February 7, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Philip Gorski’s American Babylon elucidates the relationship between Christianity and democracy in Western history. In its main text and footnotes, the book uses social scientific studies of racism in the United States to argue that a dissonance between an ostensible waning of racial prejudice among Americans generally and the recalcitrance of racial prejudice in what Gorski defines as White Christian Nationalism (WCN) is crucial to the contemporary American political dilemma. The book therefore raises questions about how race matters for the theorization of Western politics, and how theoretical approaches to race matter for the current crisis of democracy.
These questions bring me to one of my favorite teaching memories. In the first meeting of a course on black studies that I taught in Stateville prison outside of Chicago, the students, incarcerated black men, dissected the contours of Jared Sexton’s idea, from his 2012 essay “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” that “blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory.” That conversation rekindled the excitement I felt as a kid mining the rows of CDs at the HMV on 125th Street in Harlem for classic “boom bap” hip-hop from the late 1980s and early 1990s, finding Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader or Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, going home, playing the albums, and basking in their marveling, like the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen before them, that black people subjected to racialized enclosures can conceptualize blackness as the unfurling of limitless theory—about divinity, knowledge, the universe, nothingness—which they can use to understand their enclosure.
The recent frothing over critical race theory also reminds me of that prison classroom conversation. The anti-CRT thrust on one hand and old school hip-hop and new school black studies on the other attest to the importance of blackness as a matter for theory in a similar way. For both, the idea of blackness as theory problematizes the intermingling of Christianity and democracy in Western politics in general, not just in White Christian Nationalism. For both, the idea of blackness as a matter for theory indicates that White Christian Nationalism is not a perversion of a Puritan ideal but a variation on the main theme of American politics.
This is not to downplay the specific dangers of White Christian Nationalism. Rather, it is to say that thinking theoretically about blackness and race points toward how the intellectual history presented in American Babylon can illuminate the continuity between WCN and, say, the liberal Christian reformisms that preceded and then aligned with the New Deal and its successors. For example, the book mentions that the New Deal accommodated Jim Crow by excluding agricultural workers (the New Deal also excluded domestic workers—predominantly black women—and included black agricultural workers in ways that reproduced the antiblack socioeconomic order of rural Jim Crow). Yet antiblack racism also shaped how New Deal programs in liberal Northern cities with powerful liberal Christian establishments exacerbated racial inequality. It was the long New Deal order that provoked KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions to rap on the title track of BDP’s 1987’s LP Criminal Minded that “our lives have been so uprooted,” conjuring the neighborhood upheaval wrought by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, with which, as my aunt would say, “they tore up the Bronx,” fostering the conditions for BDP’s and hip-hop’s emergence. Mass incarceration is as much a legacy of liberalism and the New Deal as it is of the Confederacy and Jim Crow.
Thinking theoretically about blackness and race illuminates how the commingling of Christianity and democracy has enabled antiblack logics beyond the borders of de jure white supremacy to animate the political present beyond the ballyhoo of Jim Crow’s evangelical dauphins. Thus, reading American Babylon together with theoretical approaches to blackness and race can clarify the relationship between White Christian Nationalism and the ways that antiblackness and racism have structured the long development of Western politics.
Kai Parker is an Assistant Professor of African American Religious History at the University of Virginia.