Race and religion are among the best predictors of how Americans choose a president. Race and religion are also bases for political compromises that call into question our moral credibility on issues ranging from voting rights to police brutality.
Cornell Brooks and Todne Thomas discuss how we demonstrate courage when we decline or choose to compromise during the Annual Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice at the HDS Center for the Study of World Religions.
Cornell Brooks is Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at Harvard Kennedy School and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Divinity School. Todne Thomas is a socio-cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor of African American Religions at Harvard Divinity School.
CHARLES STANG: Good evening and welcome. My name's Charles Stang I'm the director here at the CSWR, the Center for the Study of World Religions. Thank you all for coming out this evening. And I'd like to thank the center's staff for making this event possible. And let me begin by reminding you to silence your phone please.
So it's my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome Professor Cornell Brooks this evening to deliver the annual Greeley lecture in peace and social justice. We're trying a different format. However, the Greeley lecture will, in fact, be a conversation. So this is going to be a conversation between professors Cornell Brooks and my HDS colleague Professor Todne Thomas.
I'll introduce them both in a moment. But before I do, permit me just a brief word about this lecture, this annual lecture and the series of which it's a part. This is the second year in which we've devoted the annual Greeley lecture to the center's new programming thread on race, religion, and nationalism.
Last year, Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School inaugurated the new iteration of the series with a lecture entitled, "Finding God's Peace When Whiteness Stands Its Ground." So the series is meant as a response to the fact that we are witnessing today an alarming rise in old nationalisms, each of which deploys openly or overtly the rhetoric of race and racial hierarchy and of religion and religious hierarchy.
We see this happening across Europe, in the Middle East, in India, and of course, right here in the United States, where white Christian nationalism now has a strong foothold in the executive branch of government, perhaps elsewhere. This series at the center seeks to critically examine this phenomenon at home and abroad, locally and globally.
We want to ask such questions as, to what degree does religion fuel this racialized nationalism? In the American context, for example, how does Christianity support white nationalism? To what degree is white nationalism a kind of religion itself, with its own myths, rituals, and ways of life?
To what degree are different racialized nationalisms affiliating with each other to form international networks? Sadly, these are not unfamiliar questions to our two guests, whom I should now introduce. Let me begin with my colleague Todne Thomas.
Professor Thomas is a sociocultural anthropologist and assistant professor of African-American religions here at HDS and the Susan Young Murray assistant professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Professor Thomas conducts ethnographic research on the racial, spatial, and familial dynamics of black Christian communities in the US. Her current research examines the familial and spiritual experiences of black Evangelicals and the neoliberal displacement of black sacred space. She'll be leading tonight's discussion with Professor Brooks.
Cornell Brooks is professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy school. He's also the director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the school's Center for Public Leadership, and a visiting scholar here at Harvard Divinity School. Professor Brooks is the former president and CEO of the NAACP, a civil rights attorney, and an ordained minister in the AME Church.
Under his leadership, the NAACP secured 12 significant legal victories, including laying the groundwork for the first statewide legal challenge to prison-based gerrymandering. Among the many demonstrations, from Ferguson to Flint during his tenure, he conceived and led, quote, "America's Journey for Justice," a march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC, over 40 days and 1,000 miles.
Prior to leading the NAACP, Professor Brooks was president and CEO of the New Jersey institute for social justice, where he led the passage of pioneering criminal justice reform and housing legislation, with six bills in less than five years. So the discussion this evening is entitled, "Faith and Faustian Bargains-- Compromise, Capacity, and Courage in Leadership." Professors Brooks and Thomas will engage in conversation for about 45 minutes or so, and then they'll open it up for questions and discussions.
And because it may be hard for either of them to see the whole room, I'll return to the podium to call on folks for questions. So thank you again for joining us this evening for this lecture. Without further ado then, please join me in welcoming professors Cornell Brooks and Todne Thomas.
CORNELL BROOKS: Thank you, sir.
TODNE THOMAS: So every once in a while, you have that rare service opportunity that doesn't feel like service, right, where you get to feel the real privilege and advantages of the job. And so this is one of those moments. So I'm genuinely and sincerely thrilled to be in conversation with you and to learn from you this evening. So thank you for this opportunity. Thank you for joining us. It's going to be a good time.
CORNELL BROOKS: Yeah.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah.
CORNELL BROOKS: It's reassuring.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah, yeah. So I'd like to start just by outlining the concept of the Faustian bargain, which in sort of previous conversation, in writing, you've explored as a kind of white Evangelical decision to undermine or abandon their moral principles and faith commitments to sort of attain more power and control through bipartisan politics. So could you talk a little bit more about how you conceptualize this bargain, what brought you to sort of frame and think that through and some of the implications of this, this Faustian bargain?
CORNELL BROOKS: Sure. Well, first of all, let me just say a word of appreciation to the dean, certainly Charles at the institute, to Eric for his great research, and to you, and to all of you. This is an incredibly important conversation at a particularly pivotal time.
So coming to this evening, to this room this evening, and discussing and engaging this question of a Faustian bargain-- this conversation takes place at a moment in which the country is deeply divided along racial lines, class lines. We see, over the course of the last three years, a precipitous rise in hate crimes, categorically, , across the board, particularly qualms based on race but also ethnicity, based on LGBTQ status.
