Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry has developed a devoted following with her appearances on Bill Moyers Journal and Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, and her insightful commentaries on race, history, politics and culture in The Nation and elsewhere. Less well known among progressive activists may be that the self-described social-scientific data geek also makes a compelling case for a more powerful progressive religious voice in the public arena.
On May 23 (in the midst of a very public debate with her former Princeton colleague Cornel West) Harris-Perry gave the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s Clergy Call, which drew hundreds of LGBT-equality-supporting clergy to Washington, D.C. for inspiration, mutual support, training, and lobbying visits on Capitol Hill.
The Civil Rights Agenda of Our Time
“My work is based in the empirical, not in the spiritual… I like data points. I like survey analysis. So what in the world am I doing here, an empirical social scientist straight girl at a clergy call around LGBT issues?” she asked. Her answer: “I believe that the struggle for equal human and civil rights for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, same-sex-loving, gender-nonconforming and queer persons is the civil rights agenda of our time.” And, she said, “faith must be part of the work we’re doing.”
The religious history of Harris-Perry’s own family has the sweep of an American saga. Her mother, whose Mormon ancestors pushed handcarts across the country to their promised land in Utah, graduated from Brigham Young University in 1964, having spent most of her time there, Harris-Perry says, writing articles about Mormon womanhood. Meanwhile, her father, whose great-great-grandmother was sold as a slave on a street corner in Richmond, Virginia, attended Howard University where he was “converted to Black nationalism” and shared a room with Stokely Carmichael. By the time her mother and father met in Seattle in the early 1970s, each had become a parent and had been divorced. After they had Melissa, they moved their blended family and children—white, black, and mixed-race—to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement. “In that context you had to be Unitarian Universalist,” she said to knowing laughter.
Raised among secular, humanist UUs, Harris-Perry says that as a teenager she found God on a lake, and over time came to call herself a Christian. She says she doesn’t particularly know or care whether Jesus actually walked on water, but she feels bound to the religious texts and stories that gave her enslaved ancestors the power to believe in a God that loved them when all evidence pointed to the contrary:
When my great-great-great-grandmother was sold on a street corner in Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia, she had never known anything but slavery. When she bore children, she expected that they would never know anything but slavery. She lived in a world where every religious person she encountered could show her chapter and verse why she was unequal, who could quote back the reasons that God wanted her in bondage, and every bit of empirical evidence around her, every bit of it, said there either is no god and if there is God does not like you very much. And she had the undaunting audacity to believe that God loved her.
She says it is equally powerful that slaves who did not own their own bodies, or their own children, still chose to marry one another. “The expression of that recognition of God’s love for them was that they chose to make family with one another.”
Deconstructing “Terror Texts”
Faith’s power is what makes it essential to progressive advocates working to achieve equality for LGBT people, she says. Last year she wrote for The Nation that:
…if the left remains near exclusively secular in its approach to public life, it will continue to miss important opportunities for building broader and more durable coalitions. Ignoring, denigrating, or hoping to eliminate biblically-based faith claims from public discourse does not serve progressive political interests.
At least part of the political Left needs to engage biblical texts and arguments directly. This does not mean simply trying to reinterpret biblical stories so that their messages are liberal and liberatory; it also means acknowledging that some texts are irredeemably oppressive.
It is important to recognize that the Bible is problematic, she says. She has written that “we need to cultivate an active, public, prophetic, liberal core that can resist these texts of terror by arguing for a more comprehensive engagement with the Bible.”
In an interview, Harris said that academic proof-texting can be important for allied communities that need to be able to reconcile with problematic texts, but it is not likely to be persuasive to many who ground their faith in those texts. She suggests that rather than trying to deconstruct the meaning of the “terror texts” through exegesis, it is more convincing and useful to devalue them relative to other texts, elevating the “countering texts of liberation.”
“There are all sorts of things that we’ve decided we no longer read in the way they were once read” she says, citing verses instructing slaves to obey their masters. People are still wrestling with Pauline claims about wives submitting themselves to their husbands. She says people who don’t live by those verses haven’t rejected them because they learned something new about the texts, but because they learned, or came to appreciate, something about the greater whole. For example, enslaved African Americans focused not on the texts telling them to obey their masters, but on the God who sent Moses to set His people free. “Black liberation theology,” she has written, “emerges from this tradition of rejecting scriptural evidence of a slavery-supporting God and roots itself in a biblical interpretation of God as an advocate for the oppressed.”
