Liberalism's Religion Problem
Carter, Stephen L., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
In God's Long Summer, Charles Marsh's splendid book on religion in the civil rights movement, the theologian recounts a fascinating anecdote about Fannie Lou Hamer, a founder and the guiding spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In the summer of 1964 the MFDP waged a challenge to the credentials of the lily-white Mississippi slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention, a slate chosen by the lily-white Mississippi Democratic Party. The MFDP offered an integrated slate of delegates, many of whom, like Mrs. Hamer herself, had tried to register to vote and had been punished for it. The controversy terrified President Lyndon Johnson, who wanted no blot on the celebration of his nomination. So he sent his Vice President-in-waiting, Hubert Humphrey, to visit Mrs. Hamer, with orders to buy her off.
Humphrey, believing that he was undertaking a political negotiation, asked Fannie Lou Hamer what she wanted. Mrs. Hamer, a devout evangelical Christian, responded: "The beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth."
Humphrey, evidently stunned, explained that his political future was on the line if he could not close a deal with her to end the credentials challenge. He apparently wanted her to understand that his nomination would create a strong voice for racial equality at the highest levels of the White House, reason enough to compromise. Fannie Lou Hamer, who had survived beating and torture in a Mississippi jail for insisting on her constitutional rights, was unimpressed. This was her reply: "Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you." This alone must have been hard on Senator Humphrey, who had fought for civil rights long before it became fashionable in the Democratic Party, and whose speech on the subject at the 1948 convention is one of the most important moments of twentieth-century political history. Mrs. Hamer, however, was relentless: "But if you take [the vice presidential nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I'm gonna pray to Jesus for you." And that, according to Marsh, was the end of the Johnson Administration's negotiation with Hamer.
I begin with the story of the attempt to make a deal with Mrs. Hamer because it has much to teach us about what can happen when strong religious commitment runs up against the world of secular politics--and secular politics is, of course, the world that produces law. I wish to address the relation of religion generally--and Christianity in particular--to the liberal theory of law. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The exercise of political and personal freedoms and the functioning of the market economy both rely on and are constrained by the necessity of obedience to law. Liberal theory in turn relies on rules of recognition to tell us what counts as a law--we develop ways to distinguish between a bill to raise taxes that is passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor on the one hand and, on the other, an order from Joe down at Joe's Diner raising taxes because he thinks it is a good idea.
In liberal theory, however, legal legitimacy cannot rest simply on the process through which a law is enacted. Liberal democracy rests also on the idea that there are fundamental principles of justice to which laws should cohere. At minimum, these principles enable us to tell good laws from bad ones, so that we know which laws to favor and which to oppose. In addition, some theorists believe that the principles of justice enable us to impose a just order on the society, notwithstanding contrary acts that meet all the requirements to be recognized as laws. …