So this is a very, very serious moment. And so this conversation really takes place in the midst of a great deal of moral anxiety. And so to talk about a Faustian bargain, for me, means as a civil rights lawyer and as a minister of the church, it is really my observation that where we came through the 2016 election, where the two most accurate predictors of who voted for whom at the top of the ticket were race and religion, specifically religious identification and racial apprehension, namely racial identification, as in being evangelical-- 81%, 82% voting for the president.
Racial apprehension-- namely, when you ask voters, what are you most concerned about? Anxieties around immigration, anxieties around, is the country going too far, becoming too diverse? And so race and religion drove, much more so than economic anxieties, the outcome of the last election.
Now, when we begin to talk about evangelicals, and we begin to talk about this notion of, essentially, making a deal with the devil, engaging in a bargain, what we see is a relative silence on issues ranging from voter disenfranchisement, policing, environmental racism, many of the issues that animate much of the discussion, particularly among-- discussion of social justice, particularly among millennials. On the other hand, we hear some volubility, if you will, on issues around abortion, the cultural divide.
And so there's silence and volubility and engagement with respect to the appointment of conservative members of the court. And so where we have polling data that makes it very clear that evangelicals vote not on the basis of religious beliefs but on political concerns that are largely the same as conservative members of the Republican Party.
Now, that's not a partisan indictment. It's a sociological observation and a theological observation that goes to the heart of how we, as a body of believers, broadly, inclusively, relate to one another. And it has everything to do with not only moral discourse but how we pursue social justice.
TODNE THOMAS: Now there's this tethering of religion and race in the Faustian bargain. And as someone who teaches around this, who's teaching around this right now, who writes around this, where do religious concerns begin and end? Where do racial concerns begin and end? And so this concept of the Faustian bargain, this sort of electoral polling data sort of shows the continued need to sort of continue to explore that.
So it strikes me that this bargaining, the silence on certain issues, volubility on other issues, speaks to a kind of theopolitics, right, where people have ostensibly very important and seminal theological ideas about god, about community, and also sort of very material conditions and concerns-- politics, right? So how does this Faustian bargain perhaps remap how we think about the placement of religion and race, the placement of theology versus politics and their overlap from your purview?
CORNELL BROOKS: You know, it's hard not to assess theopolitics without looking at through purely utilitarian lens, right? So in other words, one can look at the way we vote and engage social justice issues or not, our engagement with politics or not, or retrenchment from the world or not, in utilitarian terms. In other words, what's best?
So for example, when Franklin Graham says that there's certain behavior that we can forgive, we can overlook, in terms of the president. We can give him a Mulligan, right? He's saying, essentially, in terms of repentance and forgiveness, in terms of redemption, we start the clock over once the president becomes president. Now, you can talk about that in political terms, as in, look, we're concerned about the appointment of judges. We're concerned about a policy agenda. But that's not the way that was described.
It was a golf metaphor going to how we look at, how we regard someone in terms of their moral stature. So in other words, there were things that we were uncomfortable with in the campaign. We got beyond that, we cast a ballot. Let's start the clock over because he's president.
Well, that would be interesting if you were just simply talking about Democrats and Republicans. But you're really going beyond that, right? So looking at this in, going beyond the kind of utilitarian political crassness to really looking at some of the claims-- so when we talk about engaging and retreating from the world, so to the extent that evangelicals are acting like fundamentalists and retreating on certain issues in a racially selective way, we have to examine that and examine not only the policy implications but the theological implications.
The implications here are massive. So when it comes to-- let's be very concrete. So for example, in the state of Florida, when amendment four was passed, which enfranchised those who were previously disenfranchised, we saw on one day, 1 million people enfranchised out of the 6.1 million people who were disenfranchised as a consequence of having a felony conviction.
We saw the evangelicals within the state of Florida split on the issue. The Heritage Foundation and I think one of the leading evangelical organizations choose to be silent as opposed to announcing opposition, others lining up behind the amendment. Tremendous implications for voting rights in this country, where you had one out of every 10 voters in the state of Florida disenfranchised as a consequence of having a felony conviction and where the evangelical vote was critical and where more people were enfranchised in one day than going-- than any time going back to the 26th amendment, in terms of women getting the right to vote.
So in other words, this is not a theological debate to be discussed on the sidelines. This has to be discussed in the context of the center of our democracy. So there's that ambivalent embrace or retrenchment from the public sphere, but you can talk about policing. You can talk about environmental justice issues, the whole range of issues where how we frame evangelical theology, the distinctions we make between evangelical theology and fundamentalist theology and the left or the right Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, has everything to do with how much social justice we get in long and the short term.
TODNE THOMAS: So it's almost thinking about a refundamentalism, potentially, of evangelicalism. And that might be-- we might be seeing a new epoch within evangelical history. There's this-- it strikes me that in the sort of two examples that you just outlined, the idea of giving a Mulligan, right, or really just a kind of way in which born again conversion and forgiveness is extended to certain kinds of situated actors and the ways in which certain modes of forgiveness or a concession for born again conversion and regeneration are withheld from certain kinds of actors-- for instance, incarcerated people.
So this idea of theopolitics, that people have potential theological ideals. But politics determines who those ideals are extended to and who they're withdrawn from or withheld from. And so I'm thinking about a conversation sort of example that we discussed before. And that is, for instance, the Christian idea of the Great Commission.
