Cornel West is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the author of 20 books, from Prophesy Deliverance! (1982) to Race Matters (1993) to Black Prophetic Fire (2014). He’s also, more controversially, a candidate for president of the United States on the 2024 Green Party ticket. Whatever one thinks of his decision to run a third-party challenge (see The Nation’s editorial), as a founding member of Democratic Socialists of America and perhaps the leading Christian thinker on the American left, West brings both a public intellectual’s depth and a long personal history of radical politics to this unprecedented moment for American democracy.
I interviewed West on March 30—for a Nation feature (appearing in the current issue) about the Christian left and resistance to white Christian nationalism—before he announced his candidacy. Now that he has, West’s thoughts on the relationship of Christianity to American politics resonate a bit differently. It’s often said that the Christian and broader religious left in this country is too small and ineffectual to have any real influence on the course of our national elections. That conventional wisdom is about to be put to the test.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity
Wen Stephenson: I want to ask you, Dr. West, what would you say is an authentically prophetic Christian response to the situation we’re in as a country? What does that look like?
Cornel West: Well, the first thing is to acknowledge the depth of the spiritual decay in the American empire. And that includes acknowledging that decay within one’s own soul, because as much as we fight against the empire, we’re still in the empire, and so we’re deeply affected. So the first thing is just to unflinchingly acknowledge, candidly recognize, just how deep the spiritual decay is—and to recognize it both in oneself and in one’s own church. Have a certain sense of humility about the situation
The second move, though, is then to keep track of the prophetic tradition, past and present, which builds on that acknowledgment of the depths of the spiritual decay, but comes back and says, “No, we need a spiritual awakening.” And that has to do with looking at the world through the lens of the cross, which is to say, looking at the world through the lens of the suffering of poor people, vulnerable people, no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation, or national identity. So already, you know, you shatter a certain kind of narrow identity politics, because you’re looking at people’s humanity, no matter what.
And then the third is just to live it, to speak in such a way that their suffering is highly visible. And to be parts of organizations or movements, whether it is around housing, a living wage—and in the electoral political system it would have something to do with either Bernie Sanders or somebody who’s concerned about the organized greed at the top, Wall Street, the Pentagon, Silicon Valley, and so forth.
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Those are the three moves that I think are very important. This is nothing new. If we were to go back to Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin King, and Rabbi [Abraham] Heschel, in 1965, they had to acknowledge the depth of the spiritual decay—Heschel called it “spiritual blackout,” Martin called it a “sick society,” and so forth—and then they said: “But we’re not going to stay there, we’re not going to just remain cynical and fatalistic.” They said: “No, let’s look at the prophetic tradition, past and present,” and they spoke, in their critiques of Vietnam, in their calls for the Poor People’s Campaign, in their struggles against American apartheid in the South, with Jim Crow, or the patriarchy—these days, especially, not losing site of the precious humanity of our trans and gay and lesbian fellow human beings.
I mean, the more extreme formulation would be Brother Berrigan’s, when he said, “Every Christian ought to look good on wood.”
WS: I don’t remember that one.
CW: That’s Berrigan, brother. You know, “There’s a cross for everyone, there’s a cross for me.” Or, it’s Bonhoeffer’s cross—of discipleship. Jesus says, “Come and die.” Brother King used to say, “The cross is not something that you talk about; it’s something that you die on.”
So that’s what Christian discipleship is, if you really want to follow this Palestinian Jew named Jesus, in all of our fallibility, all of our finitude, all of our fallenness, then you got to really look good on wood. Which is to say, you got to be able to know there’s a cross for you to bear.
WS: What do you see today in white Christian nationalism, or Christian nationalism in its various forms?
CW: Well, those Christians who have accommodated themselves to empire, or accommodated themselves to the status quo, became Constantinian Christians. I mean, my fellow Christians who are Christian nationalists, white supremacist Christians, male supremacist Christians, anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, and so forth, they’re contemporary extensions of Constantinian Christianity—the dominant form of Christianity since 312. That’s just how fallen we are. In some ways, we should never be surprised, because it’s always a critical minority who constitute the prophetic ones, who want to be genuine disciples of Jesus—I mean, look what happened to him. They’re going to Calvary, not the Yellow Brick Road, you know?
WS: I went back and looked at your first book, Prophecy Deliverance!, from 1982.
CW: Oh, I appreciate that.
WS: And I’m reminded of this passage in your preface to the 20th anniversary edition, where you write: “For me, to be a Christian is not to opt for some cheap grace, trite comfort, or childish consolation but rather to confront the darker sides, and the human plights, of societies and souls with the weak armor of compassion and justice.” And then you go on to marvel at this mystery—this “fundamental human mystery,” as you say—of “how and why love so thoroughly crushed by evil forces is not fully extinguished.” I feel like that’s a message that we need to hear right now, you know?
CW: Absolutely. This is one of the reasons why the best of the Black interpretation of the Christian tradition is so badly needed. Because the Black experience brings a blues-like sensibility—because the blues is catastrophe lyrically expressed—and so it brings catastrophe with it. You see, we come from enslavement, and we come from the lynching trees, and we come from Jim Crow, we come from being hated, terrorized and traumatized, and yet we produce, at our best, these love warriors, freedom fighters, and wounded healers. That’s Fannie Lou. That’s Irene B. West, my mom. That’s Martin King. That’s John Coltrane. That’s Count Basie, out of Calvary Baptist Church, and on and on. Sarah Vaughn out of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in Newark. These folks, they bring a catastrophic sensibility. But in the face of all of these evil forces—these hounds of hell—is precisely this mystery, which gives them access to a tradition that chooses love, that chooses compassion, that chooses joy, that chooses community.
