Document Type


Publication Date



My reflections flow from some recent writings by the critical race scholar Derrick Bell. Bell acknowledges that in prior work he has focused on the "the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of racism" but now suggests the possibility of a "deeper foundation" arising from the conjunction that "[m]ost racists are also Christians." This statement is Bell at his best: at once both extremely provocative and extremely unsettling. I want to explore and develop two aspects of Bell's argument.

First, if we want to examine and understand the many dimensions of racism, it is not enough to employ economic, political, or cultural criteria, important as those may be. The perspective of religion or theology offers another vantage point from which to comprehend racism's workings, a perspective that may in fact offer a "deeper foundation" for understanding racism's perdurance.

Second, despite the likely inclinations of many that any conjunction of race and religion would typically be a positive, even inspirational one-the story of how religious faith has sustained many engaged in the long struggle for civil rights - that is not at all the only story of race and religion to be told. In Part I, I want to relate both the positive and negative stories-including the positive value that his Christian faith has for Bell himself-but we must begin there by facing the negative. The negative story of racism's employment of Christianity requires us to ask what there is about Christianity that has led to this stain. In Part II, I then expand on Bell's comments and assess more directly the interrelation of religion and law, particularly civil rights law. I specifically attend the interrelation between the spiritual inspiration of religious faith and its potential institutionalization in law.

Finally, in Part III, I go beyond Bell and briefly assess the ascriptions of faith applied to law and their consequences for the civil rights movement. Throughout we will find positive and negative intertwined on both sides.