CORNELL BROOKS: But before we get to that, can we just hit a pause button on this notion of conversion, right? Think about this. So to the extent we have evangelicals who may render the conversion experience, the salvation experience in microscopically individualized terms, the individual has a salvific experience, a conversion experience.
The president is extended grace or forgiveness as in the individuals, separate and apart, distinct from the larger political process, the larger happenings in our democracy. Consider this. When we think about criminal justice reform, we talk about forgiveness, redemption, a second chance.
We think about individuals turning their lives around, individuals reentering society. But if we were to think about forgiveness and redemption in broader terms, macro terms, policy terms, when there are 48,000 collateral sanctions-- that is to say, legal prohibitions, legal bars, imposed on people post-conviction. So in other words, once you're convicted of a felony, losing the right to vote, losing the right to housing, losing the right to public benefits, losing the right to pursue and compete for any number of jobs, 48,000 laws on the books at the state and federal level-- 10s of thousands more than we have not yet counted at the municipal level.
Literally, the American Bar Association has a ticker on its website that is yet counting the innumerable bars. So if we think about this in legal and policy terms, that's a way of extending forgiveness, grace, and redemption-- that is to say, regarding a human being as a moral equal, redeemed, fit to be embraced in society. So the president gets an individualized, politicized, theologically retrofitted extension of salvation and forgiveness as a Mulligan.
We have 2.2 million people behind bars, 70 million Americans with criminal records who were categorically, at a macro level, at a policy level, left unforgiven and unredeemed. So our definition of salvation, redemption, forgiveness, as individualized or macro--
TODNE THOMAS: Or racialized?
CORNELL BROOKS: Racialized, anything but communal, has everything to do with how we embrace and engage people as citizens and as persons in the society. So that's a big deal. The Mulligan is not just a metaphor. It's a big deal.
TODNE THOMAS: I mean, I also think about-- so my writing is about black evangelicals and how black evangelicals navigate family values and language, especially as people of African descent who have dealt with the weight of pathology on black family systems. And so just to have done field work with black evangelicals in Atlanta who have spent a great deal of time thinking, critiquing, trying, crying, building together to make families, and to navigate a heteronormativity family ideal, and then see an election where someone completely sidesteps a certain kind of evangelical heteronormative script, and it's fine, was a kind of intellectual vertigo I have yet to recover from. I want to return--
CORNELL BROOKS: I don't have any medication for that.
TODNE THOMAS: Listen. That's what writing is for, right? I want to return to this idea of conversion as individual or communal and think about other kinds of sort of Christian principles that, for some reason, don't seem to be sort of central principles that we see within sort of a kind of civic evangelicalism but that's still a part of sort of the Christian, Judeo-Christian worldview.
So this idea, for instance, of the great commission or the way in which the Bible talks about the treatment of the stranger versus immigration policy. And thinking about, why is it that certain ideas or morals or perspectives or processes, like conversion and forgiveness, become foregrounded, but other ideas, like the Great Commission, which is an inherently collective notion, become marginalized within a certain kind of civic evangelical sort of discourse? What's your take on that?
CORNELL BROOKS: So both as a civil rights lawyer and as a minister, I don't have vertigo, but it's really like being in a perpetual state of being perplexed. Here's what I mean. So to the extent that we had the great commission being greatly truncated and circumscribed in terms of immigration policy-- what I mean by that is to the extent that we are charged to make disciples, as long as we don't make disciples in ways across borders, or we defined who is a stranger in ways that leave out gender.
Concrete example-- in terms of public policy, when the attorney general leads the Department of Justice to reconsider domestic violence, spousal abuse, which perpetuated largely against women, and in our day, that is a means of seeking refugee status and asylum. This is a gender truncation, gender circumscribing of policy, but it's also because our former attorney general also invokes scripture, invoked the Book of Romans.
In other words, in terms of us being a lawful government, a government that has some semblance of being endorsed by god, that this is a rationale for us adhering to a policy in terms of family separation, but underneath that policy, or beside that policy, invalidating the basis upon which women can seek asylum to this country, in contravention of human rights norms.
And this is critically important because we focus on the policy but lost sight of the fact that we redefined the stranger. We redefined who we deem to be a refugee, who we deem to be ineligible to provide radical hospitality as in protection, right on our southern border. This was incredible.
And what we saw was many of my evangelical brothers and sisters lamenting these horrific images on television of children weeping for their parents, with nobody thinking about the flag, no one expressing moral outrage on women weeping in the wake of not being able to escape their abusers. That's a real-- I mean, that's a gigantic theological problem, the likes of which we've not really grappled with, nor do I think we've really brought to the fore.
So in other words, we've expressed more revulsion over crying children, but--
TODNE THOMAS: Gender-based violence.
CORNELL BROOKS: Eh, that's a debate for the lawyers.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, it strikes me that there is this contraction. So forgiveness becomes an individual matter. The stranger becomes just like the country in geopolitics and the border, the stranger becomes contracted, as something that excludes women fleeing gender-based violence, something that becomes patriarchally-defined.
And so one of the things that occurs to me is how this sort of theological contraction, the extension of certain kinds of graces, the extension of certain kinds of statuses and protections, the retrenchment of it, aligns with what we see with neoliberal forms of governance. And that is neoliberalism as a mode of government where the state increasingly withdraws resources, public infrastructure is thinned, people are increasingly expected to rely upon privatized resources.
