luther King Jr., only became involved in the civil rights movement due to his position as a Pastor at Rosa Park’s church. His religiousness was not incidental to his activism, and his civil disobedience tactics were influenced by his Christian faith and a desire to “turn the other cheek”. The Ferguson unrest shows a similar type of civil disobedience to that of Martin Luther King, with protestors marching with their hands up, in a surrendering gesture to show that they are unarmed and do not intend to hurt anyone. Although the Ferguson unrest is nominally about police violence and brutality in general, in reality it is heavily focused on the racism in modern American police forces and the potentially tragic outcomes of this. Because of this, Ferguson could be described as a continuation of the civil rights movement, and it can certainly be seen to have similar roots.

Understanding why religion was so involved in the civil rights movement in the first place can help us to understand the role it plays in events like Ferguson today. This brings us to the two pictures seen above. The first picture mostly contains young black protesters, seemingly talking confrontationally with the police, wearing bandanas in gang colours. The second picture from the same protest shows a group of clergy, wearing their religious garb, standing arm in arm. The two pictures come from different sources, and initially seem to be telling very different stories about the event. This is very important for Ferguson, since it has been described both as a peaceful protest and also as a riot involving looting and vandalism. The same respect and leadership which was given to Martin Luther King as a member of the clergy in the past remains important today, and so the presence of faith leaders in Ferguson gives legitimacy and respectability to the voices of the mostly young, mostly black, protestors who would otherwise not be as respected in modern American culture. As we can see above, many of these religious leaders are also white, and this also increases the amount of respect they receive from the media, which they then use to promote the protests. Not all religious leaders take advantage of the respect they receive in the same way however, in the first picture the white woman wearing a bandana is herself a Pastor, Renita Lamkin who was later shot by police with a rubber bullet while protesting. By not wearing clothes that identify her as a Pastor, she lost some the respect that came with that role, but by wearing the same colours as her fellow non-religious protestors she showed unity with the community and a respect for them on their own terms rather than because of an association with religion.

The presence of religious leaders in Ferguson can therefore be brought down to three main interlinking reasons. Firstly the religious nature of the African-American community means that events combatting anti-black racism are more likely to be religious, secondly because the violence shown in this event brought out moral objections from religious leaders and finally so that the respect and trust given to religious leaders could also be somewhat given to the protestors who might otherwise not have been given a great deal of respect in American and Worldwide media.

Goyette, B., 2014. 21 Numbers That Will Help You Understand Why Ferguson Is About More Than Michael Brown. Huffington Post. [Online] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/22/ferguson-black-america_n_5694364.html

Hawdon, J., and Ryan, J., 2011. Neighborhood Organizations and Resident Assistance to Police. Sociological Forum. Vol. 26 (Issue 4) pg. 897-920

McGreal, C., 2014. Clergy among dozens arrested on final day of ‘Ferguson October’ protests. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/oct/13/cornel-west-arrest-clergy-ferguson-protest

Pew Research, 2009. A Religious Portrait of African-Americans. [Online] Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/a-religious-portrait-of-african-americans/

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2014 by in Uncategorized, Vol 2, 2014/15.
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