Larry Smith

As a devoutly religious person — and a political junkie — I frequently muse about these two mainstays of American life. Faith and politics often run parallel to each other; they also intersect (or even collide) in myriad ways. One topic that relates to both is the role of the so-called “Black conservative.” (Clearly, one need not be “religious” to be “conservative,” but these attributes are fellow travelers much more often than “religious” and “liberal.”) Given the disproportionate amount of attention that Black conservatives receive in the media relative to their numbers and level of influence, their names are familiar. They can be categorized generationally: There are members of the “Silent Generation,” Dr. Thomas Sowell and Dr. Walter Williams; baby boomers like the taciturn (and uber conservative) Justice Clarence Thomas and former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleeza Rice; Gen Xers like former U.S. Representative Mia Love and the perennially clueless Stacey Dash. (See what I did there?) Finally, there is Candace Owens, the ubiquitous and acerbic millennial. 

While it is unfair to suggest that these individuals share identical beliefs and/or values, it is true that they all would reject the moniker “liberal” (or, if you like, “progressive”). Several readily identify as “conservative” — which is problematic. (At least it’s a problem that I have.) Today’s conservatism often strays far from the foundations that political theorist Edmund Burke laid out. (Though Burke is said never to have uttered the phrase, he is generally regarded as the “father of modern conservatism”.) Today, “conservative” is used interchangeably with “Republican” and/or “very religious.”

Part of the problem is that the political shorthand we use is too simplistic, too reductive to express the complexity of the philosophies that they ostensibly represent. Today’s “conservatism” exists primarily in counter-distinction to “progressivism,” which itself bears little resemblance to classical liberalism. (On a side note, when I was in college, several young Republicans liked to refer to themselves as “19th century liberals.”) In short, today’s cultural and political war is not about “liberal” vs. “conservative”; it’s about “progressivism” vs. “regressivism.” Thus, “Black conservative” is merely a synonym for “Black Republican.” (For the record, I don’t identify as “liberal” or “conservative”; my views run the spectrum of political, religious and socioeconomic ideologies.)

Further, conservatism has increasingly been associated with a particular sect of Christianity — white evangelicalism. (As a Black evangelical, I make no “value judgment” here; I’m merely stating a fact.) Thus, we have a marriage between conservatism and white evangelicalism; today’s Republican Party is their offspring. Notably, Vice President Mike Pence is known for declaring, “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” For many people, those are distinctions without a difference.

The Republican Party is 90% white in a nation that is roughly 60% white. Yet, to the extent that evangelicalism is a good measure of “conservative values,” Blacks are more influenced by our faith than are whites — substantially more in many categories. The Pew Forum on Religion has conducted extensive research on multiple aspects of faith, including the role of race. Among its findings: 83% of African Americans are “absolutely certain” that God is real, as compared to 61% of white Americans. Similarly, 75% of African Americans say that religion is “very important” in their daily lives. By contrast, fewer than half of whites (49%) say the same. Of those who attend church “at least once per week,” 47% are African American vs. 34% of whites. Also, 73% of African Americans report praying “at least daily” as compared to just 52% of whites. Further, 43% of Blacks report that religion is their primary guide for determining “right vs. wrong”; 32% of whites report the same. Finally, roughly twice as many Blacks believe that scripture is “literally the word of God” (51%) vs. whites (26%). Note that I am not suggesting that any of this makes Blacks inherently “better” people than whites; I am merely pointing what the data show vis-à-vis the role of religion in shaping our lives, values and worldview.

In short, by virtually every measure, Black Protestants are the “most religious” people in America. (The most socially conservative people I know are Black Democrats — usually age 45 or older.) Further, no group of people is more socially and economically conservative than the (generally) non-partisan Nation of Islam. (Interestingly, Clarence Thomas frequently expresses his love for Malcolm X’s conservatism.) Logically, then, most of us should be categorized as “Black conservatives” — and register as Republicans. Yet, that is quite different from what actually happens. And, given the current direction of the GOP, that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined the conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Though published in 1906, that cynical description remains as apt as any. 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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