So health care is a matter of your individual health care provider and not a public good. I mean, even think about just the fact that more likely to use Amazon than public libraries, but that there is a withdrawal, a contraction of the state itself, that has to do with a different approach that was seen to reverse a kind of social welfare state. So how can we conceptualize this theopolitics, this evangelical theopolitics of contraction, with an approach to government that we're increasingly seeing, a privatized government, the thinning of public infrastructure?
CORNELL BROOKS: I would also add, probably as troubling is the substitution of market explanations.
TODNE THOMAS: That's part of neoliberalism too.
CORNELL BROOKS: And market rationale for morally principled rationale for public or communal engagement. And so with respect to immigration policy, if we move from so-called chain migration or family reunification as a grounding for immigration policy to one that is skill-based-- in other words, those who come to this country are here based on their ability to contribute to markets, strengthen labor markets, there's been a subtle shift there, not merely in terms of retrenchment from the public square but a substitution of--
TODNE THOMAS: A market for morality.
CORNELL BROOKS: Market for morality. That's precisely it. But the problem is that when we look at immigration policy, it is not not only subscribed, but certainly racialized. So if we look at immigration policy going back to the 20s, and we also look at, say, for example, the evolution of the Ku Klux Klan-- so the Ku Klux Klan came into being-- I should say the resurgence of the post-war reconstruction Ku Klux Klan came into being as a consequence of this I would call it 2 Corinthians Christianity, kind of very thin Christianity, a kind of subverted patriotism, but also immigration policy.
TODNE THOMAS: Absolutely. It's nativist.
CORNELL BROOKS: Nativist. And so the point being here is either our religion, our faith is being corrupted or it's being co-opted. In either case, we've not been as clear as we might be. And again, I'm not talking about engaging in theological finger pointing but rather really being clear about what the challenge is.
So it can be not just providing an evangelical neoliberal veneer over our xenophobia, our nativism, but being clear about the degree to which neoliberalism, co-opted by evangelicalism, are mutually reinforcing and dangerous, right? This is really a great amount of concern because as a civil rights lawyer, frankly, when you're in-- if you're working in the state legislature trying to get reform, you see these arguments.
People aren't calling them neoliberal arguments, but you see moral arguments taking a backseat. You see people of faith being discredited, delegitimized, their arguments being delegitimized, because there are these race lies and gender-circumscribed neoliberal arguments subverting, undermining moral arguments, co-opting, and then sometimes evangelical arguments simply being the veneer or, in fact, driving the entire endeavor. Real world consequences in terms of immigration policy, criminal justice reform-- again, environmental justice challenges as well.
TODNE THOMAS: I think of a student in my neoliberalism class last semester wrote a paper about informatics and algorithms in terms of predicting crime. And so the ways in which there's an emphasis on tech in our rationality, informatics, predictive logic, and that being the thing that drives decision-making, versus moral languages of redemption or forgiveness, of reconciliation, and that being sort of the thing that drives conviction, that drives how particular spaces are rendered, that drives policing, policing practices as well. So I mean, what does this mean?
I mean, certainly there's a way in which there can be a holy or unholy alliance between a certain technical approach to governance and evangelicalism. But at what point should there be a concern that even evangelical moral discourse stands to be potentially usurped?
CORNELL BROOKS: Right. Right. If you all don't mind, if I could just paint a picture, because sometimes when we talk about informatics and algorithms, it's mathematically pretty, but it's not morally clear. Here's what I mean. So we're in a city, you have police departments using big data and algorithms to essentially predict who's likely to be a victim of a crime and who's likely to perpetuate a crime.
So if you can imagine, any of you, being in your home or apartment and having the police arriving at your door and saying to you, Charles, based upon the data that we have, you're likely to be a victim of a crime. Your neighbor is likely to pose a threat to you, or coming to your home and saying, we have every reason to believe that you're going to kill your neighbor.
So we're watching you. We've allocated resources, as in policing resources, to this neighborhood based upon this algorithm. So based upon these formulas that are often racialized-- in other words, where we allocate police resources based upon arrest. And arrests have everything to do with where we've decided to place police resources.
So again, this might not be particularly clear. But when one of my colleagues who had led the Chicago Police Department and who formerly led the Newark police department said to me once, listen, if you are standing on a corner in Newark, New Jersey at 2 o'clock in the morning, I don't care how you're dressed, I don't care what kind of car you drive, I don't care what your criminal record is, you're going to be locked up. You're going to be picked up. That's simply the way it is.
So how does this relate to evangelicalism? To the extent that there's certain spaces we retreat from, it allows neoliberal rationalizations and rationale to substitute for moral engagement. So for example, we say because we want to get racialized discretion out of policing because we want to get racial bias out of sentencing, we're going to rely on big data we're going to rely on algorithms, we're going to rely on these technocratic methods to sentence people based upon assumptions of guilt.
So in other words, you can lose your liberty as a consequence of an algorithm that is proprietary information. You don't know what goes in it. And those moral voices that might be a corrective are silenced because we've chosen it to be silent.
TODNE THOMAS: Because of and the bargain.
CORNELL BROOKS: That's right, because of the Fau--
TODNE THOMAS: A moral withdrawal.
CORNELL BROOKS: A moral withdrawal, a Faustian bargain, a utilitarian bargain. So they're real world consequences. So for example, in a city like-- let's just say in a city like Chicago, where policing resources are allocated based upon data, this has everything to do what a community looks like. And so the point being here is, this interesting theological debate has life and death consequences. In other words, it's not merely our silence. It's also our absence. And bad things happen when we're not present.
