How secular protests became spiritual, and religious

The protests that have filled the streets of American cities and towns in the past month over police violence and racism have been reported to carry strong religious elements, both in implicit and explicit ways. When the protests first started and came under the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, it wasn’t clear that religion would have a significant role in these events, largely because past activities and positions of the movement embraced a leftist black nationalism that distanced itself from traditional African American religious institutions [see RW, Vol. 31, No. 6]. But the protests over the killing of George Floyd and other racial issues were large and diverse enough that both white and black local and national religious groups found themselves often front-and-center in these events. A report by National Public Radio (June 7, 2020) noted that it was the convergence of the corona virus pandemic, which disproportionately affected minority communities, with the Floyd killing, that reignited black church activism both in their neighborhoods and at the national level. “Though their approaches differ from wanting to work within the system to upending it altogether, many black pastors say there’s been little leadership coming from Washington,” according to the article.

The groundswell of activism by religious leaders and faith was “reminiscent of what occurred during the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” reports Reuters (June 9, 2020). The activism was also unique because conservative and liberal clergy and religious groups of various races were involved. “We’re seeing it at the grassroots level. We’re seeing rabbis walk alongside Muslim leaders, walking alongside Catholic priests and religious sisters,” said John Zokovitch, executive director of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi USA. “We are seeing that race cuts across all religious denominations.” While liberal groups were important in shaping the emergent movement, in a similar way as they did in the civil rights movement, the protests soon attracted a more diverse set of participants.” These conventional religious actors and groups were also joined by activists drawing on non-institutional black and African spiritual teachings and practices. The Berkley Forum (June 9, 2020), a publication of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion and International Affairs, reports that many key BLM figures see the movement as spiritual as well as political. For instance, in BLM protests in Los Angeles, protestors recited the names of those killed in police violence as spiritual ancestors, with libations poured on the ground as each name was called followed by the chant of “Ase” from the West African religion Ifa.

BLM stresses “healing justice,” which calls for healing from racial trauma, involving “a syncretistic blend of African and indigenous cultures’ spiritual practices and beliefs, embracing ancestor worship, ifa-based ritual such as chanting, dancing, and summoning deities, and healing practices such as acupuncture, reiki, therapeutic massage, and plant medicine in much of its work, including protest. That work, though, often remains invisible,” writes Herbah Farrag. While some see BLM as secularizing the new civil rights movement, Farrag argues that the movement’s “marginalization of patriarchal and hierarchical modalities of religion informs its members’ reinterpretation and expression of faith, political expression, radical organizing, and community-building.” The use of martyr language and imagery has also become increasingly prominent in BLM and other protests over police violence, writes Adam Ployd in the current issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter, 2020). Writing before the Floyd killing, Ployd cites the 2014 case of Michael Brown’s shooting and death in Ferguson, MO as being one in a long line of efforts to use martyr language and commemorations for protestors against injustice. He argues that to question the virtue of those killed in these police confrontations misses the point that they belong to the “cloud of witnesses” testifying to American injustice.

Politically conservative publications tended to focus on what they see as the implicit and sometimes explicit religious elements in the protests, especially for white participants. Kyle Smith, writing in the National Review (June 22, 2020), reports on protests that include such actions as corporate acts of repentance, kneeling in deference before black people, reliving the minutes George Floyd was pinned to the ground before his death by prostrating themselves on the ground, and foot washings in acts of contrition for the sins of white supremacy and racism. Smith argues that such actions and much of the protests represents a “transmutation of white guilt into a cult, a religion that borrows from and intersects with Christianity but substitutes its own liturgy.” At the center is the belief in the sacred quality on blackness. “Fallen white people can get closer to the divine by showing due deference in any way they can,” whether it be buying books to learn how to overcome white supremacy, donating money or apologizing to black friends and acquaintances, or engaging in “iconoclastic actions” of defacing and toppling statues deemed racist. Smith sees the main religious dimension to the protests and the wider movements of “woke politics,” such as LGBTQ and feminist activism, as extending to “ex-communications” (in other words, firings) and public shaming and denouncing of colleagues and others who are seen as “blasphemers” (or racists).

Commentary magazine (June 8, 2020) goes a step further, comparing much of the protests (even if their cause was just at the beginning) to a classic case of cultic behavior, citing such debatable earmarks of this phenomenon as brainwashing and deprogramming. Abe Greenwald writes that the cultic ingredients of family disassociation, with some activists counseling protestors to shun family members who are not sympathetic to BLM; rituals, such as the public pledges, kneeing and foot-washing, and that have taken place at many protests, and the alienation resulting from months in isolation and financial distress, are all present in the protests. On the latter point, Greenwald writes that as “any hoped-for resumption of normal life was pushed ever further into the future…millions of Americans were broken, psychologically deprogrammed, and made into ideal potential cult recruits. (And it didn’t help that they were denied physically attendance at actual religious services the whole time). Emptied of the things they had previously relied on to know who they were—including the presumed soundness of the American system in which they participated—people took to the protests like it was the only real thing in the world. It brought purpose, structure, moral focus, and a new true north to millions of shapeless lives.”

(Journal of Ecumenical Studies,; Berkeley Forum,