In Dissent in American Religion, the great historian Edwin Scott Gaustad wrote, “Should a society actually succeed … in suffocating all contrary opinion, then its own vital juices no longer flow and the shadow of death begins to fall across it. No society — ecclesiastical or political, military or literary — can afford to be snared by its own slogans.”
Gaustad’s insights into the nature of dissent resonate in this election year. He qualified the term: “Dissent cannot be understood simply in terms of whines against oppression, resistance to organizational corruption, demurrers against the affirmation of others. To view dissent in these terms is to suppose that when all external restraints are removed and all ecclesiastical authority stilled, then dissent falls flat on its face never to rise again. This could be the case only if dissenters were merely noisy nay-sayers.” Instead, “the dissenter is a powerful if unpredictable engine in the service of a cause.”
For Gaustad, dissenters reflect an essential element of religion which “in its essence is already off beat, irregular, asymmetric.” It “may also be a manifestation of the unfettered human spirit.” At best, dissent demonstrates the power of conscience, raised against the religio-political-cultural majority. He calls dissenters the “strange ones,” whose ways are often “elusive and erratic,” concluding that, “True dissent has too many moods, too many guises, too many brief incarnations” and warns that the “clanging cymbals of consensus” in church and society often attempt to silence or ignore dissenters altogether.
Dissent flows like stormy winds across the American landscape, from Roger Williams’ 17th century founding Providence Plantation as “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience;” to Fannie Lou Hamer’s 20th century fight for voting rights in Mississippi; to 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s 21st century refusal to stand for the National Anthem as protest against “police violence” toward minorities. Yet one person’s dissent is another’s treason; one person’s Christian conscience is another’s blasphemy. Sometimes history reverses all that; sometimes it doesn’t; the culturally relative confronts the morally absolute.
Reflecting on such dissent, and unable to get Fannie Lou Hamer out of my head, I revisited Charles Marsh’s powerful book, God’s Long Summer, detailing 1960s civil rights struggles in Mississippi. Marsh wrote that on August 31, 1962, “Mrs. Hamer had been made ready by her involvement in church life to ‘step out on God’s word of promise’ — to put her faith into action. She was ready to move, and did the next week when she joined a busload of people heading to the county courthouse to register to vote. …”
Arrival at the Sunflower County courthouse was daunting for the 18 African Americans seeking voter registration. Bus rider and civil rights worker Charles McLarin described what happened: “[When] we got there most of the people were afraid to get off the bus. Then this one little stocky lady just stepped off the bus and went right on up to the courthouse and into the circuit clerk’s office.” That “little lady” was Fannie Lou Hamer.
Hamer and others were forced to take the infamous “literacy test” of 25 questions, including an explanation of obscure passages from Mississippi’s state constitution. Of course she failed. On the ride home, the driver was arrested for “operating a bus that too closely resembled a school bus.” Marsh writes that “everyone became frightened,” not knowing if they too would be arrested. “Then,” he says, “Fannie Lou Hamer, standing toward the back of the bus, started to hum, then sing,
‘Have a little talk with Jesus, Tell him all about our troubles,
Hear our feeble cry, Answer by and by,
Feel little prayer wheel turning, Feel a fire a burning
Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.’”
For the sake of voting rights and gospel, Fannie Lou Hamer was ridiculed, harassed and beaten across the Mississippi Delta, and in many of those terrible moments, she sang, “Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.” For her, faith, justice, and dissent were inseparable.
I was rereading God’s Long Summer when William Wan’s Washington Post article appeared, citing emails related to the preparation of North Carolina’s so-called “monster law” voting bill requiring voter ID, shortening early voting, and eliminating election-day registration. One email from a legislative staffer inquired, “Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?” An email from an aide to the House Speaker asked for “a breakdown, by race,” of registered voters without drivers’ licenses. Wan concludes: “A review of these documents shows that [certain] North Carolina . . . leaders launched a meticulous effort to deter black voters. . ..” The “voting rights” law was recently overturned in the courts, referencing its racial implications.
I cast my first presidential ballot in 1964, two years before Texas relinquished its unconstitutional poll tax. Anglo-Saxon-privilege made my registration easy. The state of Texas chronicled that initial vote, but it took Fannie Lou Hamer to teach me what voting means, and why, 54 years after she demanded that right, an intentional effort to make it difficult for people of color continues in the state where I now live.
Think political dissent has no connection to grace and gospel? Tell that to Fannie Lou Hamer. And your own conscience.