TODNE THOMAS: I'm also thinking about what a certain kind of algorithmic approach to policing, simply knocking on your door and saying, you're likely to be harmed by someone in your community, or you're likely to harm someone in your community, how that thins the neighborhood, how that thins community life, how that shapes people's willingness or investments in social justice and a sense of the collective, versus people withdrawing into a certain kind of private and more individualistic folk-- I'll take care of mine. You take care of yours.
And so this approach to policing, to governance, is something that reproduces the cycle of this sort of feel logical contraction, of, I'm going to take care of the sort of private domain. But the public collective good, which animates social justice, I'm not worried about that. I'm trying not to get killed by my neighbor.
CORNELL BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. So to the extent that it leads to a kind of moral resignation, to the extent that the world is an irredeemably corrupt and bad place where really our only escape hatch, if you will, is our individualized salvation and the rapture.
TODNE THOMAS: Right. Fundamentalism.
CORNELL BROOKS: Fundamentalism. But the problem here is, we're really selective about it. So when it comes to criminal justice reform, yes. So in other words, when it comes to live black and brown children who stand on the edges of the prison industrial complex, we withdraw from that, or we're selectively silent. When it comes to unborn children, we're vocal and visible. That has profound consequences.
TODNE THOMAS: Right. Right. So I teach a lot about counter-narrative, sometimes controversially.
CORNELL BROOKS: That's a surprise.
TODNE THOMAS: I'm thinking about the ways in which the potential for undoing this "Faustian bargain, right, and thinking about some of the examples you have from your own background in terms of organizing social justice initiatives, where we see people breaking out of a kind of theopolitics of self-interest, a theopolitical contraction. And so your work in New Jersey around Ban the Box strikes me as a really poignant and, I think, very luminous example of the kinds of potentialities that exist out there for moving beyond Faustian bargaining. Would you care to talk about that?
CORNELL BROOKS: Sure, sure. So maybe this set the stage, if you will. About seven years ago, I worked in Newark, New Jersey, and for an organization doing a lot of criminal justice reform work. And whether the issue is juvenile isolation or solitary confinement, the barriers that people face with criminal records, people of faith almost always on the front line.
I mean, we need to be very clear about this. This is not a-- this is not a matter of self-congratulation. It's a recognition of a public policy truth. So in this instance, we were dealing with this whole matter of, what do you do about the fact that you have 70 million Americans with criminal records who, when they enter the job market, they face this innocuously written, apprehensively answered little box that asks on the employment application, have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?
And if you answer in the affirmative, it virtually consigns your employment application to the digital trash can. So in New Jersey, we-- my old organization, which is kind of public policy think tank-- we came across this study called the redemption study, literally. A sociological study that simply said this-- if a person who's committed a crime goes a certain period of time without committing another crime, they're no more likely to commit a crime than anybody else in the labor market.
But these sociologists-- Alfred Blumstein, who won that essentially the Nobel Prize for criminology-- called it the redemption study. And the rate of risk where you essentially become like everybody else was called a hazard rate or the point of redemption. So we thought to ourselves, what would happen if we took this bit of sociology and gave it to a group of ministers, imams, priests, and rabbis, and asked them to interpret this in theological terms?
So we had a teach-in on this sociological study. And so the rabbis, the priests, the imams said, well, in terms of grace and forgiveness, in sociology, it looks like the point at which the risk is equal, roughly four and a half years for a robbery, roughly seven or so years for assault, that looks like grace and forgiveness in biblical terms to us. And so we then begin to ask the question, well, what would happen if we got the imams the priests, the ministers in the state of New Jersey aligned around a Ban the Box initiative, taking that box off the application.
Long story made short, we got nearly all democratic-- mostly democratic legislature, Governor Chris Christie, who did not come to the table willingly, and the business community which had lobbied against this bill so much so that it was the most lobbied billed, as in lobbied against. And we got it passed in a year and a half. And the clergy were incredibly important because what they began to do is they translated grace and forgiveness in traditional moral terms, but they also talked about in terms of public policy.
And so what it meant was having Pentecostals and Baptists and the Jewish Federation, reconstructionists, reform, conservative, everybody kind of coming together and talking about redemption and grace in real world terms. So in other words, when you get out of prison with 30 bucks, landing on the street the middle of the night with nowhere to go, hoping to be able to sleep on somebody's couch, the state essentially saying to you, we're going to give you a second chance in terms of being considered for a job.
So in other words, in terms of pulling people out of this retrenchment posture, I think a lot of it has to do with literally reminding our communities, and I mean that broadly-- our, evangelical, liberal, progressive, whatever the case may be-- of what we-- what our traditions say. Like literally, what do your sacred texts say? What do your sacred traditions say? What are the moral implications of that for the stranger standing in front of you?
TODNE THOMAS: Right. It strikes me-- during fieldwork, someone talked about putting feet on the word.
CORNELL BROOKS: That's right.
TODNE THOMAS: Right. So there's a way in which this whole conversation really strikes me as outlining for us that moral ideas and concepts, which I think are often understood or properly understood as abstractions, as ideologies, as concepts that people hold in their heads, actually do shape how people move, vote, and engage the world. Right.