And the best of that is to empathize with other people undergoing catastrophic situations, too. I mean, with many of our fellow citizens who are now Christian right-wingers, and moving into Christian neofascism with Trump, many are dealing with catastrophic situations. They’ve lost their jobs, they’re wrestling with wage stagnation. It’s just that they interpret it through replacement theory, right-wing style, rather than identify with other people. And we have to identify with their catastrophic circumstances. And they’re wounded. Deeply wounded. They’re choosing to be wounded hurters rather than wounded healers. But we can’t lose sight of their economic circumstances, their spiritual circumstances, in terms of drugs and violence in their households, breakdowns, and a whole host of things that the white working class and the white poor have had to deal with in the history of America.
WS: Let me ask you about the separation of church and state. Would you like to see elected officials, say, in the Democratic Party, who are committed Christians—and since we’re talking about King, I can’t help but think about Raphael Warnock [who holds King’s pulpit in Atlanta]—to be more outspoken about their faith, their faith commitments, in pushing back against a corrupted version of Christianity? Or does that somehow cross a line? Because for a lot of people it crosses a line, people on the left especially.
CW: I have no trouble [with it] at all. The trouble, though, is not so much what they would say but what they would do. Brother Raphael falls far short of Brother Martin. And I have great respect for Raphael. He’s a Union Theological Seminary brother and an Abyssinian Baptist Church brother. But he’s still in many ways a neoliberal politician. Which is to say, he goes with a political party that is captive to corporate interests, and captive to militarism. How does he vote when the Pentagon wants 10 more billion dollars, and it gets 10 more billion dollars that it doesn’t even want? Why does he vote for that?
You see, that’s not King at all. That’s what got King killed, coming out against Vietnam. It was not just a moral stance, it was a critique of militarism. So, on the one hand, Raphael is so much better than the conservative Republican candidate that many of us still have a critical support of him in that sense. But he falls so far short, because part of the spiritual decadence is in neoliberalism itself—in which you use prophetic language but have no intention of engaging in prophetic witness. We saw that with Obama, who could give one of the most lovely speeches in the world about peace, and have six wars going on at the same time and dropping 546 drones, killing innocent people. Those are war crimes. You see, you can’t give a pretty speech about peace and commit war crimes, and expect anybody to say you’re continuing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. That’s a lie. It’s just not true.
So, what has happened, we’re in a moment now where, in electoral politics, Obama and Raphael are nearly the best we can do. Bernie was better, but Bernie is an exception. That’s the best the Democratic Party can do. And Bernie’s not a member of the Democratic Party. That says the best the Democratic Party can do is Barack Obama, is Raphael Warnock. You say, wait a minute, these folks are tied to militarism; they’re tied to Wall Street. You have a choice of bailing Wall Street out or bailing out homeowners, you go automatically to Wall Street, with Larry Summers counseling you.
WS: The polling group PRRI [Public Religion Research Institute] published a survey on Christian nationalism in February that tried to measure how many of these folks there are. They had a set of five statements that they asked respondents to agree or disagree with. One of statements was, “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.” I had stop and think about that one. So, if I agree with that, does it mean I fall somewhere on the spectrum of Christian nationalism? I mean, I think MLK would have agreed with that.
CW: Yes, exactly. Right.
WS: And he was the opposite of a Christian nationalist. You know, what about love of neighbor, compassion, mercy, justice? So the question is, whose Christian values?
CW: I think that’s a very, very legitimate question. You see, Christianity is way of life. It’s not just a commitment to a dogma or a doctrine, and it’s not just a certain attachment to values in the abstract. It cuts so much deeper than that. A way of life is a highly complicated, variegated structure of feelings, and a structure of virtues even before values. Virtues have much more gravitas than values do. For Christians, you see, love is not a value, it’s part of the three virtues [faith, hope, and love], that have a unity of virtue—that are intertwined with the hope, intertwined with the faith—that generates a very concrete, fleshified way of following a God manifest in space and time who was not a value, but a person, Jesus—“I am the truth”—the fleshification, the concretization of truth-talk, right?
So you say, “Oh, I can see you got ‘Christian values.’” No, I’m following this cat. I’m following this mother-hucker—[Laughter]—who I believe was the son of God.
You can imagine, by the time you get to social scientific surveys of this stuff, things have become so flattened out that it’s just almost deodorizing the Christian funk. If you need a survey and a questionnaire, and so forth, then all of a sudden Martin King gonna sound like the Klan. The Klan wants Christian values. Martin Luther King does too. So they’re both Christian nationalists? Well, at that point, what are we really talking about? Good God almighty!
WS: You’ve been a member of Democratic Socialists of America since the beginning. And I was interested to learn that there has always been a “Religion and Socialism” working group within DSA.
CW: Oh, my God, yes. John Cort. Brother John, absolutely.
WS: Do you think there’s space today for something like a revival of Christian socialism?
CW: Oh, absolutely. It would take new forms; it would never ever take the form of what it was in the past. And it may take place within deeply religious contexts rather than within DSA. But the impact of DSA, the influence of DSA, can take on some very, very important religious socialist forms. There’s no doubt about it. We might not even call it socialism in the end. The word socialism might be too scary for people. But that’s what we’d be doing. Just call it intense democracy, or whatever.
WS: I’ve talked with David Bentley Hart at Notre Dame—he published a new translation of the New Testament with Yale University Press a few years ago—and he’s also a democratic socialist. He told me that he doesn’t really see any choice, if you look at who Jesus was and what he taught and what the early church was all about, but to be some sort of socialist.
CW: I think at the normative level that’s absolutely right. But in the end, one could argue that it doesn’t have to be connected to any particular ism. Christianity already has the wherewithal to get us there.