The renowned philosopher and social critic Cornel West has been faculty at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Haverford, the University of Paris, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Among his large corpus of written material, West is best known for his books Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and in this interview with David Horstkoetter, West revisits ideas of race and democracy, especially in the context of Christianity. More particularly, West discusses his own theological grounding; the virtues of faith, hope, and love as a politically active ethics; democracy, Christianity, and equality through the prophetic voice; Obama and the popular conversation on race; the economy; and how to make theological talk accessible to the public.
The Other Journal (TOJ): As the recent election has shown, religion is still a big issue in popular politics—take for example newsflashes regarding Biden’s Catholicism, McCain’s Episcopalianism, Palin’s Pentecostalism, and the escapades of famous religious figures such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. Without suggesting a complicity with these various religious positions, I would like to focus on your political project, which is no less religious, in that you draw from Christianity in most of the work you do—albeit often indirectly, and at other times directly, like in Prophesy Deliverance! A historical theologian and social ethicist at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Gary Dorrien, wrote that you’re “not a theologian, yet liberation theology is at the heart of your work and vision. And you have become America’s greatest religious public intellectual by practicing liberation theology as a form of philosophical and social criticism.”1 Could you speak more directly to your religious grounding?
Cornell West (CW): It has everything to do with taking the Christian gospel seriously by trying to take love seriously, connecting love to justice, and recognizing what Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said, that justice is what love looks like in public. Therefore, looking at the world through the lens of the cross means putting a premium on the least of these; to echo the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it means looking at the prisoners, the widow, the orphan, the workers, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, people of color, indigenous peoples, and so forth. Whatever kind of theology you want to call it, I’m just trying to be truthful to the gospel. If we take the cross seriously—which has so much to do with unarmed truth, and the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, and the cross has so much to do with unconditional love—then we can’t love people simply by hating when they are treated unjustly. If we take the cross seriously, we must consider how we understand the world, think about the world, and act in the world. Then, certainly in that regard, my attempt to live the Christian life is at the center of what I think and do.
TOJ: Do you find any of this love or hope within the religious positions of our public officials?
CW: With public officials, they are in certain positions with structural constraints. Truth has never been at the center of public life when it comes to politicians. There is much more expediency, much more survival, much more manipulation. Every once in awhile, you get a statesman or stateswoman who tries to be prudential, which is to relate truth to varied circumstances and conditions. There is always a profound tension between the quest for truth and the quest for political power.
TOJ: We’ll get more into the topic of political power later, but first about hope and death—you wrote about this a bit in Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom. You mentioned the virtues of courage, compassion, and hope, and I kept these in mind while I read your book. My favorite quote from the book touches on this; it says, “I am no way optimistic, but I remain a prisoner of hope.”2 Also, you ground the majority of the book in some sort of Christological love—you do write of the cross often enough. How do we preserve these virtues of hope, love, and compassion in a world of capitalist commodification, fetishizing, and death?
CW: Well, we just have to have courage more than anything else. Courage is the enabling virtue for any one of these virtues: faith, hope, and love. The courage to love and the courage to hope is where we must cut against the grain, where we must be willing to be a misfit. We must be maladjusted to injustice rather than well adjusted to injustice. Our society tries to convince us to be successful, to be well adjusted to injustice, but we have to call that into question. But most importantly, it has to do with the life we live, the love we manifest, and the quality of service that we render.
TOJ: There seems to be a tension that you try to walk between democracy and Christianity in your project. Most recently, in Hope on a Tightrope, there are some very crystallized statements that seem to stand in opposition with one another: “Democracy goes hand in hand with Christian faith. You have an ethical obligation as a Christian to fight for equal rights for all” and “Any time you make the cross subordinate to the flag, you have idolatry. Americanized Christianity is shot through with forms of idolatry, making it difficult for people to keep track of the blood at the cross, the need to love, sacrifice, and bear witness to something bigger than nation, race, or tribe.”3 With these virtues of hope and love and courage, how do we deal with the tension in democracy? How do we pursue a distinctive Christianity while we have these structural tensions?