CORNELL BROOKS: I would even go so far as to say the ways in which public policymakers use our language to drive public policy. I mean, when you sit down with a governor or a state legislator, and they say, well, if you do the crime, you have to do the time-- in other words, we believe in retributive justice. Or you hear legislators say, well, we believe in Old Testament justice, neither having read the Old Testament or the Hebrew scriptures, as you define.
But this is the kind of thing you hear on the regular. And so the absence of a moral voice, the absence of a biblically literate voice, is life and death consequential, because it has everything to-- I mean, for example, when you have a governor-- this is a true story. I said, look, we need the governor of New Jersey to move on this.
I had a group of clergy who said, what do you want him to do? I said, well, we want him to support his legislation. I said, but we need to meet with him. They said, well, when do you want to meet with him? I said, well, next week would be great. What time? I said about, maybe afternoon, three o'clock.
Said, he'll be there. I said, you can do that? So literally, I arrive at a meeting, three o'clock, Governor Christie comes in. I'm there. The minister's nowhere to be seen. We sit down, we talk, we go back and forth. The ministers come in about 45 minutes later. The governor asks them, what do you want?
We want this bill to give people a second chance. And we support this. You need to do this. Now, meanwhile, we've got to go back to lead our churches. We're out of here. Here's the point. Sometimes our communities of faith need to act like they have power.
They need to act like they have moral urgency. And that means appreciating that our moral voices are important, not just in terms of justifying policy-- I should say, supporting policy-- but we are-- our moral agency is impactful in terms of ideation, coming up with policy and engaging policymakers and helping in clarifying their thinking because a lot of times their thinking is, frankly, it may not be up to par in terms of the Yale Divinity School standard. Right, they need some help.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah. Or the Harvard Divinity School standard, which is obviously better. So--
CORNELL BROOKS: I knew you were going to say that.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So this strikes me as-- I know, you're like a Yale Law grad, so I'll let it go. This strikes me as a very practical and important conversation for divinity school students, for divinity school faculty, for people interested in divinity education, who are probably fielding questions of, what are you going to do with that? Right?
And thinking about what it means to have an education, to have a heart for community engagement, for understanding the significance of moral language, for understanding the significance of religious concepts, and the real world applications, the putting feet on ideas. You, yourself, have worked and taught in theological settings. So this isn't your first go round at a divinity school table. What practical lessons or advice do you have for the divinity school students who are thinking about the social justice implications of their work and of their education?
CORNELL BROOKS: So I think one of the things that, having taught in a seminary and a law school, is that I think that sometimes seminarians are not as policies self-confident as they should be. Here's what I mean. So if you think about the Voting Rights Act, which is widely regarded as the most it was before Shelby v. Holder, the most important and consequential and effective civil rights law-- yes, Nicholas Katzenbach, the former US Attorney General, helped craft that law, but there were ministers and clergy and regular people who said, this is what should go into the law.
And so my point being is, appreciating the capacity on the ideation side of things. In other words, it's not merely that we're great at providing the moral argument for policy options that have been defined for us. We get to define what those options should be because we have the moral imagination and the moral ambition to be sufficiently large and expansive in terms of what should be done. So I'd say just really having that analytic self-confidence.
Number two, appreciating the need for interdisciplinary engagement-- so in other words, to the extent that those who are the beneficiaries of a theological education engage with those doing public policy, the law, people doing the educational policy or criminal justice reform and appreciating the fact that, in many ways, I would argue, the language of schools of divinity, seminaries represent the kind of lingua franca of public discourse.
In other words, the average person does not say, what is the cost-benefit analysis of health care reform or criminal justice reform? They frequently use some pretty straightforward language. Is this right, or is it wrong? Does it help someone, or does it hurt someone? And so the point being here is, we have language that is not only good for building the case for something but is literally the language that people use to understand what the public policy challenge is.
And so just being very clear on the power of our language and the need to engage public policy challenges in an interdisciplinary way, I think that's really critical in terms of how we build reform. So in other words, rather than having clergy coalitions operate by themselves, clergy coalitions need to be integrated in terms of disciplines. In other words, we need to have sociologists, we need to have anthropologists, we need to have lawyers, we need to have public policy folks who are embedded in our discussions so that when we frame issues, we're doing so with all the power of our prophetic traditions. And by prophet, let me be clear about this. As I understand, prophets crafted the books as schools of prophets. So I'm a big--
TODNE THOMAS: Not as individuals.
CORNELL BROOKS: Not as individuals. So I'm a big believer that we need to operate as schools of prophets, recognizing that we have a tradition. But we need to make sure that among the prophets are some folks, god forbid, from the Kennedy School, maybe from the law school. There may be heretics and people going to hell up there, but we need them. I think that's critically important because sometimes we can be off by ourselves.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah. I'm thinking about, for instance, the work being done by people like William Barber, right, The Third Reconstruction, poor people's campaign, this insistence on a reclamation of moral language as a basis for ecumenism for alliance, for political mobilization, the idea that the Christian right doesn't own moral discourse, that there is coalition potential in the use of moral language, concepts, like redemption, that have interfaith resonance.
And I'm also thinking about ecumenicalism and interdisciplinarity. And so how do you understand the potential for the Divinity School, the Kennedy School to engage in bridge-building work? You have to William Monroe Trotter Collaborative Center for Social Justice. How can Divinity School students provide a kind of moral curation for social justice, and how can the presumed secularity that's often written on-- I think inaccurately, written onto social justice, sort of benefit from-- why should Kennedy School students come here? I know they shouldn't, right?
