Why Isn’t Ferguson the Start of a New Civil Rights Movement?

The news out of Ferguson has been dominated by discussions of police brutality and the role of race in an in increasingly militarized police force.

While the majority of this focus has been on the protests, police violence (including the use of military grade weapons against unarmed civilians), and the arrests of reporters, a few stories about the role of churches in Ferguson have now begun to emerge.

From starting twitter hashtags, collecting garbage, sometimes marching with demonstrators, churches have, by and large, mobilized as helping centers and places for spiritual renewal. But what’s interesting is that, unlike their predecessors in previous civil rights battles, they don’t appear to be leading the protestors or generating an organizational network to create a larger movement.

Certainly, there are centers of political activism (like the Greater St. Mark Church, which was raided on Wednesday), but a larger moral or faith-based narrative about why these churches are acting to assist protestors has yet to emerge, and religious leaders don’t appear to command the respect those in the past once did.

In the Civil Rights Movement churches operated as hubs of organizationalactivity, offering the movement financial resources, sanctuary, protestors, and leaders. Churches were the backbone of much progressive political activity until the 1980s, so why are we not seeing the same today?

Perhaps the events in Ferguson reflect a larger problem when thinking about progressive religious political activism, which has been disintegrating for the last 30 years. There are churches that have never let the political light burn out, but they haven’t even begun to approach the power they wielded until the late 1970s.

In my research on how progressive religious groups are working in politics I found there were myriad causes for why the movement had faded, from the spread of prosperity gospel, to tension between secular and religious activists within the progressive left, to the dwindling numbers in progressive pews, to the religious right’s monopoly on political religion.

Perhaps in the wake of the tragedy in Ferguson there will be a renewed vigor from progressive churches that will help repair old coalitions, build new ones, and tell a new story about who gets to speak “for religious people.”