CW: First, you’ve got the personal and the interpersonal on the one side and the institutional and structural on the other. They are inseparable but not identical. You start off by just trying to treat people right, to be honest with yourself, and to preserve one’s own integrity—not perfection, but integrity. And then you need to recognize that you are born in circumstances not of your own choosing, born into families and market economies and nation-states that you do not choose. The question then becomes, how do you live a life of love that promotes justice in light of those structural, institutional circumstances? Democracy is just the voice of everyday people being lifted in such a way that they have a role in decision-making processes in the institutions that regulate their lives. We begin with the least of these, raising their voices to make sure that their voices are heard when it comes to the economy, nation-state, culture, mass media, and so on. That is a deep democracy, a radical democracy that has everything to do with the Christian view that puts a premium on voices of the least of these and the dignity of the least of these.
TOJ: So you see democracy as a systemizing of the preferential option for the poor, in some respects?
CW: Not a preferential option, but a place to begin. Democracy is connected to non-poor children because they’re connected to a body politic and part of the citizenry. The phrase preferential option could lend itself to be understood as situated to not talk about the non-poor. The non-poor can make the choice to be in solidarity with the poor, and the poor deserve to have their voices raised.
TOJ: Last fall, in an interview with Stephen Colbert about the pursuit of democratic equality, you mentioned that your idea of hope is embodied in a person. Specifically, you said we need another Lincoln, and then you mentioned three words: wisdom, justice, and hope. Could you talk about this more? Although Lincoln did work that I would never want to undo, it also seems that his endeavors had empire components. What do you mean when you say we need Lincoln with wisdom, justice, and hope? Is Lincoln here a symbolic figure?
CW: There is a worst of Lincoln and there is a best of Lincoln. The worst of Lincoln is the politician, the opportunistic person who sent folks to jail without a trial and a lot of other things. The best of Lincoln was a statesman who responded to social movements. There is no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass. There is no Lincoln without Harriet Beecher Stowe. There is no Lincoln without William Lloyd Garrison. Lincoln was rowing in such a way to respond to social movements like abolitionism. When I hear Barack Obama talk about himself wanting to be some sort of Lincoln, he is not talking about imitating the Lincoln who gathered a parochial team of rivals and preoccupied them in his cabinet, but rather a Lincoln who responds to social movements: the labor movement, the critique of corporate globalization, the women’s movement, the black freedom movement, the gay/lesbian freedom movement. Those are the kinds of voices that Lincoln had, those are the voices that Barack needs to listen to if he is going to be a Lincoln because Lincoln had to respond to the major social movement of his day, which was abolitionism.
TOJ: What now comes to my mind is a memory of Slavoj Žižek’s comment regarding protesters during the buildup to the Iraq war, when he was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now: they protested and protested, but then President Bush turned the protesters on their head, saying that protesting is a great freedom, and we’re going to fight for that freedom in Iraq.4 Žižek noted that Bush got his war, and the protesters left with their guilt absolved. In light of this, some Christians who are very sympathetic with liberation theology, who talk about the common good, who seek to live the gospel as it talks about the poor and to care for everyone, they see the need for a different figure than Lincoln: the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero.
CW: Colbert and I were talking about Barack Obama and the presidency. Romero was a freedom fighter and not the head of a country. Romero was more like Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez and Dorothy Day. He was an activist among grassroots people. Frederick Douglass would be closer to Romero in that sense. But Colbert’s question had to do with Barack Obama. The best that a president can be is a president who responds to progressive social movements. I am with you on Romero, but Romero was not head of El Salvador; he was trying to democratize El Salvador.
TOJ: On Obama, how do we deal with this term post-race and Obama’s hybridity? We are obviously not dealing with it very well in the public sphere. Is it enough, for now, to have black flesh swearing into the office of the President—holding executive office in a nation that was built on slave labor—and sitting behind the desk in the oval office? A powerful symbol for sure, and is he perhaps part of the best leadership you envisioned in Race Matters, a race-transcending prophetic leader?5 Or is post-race a regression in the public discourse on race?