CORNELL BROOKS: That's right.
TODNE THOMAS: But why should Kennedy school students come here? Someone who straddles the legal world and sort of theological worlds.
CORNELL BROOKS: Well, the case I'm making, certainly, in my classes is that if you are contemplating a social justice campaign without a moral and ethical grounding, it is incomplete. So in other words, public policy without that is necessary but insufficient. And so if you look at any major social justice movement in this country, there's almost always a moral basis, moral language.
And the language can be-- could be, should be inclusive, it should be welcoming. But it's necessary. And so for example, when we think about criminal justice reform in this country, frankly, having done marches from one end of the country to the other--
TODNE THOMAS: Literally.
CORNELL BROOKS: --filed lawsuits, wrangled judges, governors, so on, so forth, it really comes down to the moral argument. Frankly, the economic arguments buttress the moral arguments and not the other way around. So in other words, once we've decided what is right to do, then we decide, well, can we really afford it?
Or we use the money to get the people's attention so that they hear what is right. In other words, we have to say, is reasonable and affordable. Now having heard that, you need to hear that it's right. And when you look at some of the progress-- I mean, think about this. The juvenile incarceration rate in this country has been cut by 50% in 10 years. That's the story we're not telling.
Quietly, you have a conservative Supreme Court saying, well, when it comes to locking up children, as in life without parole, for crimes committed before the age of 18, we think that violates the Eighth Amendment. Now we're going to rely on some neuroscience. The neuroscience says that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, one's impulse control is not fully developed until one is well beyond the age of 18.
So the neuroscience backs up the moral intuitions that children are, in fact, not adults. They don't have the same more culpability, therefore-- have the same legal culpability, and therefore we need to punish them differently. That's a moral argument, dressed up as neuroscience. That's language we've got to claim. But the point being here is these battles have been waged using our arguments, but we've not necessarily been clear about the ways in which we've exercised our moral agency. So it's just incredibly important.
TODNE THOMAS: Right. So how are we on time? Are we--
CHARLES STANG: It's-- we've got about 20, 25 minutes left.
TODNE THOMAS: OK. So I want to talk a little bit about the work that you're envisioning at the William Monroe Trotter Center and the work that you're envisioning, the work that you're already conducting, how we can get Divinity School students on board, Divinity School faculty on board your vision for your work at the Kennedy School and collaborations with the Divinity School.
CORNELL BROOKS: Sure. So first of all, let me say for those who may not know who he is. So as quite a secret as it may well be, Harvard has this incredible radical activist legacy that is undernoted. So William Monroe Trotter was the first African-American member of Phi Beta Kappa, first African-American Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard.
He was also a founder of the Niagara Movement, which gave rise to the NAACP. Much of the-- many of the direct action strategies you see on your Twitter feed and on television, he pioneered 100 years ago. So in other words, this is the activist who was kicked out of the White House by no less a figure than Woodrow Wilson because he objected to segregation in the federal workforce.
This is the same person who led the first film boycott against the Birth of a Nation, who pioneered marches and demonstrations. And so this is a figure who looms large in Harvard's history. So when I came here, I wanted to create a civil rights institute that would honor that legacy. A contemporary of Dubois, really a gigantic figure.
But one of the things that kind of struck me is that there's a chasm between policy and practitioners between the academy and activists and advocates across the country. And so the notion was, what would happen if we could push out policy into the hands of activists and advocates in real time to precipitate change in ways by learning and leadership opportunities for students?
Concrete example-- the Ban the Box law that we discussed earlier, there was a scholar here at the Kennedy School who was previously at Princeton by the name of Devah Pager. She wrote a book called Marked. In the book Marked, it simply made clear, demonstrated that people with criminal records face tremendous employment discrimination in the labor market.
Not knowing who she was, literally a group of my colleagues and I, we said, this is a wonderful book. This is a great piece of scholarship. We were lawyers and policy analysts. We can turn this into legislation. And because we had 30 or 40 grassroots organizations who were part of something we called the Second Chance campaign, we literally took this scholarship, and we sliced and diced it and turned it into talking points.
Then we put it into sermons. We had college students tweet about it. Louis had teach-ins around this scholarship. Nobody knew who this woman was, but we thought that this scholarship could drive and animate and inspire public policy reform. So coming to the Kennedy School, I thought, what would happen if we took all of this wonderful scholarship here and pushed it out and created interdisciplinary teams?
In other words, what would happen if you have divinity school students who were hoping public policymakers talk about immigration in moral terms and having some moral clarity and having some biblically literate, informed discussions about moral analysis? What would happen if there's a theological frame for public policy-- major public policy challenges?
So in other words, how do we treat children who have been kicked out of schools on a brutally efficient school-to-prison pipeline? How do we think about that? In other words, is it just about saving money? Is it just about the efficiency of the juvenile justice system or not?
And so what would happen if you had theologians and ethicists and lawyers and public policy people working on concrete problems? My experience was, in New Jersey, where we did this, we passed six major bills in four and a half years, concretely, providing food stamps and public benefits to people coming out of prison, who'd been previously disqualified, talking about the morality of that with the economics of it. So in other words, bringing in the economists and saying, how much is this going to cost us? How much are we losing relative to the state of New York and having clergy say, what's the impact of this if we deny food stamps to a household head who has children?