Harris-Perry says progressive Christians need to make their own imperative faith claims: if you have a Christian identity, then it is imperative to be all-loving, to support state equality, to stand against any set of policies that would increase violence and division.
The Closet is Not a Privilege
Harris, of course, has heard the arguments about the LGBT community’s use of “civil rights” language and rejects the claims, mostly from conservative African American religious leaders, that such use amounts to a “hijacking” of the civil rights movement. She says that recognizing the LGBT movement as today’s civil rights agenda “in no way suggests other civil rights agendas are not also ongoing, intersecting, and continuing. It is not a question of hierarchies. It is not a question of which one first. They must all happen simultaneously.”
She strongly rejects suggestions that LGBT rights are somehow not a civil rights movement. Asked how she responds to those arguments, Harris-Perry says she goes to Bayard Rustin. “There is no March on Washington without Bayard. It doesn’t exist. It does not happen. There’s no ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. None of it occurs, not one aspect of it occurs, without this brilliant out gay black man. So when you are back tracing your civil rights history, and you are proud of your civil rights history, how dare you exclude Bayard?… The idea that those movements were ever separate is bizarre.”
Harris-Perry says that even though being out meant that Rustin was often excluded from leadership, his centrality to organizing the March on Washington was also recognized at the time. The cover of Life magazine the week after the march, she says, did not have a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. but of march organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Rustin’s sense of integrity, grounded in his Quaker faith, meant that he was out about every aspect of his identity, even when it cost him.
She says there’s a historical disconnect in some African Americans’ claim to exclusive use of “civil rights” language. When opponents of the movement at the time wanted to be derogatory, she says, they referred to the “Negro rights movement.” The use of “civil rights” was specifically chosen because it did not designate race, but grounded the movement in all-encompassing principles about the rights of citizenship.
Harris-Perry turns one frequent argument—that gays aren’t marginalized like racial minorities because they can choose to hide their sexual orientation—on its ear, saying “the closet can never be a privilege.” It can never be a privilege, she says, because “we yearn as human beings to be seen,” to be recognized in the fullness of who we are.
A Radical Minority, Protecting All the Children of God
In a reflection on marriage she wrote for The Nation, Harris-Perry argues for keeping a broader view of justice. “Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether.” She understands the political strategy behind advocates’ claims that marriage equality will not change the institution, but she says she hopes it is not true.
I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results in more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.
As a black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate I reside at an important intersection in this struggle. This movement must acknowledge the unique history of racial oppression, while still revealing the interconnections of all marriage exclusion. This work must reflect the feminist critique of marriage, while still acknowledging the ancient, cross cultural, human attachment to marriage. This work must be staunchly supportive of same-sex marriage, while rejecting a marriage-normative framework that silences the contributions of queer life.
Harris-Perry, knowing all the ways that conservatives have used religious arguments and sacred texts to argue against this liberating struggle, still believes there is “hope for those invested in reimagining the Bible as a tool of progressive social change.”
Harris-Perry told Clergy Call participants that “the single most valuable thing that faith does is provide an alternate metric to the world.” For marginalized people who are taught to feel shame for being insufficiently rich, beautiful, or straight, faith can offer a different metric—one of charity, openness, kindness, lovingness. Faith-based metrics can also be manipulated, and can be even more oppressive than the world’s, but they can also be more liberating.
If the LGBT movement is identified solely as secular, it becomes easier for conservative Christians to define the movement as “the world” against which faith must stand. How much more powerful, she says, to say that the world is full of inequalities, the world says it’s fine to deny people the basic life-giving reality of housing based on their identity, while we are the radical minority working to protect all the children of God.
“Faith is a practice of intellectual humility,” Harris-Perry has written. “It is a habit that reminds us of our own limitations and encourages us to remember that we don’t know everything, can’t predict every outdone, and don’t control every variable. A powerful and justice-loving God is an important political tool for those who have the fewest resources to resist inequality.”