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Faculty Bibliography Highlight: Terrence Johnson

Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis facing American Democracy offers a portrayal of W.E.B. Du Bois as a moral philosopher, a thinker who possessed a fervent desire to transform social life by using a model of liberation built on black sorrow, despair, and hope. I argue that the overlap between religion and politics in his writings establishes the foundations of his moral imagination with tragic soul-life as its backbone. I am arguing that our normative commitments about race more often than not determine the terrain of justice and the limits of our political freedoms. To account for these commitments, I propose that we extend political liberalism’s primary principles of justice, based on equal liberty and opportunity, to include a principle based on the overlap among suffering, death, and hope. When we isolate suffering and subjugation from our political ideals, we create weak political actors whose imagination, habits, and practices emerge from what Michele Moody-Adams calls affected ignorance, the notion of choosing to ignore what is otherwise obvious in an effort to maintain a sense of normalcy. For instance, while the fragments of slavery’s aftermath stare us directly in the face, most of us choose to step over the debris, rendering the fragments invisible, as we build an individual and collective “self” without a trace of the nation’s murky past. Political liberalism, I believe, ought to construct a “self” that reflects the haunting debris within the nation’s racial past and lingering uncertainty on issues of race.

We can only face our murky narratives when we find the courage to step outside of our familiar landscapes. Our inability to grapple with American slavery, religion, and democracy within a singular context stems from our individual and collective fear that we will lose the love and the freedom we acquired in the re-memory of our looming pasts. Howard Thurman reminds us that our heart must contain a swinging door through which the “other” may enter and exit. The problem here is that we cannot control the terms on which people enter and exit our narratives and how they appropriate what they find. As long as our competing narratives remain protected by uncritical and unbending guardian angels, we will remain locked in a past without an ability to recover and to redefine subsequently the epistemic terms of our contemporary conditions. Our reluctance to engage race beyond polite cocktail conversations says a great deal about our capacity to wrestle with the depths of human existence. If we engage race in contemporary debates on religion in the formation of justice, the themes of the conversations will broaden and our ability to deepen public life will substantially increase.

-Terrence Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religion

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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