by Jennifer Bailey
Faith Matters When it Comes to Justice
“As goes the South, so goes the nation.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
My story begins on the back roads of Bainbridge, Georgia in the summer of 1950. On a hot summer afternoon, my 19-year-old grandmother carried two suitcases along a familiar red dirt path past her grandmother’s house and the small one-room church her family worshipped in every Sunday. As she walked amid the skinny pines, I imagine she wondered when she would return.
Like many young African-American women for her era, she was heading North, anticipating a brighter future. In the North she would no longer be subjected to separate humiliation of separate facilities and limited economic opportunities that rendered her invisible. So she boarded a bus headed towards the Midwestern town where she remains sixty years later.
I am a third generation Midwesterner with deep cultural and familial roots in the South. Like many young African Americans of my generation, I returned to my ancestral homeland – the American Southeast – in search of my roots and my future. When I arrived in Tennessee to begin seminary three years ago, my imagination ran wild with images of what I could expect in this, the “Buckle of the Bible” belt. I was, like many Americans, persuaded by popular representations of this rich and storied land as backwards and deeply troubled. To my friends in the North, these observations were almost always linked to what they fashioned to be a self-delusional religiosity in the region.
Yet, what I found when I arrived was quite the opposite. In a land as beautiful as it is complex, I found people searching to find a way to connect their deeply held religious beliefs to a commitment to building a better world.
The Grassroots Policy Project defines worldview as, “the collection of beliefs, norms, value systems, core themes, popular wisdom, and traditions that people draw upon to help make sense of the world around them.” Put simply: worldview is the lens through which we experience our lives. Through stories, rituals, and religious practice, faith communities shape the identity, judgment and ethical foundation of their adherents.
In today’s polarizing political and social context, faith matters. The past 30 years have seen a shift in public perceptions of the role of religion in our public life. The narrative of religion today almost exclusively focuses on the role of religious conservatives in shaping social policy and electoral politics.
The convergence between the priorities of groups like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition in the 1970s and 1980s with the values of the neo-liberalism (think: small-government, privatization, free market capitalism, and rugged individualism) led to the emergence of a new American civil religion. This expression of civil religion de-emphasizes a concern with the poor and oppressed in favor of a prioritization of American exceptionalism, meritocracy, and Christian supremacy.
Transforming worldview requires a clear narrative that captures the imagination of the intended audience. At best, a faith-inspired, justice-orientated worldview also places at its center an appeal to the common concerns and shared needs of a community.
It thus rejects binary language that seeks to categorize and divide people of faith rather than facilitate relationships of reconciliation and collective actions.
Nowhere does faith matter more than in my two homes, the South and Midwest, which lead the country in religious participation. These two regions share another commonality – they are the most dramatically impacted by economic inequality and injustice. If faith communities are to reclaim their prophetic voice and once again bear witness to the greatest ills of our society, economic justice stands to be the defining issue of our era.
In 2014, I founded the Faith Matters Network, an emerging multi-faith community of faith leaders, practitioners, and organizations dedicated to building the capacity of people of faith to transform our social and economic systems with an emphasis on the South and Midwest. Our goal is to catalyze a faith-led revolution in values and worldview that places at its center a commitment to a vision of economic justice that is restorative to people, place, and the planet. The rich traditions of our diverse faith communities and shared moral vision as the grounding source for our movement demonstrating that faith does indeed matter in shaping our worldview.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey is the Founder of the Faith Matters Network and a fellow at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.