So in other words, you have the money argument, they had the moral argument. And so the idea around the way Monroe Trotter collaborative is to take on discrete public policy challenges, number two, build interdisciplinary teams, including clergy and theologians, ethicists, along with public policy and lawyers, and working with community groups to solve these problems in real time, giving students leadership opportunities? So concretely, what happens when students write legislation?
Right. So we had students from NYU Law and Princeton undergraduates writing legislation. We said, look, we'll get the lawyers to figure out the whereas clauses, but what do you think needs to go into this? We'll make sure it's not unconstitutional, at least not today. And let's see what we can do. But the point being here is, to give you one last example, think about Pauli Murray, right?
Pauli Murray was, you recall, the first African-American woman who was Episcopal priest. She had a GSD from Yale Law School. But go back to when she was a law student at Howard University. And as a student, she bet her professors, we can beat Jim Crow in a matter of years. We can defeat separate but equal.
She writes a paper. She bets her professors. The professors, as in the men, Thurgood Marshall and the litigators of Brown v. Board of Education, take her ideas. They defeat Jim Crow through Brown v. Board of Education based on her third-year paper turned into a book.
I tell my students that story to say, you do not have to wait till you're old and decrepit and a professor at the Kennedy School. OK, this change can be made in real time based on scholarship-- on the scholarship that you're engaging in now. And so the idea around the Trotter Collaborative is really look for discrete public policy challenges, put together interdisciplinary teams, and give students leadership learning opportunities in real time.
TODNE THOMAS: And that strikes me as a very dynamic concept and model for collaboration, increasing opportunities. In my neoliberalism class, we talk about the development of neoliberalism as a philosophy, as an ideology. And I said, you have a group of students at the University of Chicago who cook up this idea, literally probably over some beers at a bar.
And why could-- why couldn't the antidote to something like that occur in a classroom like ours? Why wouldn't it? One of the things that I find really humbling, slightly terrifying, but gratifying is knowing that Divinity School students, a lot of them come from really dynamic professional backgrounds.
They have very important sort of nodes of community engagement. And so I know that the work we do in the classroom will have an afterlife in the future in a way that, having taught at other kinds of academic institutions and departments, I can't always account for. I know that the boundaries of the classroom don't exist just in terms of the semester.
And so I'm thinking about what it means to sort of embrace the sort of dynamic genius of our students, right? What can we-- now I'm asking a sort of personal question. What can we as professors learn about our pedagogy and how we teach in creating classroom situations or creating research situations that allow spaces for students to harness that potential? What recommendations would you make to faculty, to teachers? We have a field ed program for MDiv students, where there they're required to go out and do community engagements. So what kinds of experiments can we make in the classroom and in our own approaches to education?
CORNELL BROOKS: So I think one of the things that I think about is in law school, we use the case study method. And we study legal cases. And we use a Socratic method. And similarly, in Socratic method with lots of lectures. But we didn't use case studies.
One of the things that I'm kind of struck by is what happens when we use moral case studies? So in my classes, I posed the question, if you were going to conduct a criminal justice reform campaign, what would the moral arguments be? How do we talk about the Imago Dei in terms of kids in juvenile lockup or in solitary confinement?
How do you talk about the Imago Dei in terms of a coalition? So in other words, when people are dispirited and disempowered. One of the things you have to do before you can convince your opponents is you've got to convince your base that they have moral agency. So in terms of a case study, one of the things to think about is like, in the seminary context, with divinity school context, like taking on a concrete public policy challenge or moral challenge and helping students work it through-- in other words, challenging them to come up with arguments, challenging them that think about how to build coalitions, challenging to think about, how do you harness the power of religious communities?
How do you preach, teach, create the lectionary around public policy challenge? Give you a concrete example. When we did the march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC-- so I had this fanciful notion, well, we can march from Selma to Washington over 40 days and dramatize voting rights-- very expensive, very difficult. Well, one of the things I have to say I was impressed by, the Union of Reform Judaism.
I got on a call with a group of rabbis. They bought into the idea. We can carry a Torah from Selma to DC, over 40 days. Here's what happened-- 3,000 or so people marched. Millions of people engage online. But theologically speaking, the URJ, one out of every 10 rabbis in the country participated in the march.
There were marches in Jewish day camps around the country. There were lectionary readings created around voting rights and voter suppression. And so this catalyzed a theological, teachable moment within the Union of Reform Judaism. So my point being is, just in terms of theological education, thinking about, basically, moral and theological case studies, so that we think about ways in which we can challenge our students to do this kind of work and then lastly, using papers as a predicate for reform.
All right, so I have two papers in my class. The first is descriptive. The second is prescriptive, as in, design your own social justice campaign. Who are the participants? Who are the coalitions? What are the moral arguments? What are the economic arguments? What interdisciplinary team will you create? How do you-- how do you hold it together?
What's the concrete public policy or legal challenge that you're up against and that you're going to face? What kinds of resources will you develop? Now, that's not-- probably not the grist of most courses. Maybe you can only afford to have one or two of those but it might not be unhelpful.
TODNE THOMAS: Thank you.
CORNELL BROOKS: Thank you.
CHARLES STANG: Thank you so much, both of you, Cornell and Todne.
TODNE THOMAS: Mm-hmm.
CORNELL BROOKS: Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you.
TODNE THOMAS: Thank you.