CW: You have to make a distinction between the leadership within the system and the leadership against the system. Barack Obama is not just within the system, he is at the head of the whole system, at the head of the whole empire. So the question becomes, how do we generate enough power and pressure on the system, on him, so that he tilts in a direction that benefits poor and working people. The talk about post-racial—we know that’s a lie. All it has to do with is white voters voting for black people based on qualification rather than pigmentation. We saw that in Iowa. It was a wonderful thing, but that’s not post-racial; that’s racist on behalf of white voters. We have to be very clear about the terms we use. We have to make sure we get our story right in terms of the narrative we put forward. The legacy of white supremacy still cuts very deep. What Barack Obama did was to break the glass ceiling, but we’ve got a lot of folks in the basement in the house of the American empire. Not just black people, but people of all different colors who are locked into the system of wealth and inequality, locked into a system of legalized bribery, normalized corruption of congress, and so forth. Those realities are still there even with a black president.
TOJ: I suppose then that this question is a moot point, but just to get a definitive answer: can Obama become a social-prophetic figure because of his past as a community organizer? How much can he speak to different communities as the president?
CW: He can be a progressive politician, but never confuse prophets with politicians. They are qualitatively different. The best a politician could be is a progressive who responds to prophetic movements, to social movements of justice.
TOJ: And you want him to respond to these justice movements, the ones we talked about earlier? Is there anything specific in a year or two that you really want him to address?
CW: He can begin by empowering homeowners and taxpayers rather than investment bankers and corporate elites. The issue at stake has been to reassure the establishment by bringing in recycled Clintonites, many of whom have created the catastrophe. And now they think they will help us get out of the catastrophe. That is his political judgment to bring those people in, but I just don’t follow the logic.
TOJ: On the economy, in front of a congressional inquiry the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said that his model for the world was flawed. It seems that now there is room for theology to be heard—or at least there was for a very brief period—in that theologians always say that humans have a tendency toward self-collapse, especially when greedy. Is there a way for theology to talk and be heard in the discussion of collapse and rebuilding, or is theology entirely put to the side?
CW: There is going to be some theological influence no matter what: the theology of Rick Warren, the theology of Joseph Lowery, the theology of James Cone. All of these theologies are out there, and because of the prevalence of religious ideas, some version of theology is going to be influential. We just hope and pray that it will be a prophetic version. We know that that was not the case during the age of Reagan between 1980 and 2009.
TOJ: I have one last question on theological talk and the public sphere. Archbishop Rowan Williams and Reverend Jeremiah Wright have both been lambasted by the press in the last calendar year. Even Jon Stewart did not seem to get what was going on with Rev. Wright, talking about it as a racial issue and denying the religious significance or the underlying theology. Bill Maher brings up the conventional Enlightenment narrative, simplistically understanding religion. Apparently theological talk does not seem to go well in the public sphere, but if we lose certain elements, we do not convey our message all that accurately. However, you seem to be really good at talk in the public sphere. Is there any way you would want to see theology talk change to work better in the public sphere?
CW: I appreciate the kind words. There is a sense in which there has to be a poetic mode of expression that moves people—you have to communicate in the form of stories and narratives that carry with them certain kinds of values and virtues. When the values and virtues are cached in light of Christian stories of love and justice but connected to a whole host of non-Christian persons, so that you’re speaking to human beings and fellow citizens, you make an intervention as a Christian. But the stories and narratives that you put forward in a poetic form still are able to seize the hearts, minds, and souls of fellow citizens of all different traditions and viewpoints. That is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. was able to do, and there was a real sense in which his example is something that we need to learn from in the early part of the twenty-first century as the American empire wafers and wobbles.
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1. Gary Dorrien, “Imagining Social Justice: Cornel West’s Prophetic Public Intellectualism.” Cross Currents 58, no. 1 (2008), http://www.crosscurrents.org/Dorrien%20Spring%202008.pdf: 1.
2. Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2008), 41.
3. Ibid., 77; 80.
4. Amy Goodman and Slavoj Žižek, “World Renowned Philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the Iraq War, the Bush Presidency, the War on Terror & More,” Democracy Now!, http://www.democracynow.org/2008/5/12/world_renowned_philosopher_slavoj_zizek_on.
5. See Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).