Pastoral Psychology

, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 47–61

Varieties of Political-religious Experiences


    • St. Meinrad School of Theology

DOI: 10.1007/s11089-011-0383-2

Cite this article as:
LaMothe, R.W. Pastoral Psychol (2012) 61: 47. doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0383-2


In this article, I consider the intersection of and interplay between the religious and political experience and conversion. More particularly, I identify and describe five types of political-religious experiences, which are represented in the lives of five public figures.




Experience is not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you. (Aldous Huxley, in Kegan 1982)

In his popular book, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James mapped the contours of religious experience, assessing what is a sick or healthy soul, defining conversion, and describing mysticism. Tucked within these pages were references to James’ own religious experiences and struggles (Richardson 2006). Absent in James’ seminal book was any reference to the political aspects of a person’s life and their relation to his/her religious experience. Yet, in James’ own life, especially during middle age, his political leanings found expression via his public speaking and writing. For instance, James publicly railed against the imperialist machinations of U.S. government as it colonized Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii. He wrote, “an absolute savage and pirate passion of military conquest always is piracy positive and absolute....We are cold-bloodedly, wantonly and abominably destroying the soul of a people who never did us an atom of harm in their lives” (in Richardson, p. 384). What James apparently did not note or explore was the intersection and interplay of the political in religious experience and the religious in political experience. If he had, perhaps James may have considered that a) embracing the political, in some instances, is a part of religious conversion and healthy for the soul and b) political realities of the world often give rise to maladies of the soul, which suggests that political resistance may signify the stirrings of a healthy soul.

In this article, I consider the intersection of and interplay between the religious and political with regard to faith experience and conversion. More particularly, I identify five types of political-religious experiences. In aiming to describe such a complex human reality as religious-political experience and conversion, I do not seek to be exhaustive or definitive. Instead, I raise to the foreground how the political aspects of human life shape some religious conversions and experiences, and vice versa. I begin with how I understand religious and political experience and conversion. This provides the foundation for depicting the five types of political-religious conversions.

Before launching into the argument, several caveats are in order. First, in using individual lives as illustrations of the various types of conversion and religious-political experience, I do not attend to or explore other factors and sources of religious experiences or conversions, such as developmental history and family relationships. While these are often significant contributing factors in conversion/experience, I have, for the sake of space, sought to focus exclusively on the political and religious features of their experience and conversions. Second, I wish to make clear that not all religious-political experiences of these public personages signify the presence of conversion—at least from their perspective. Although some people may understand their religious-political experience in terms of conversion, others may simply view their religious and political views and actions as aspects of their life and not the result of or connected to conversion. Finally, in this article, I will avoid making assessments regarding the health or sickness of someone’s political-religious experiences and expressions, leaving that task for a later work. Instead, my aim is to demonstrate that religious and political experiences intersect, shaping a person’s self-understandings, motivations, behaviors, and commitments.

Religious and political experiences and conversion

Definitions are never definitive; this is especially true when we come to the concepts of religion, politics, and conversion. While the obvious slipperiness of these terms signifies the complexity and rich diversity of human experience and change, some reductionism is necessary to provide frameworks to illustrate the types of religious-political experience and conversion. This said, I begin with a brief definition of religion and politics vis-à-vis experience and conclude with a definition of conversion.

Since I started with William James, he will get the first word on religion and religious experience. “Religion,” James wrote (1958), “shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (p. 42). The idea of the divine is tricky, and for James it means “only such primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest” (p. 47). Focusing less on experience and more on meaning, Thomas Luckmann, decades later, defined religion as “the capacity of the human organism to transcend its biological nature through the construction of objective, morally binding, all-embracing universe of meaning....Specifically, religion is equated with symbolic self-transcendence” (in Berger and Luckmann 1966, pp. 176–77). Not explicitly mentioning morality or self-transcendence, Geertz (1973), an anthropologist, offered a more general view of religion. He wrote that, “A religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (p. 90). Together, these definitions portray religion in terms of powerful meanings, beliefs, values, emotions, moods, and motivations in relation to the divine, transcendent, or mystery. Given this, I suggest that religion comprises complex, symbol systems seen in specific shared languages, narratives, rituals, and sacred objects that individual participants use to a) provide meaning and purpose for routine and special occasions, b) express and shape emotions and motivations, and c) order behavior in relation to their conceptualization of the universe or cosmos and eternity. Religious experience, then, is the particular core meanings, beliefs, values, emotions, and motivations that are linked to and derived from the group’s cosmological narratives and rituals. By “core” I mean that religious individuals view these particular meanings and values as central to their way of being in the world.

It is important to stress that I view religious experience more broadly than the idea of one’s belief in the transcendent, one’s sense of self-transcendence, one’s intuition of God, or one’s apprehension of or being apprehended by the ultimate. Surely, these are aspects of many individuals’ religious experiences, but I would add that a more mundane and routine use of religious narratives and rituals also provide meaning and value. For instance, a practicing Jew, who is agnostic, does not feel or believe in being apprehended by God or the ultimate. Nevertheless, I argue that she has religious experience in that she understands herself and her behavior—using religious narratives and language—to be part of this community of faith. In addition, I would contend that she has a religious experience when she understands her motivations and actions in caring for others in terms of the language and narratives of her religious community and tradition. So, religious persons may say they have no experience of or belief in God but have religious experiences in that the religious narratives of their community of faith are their frameworks for understanding themselves, their experience, and their behavior. I would add here that an individual may understand that he has had a religious experience even though he is not a member of a particular community of faith. Despite the absence of commitment to a particular community of faith and its tradition, a person may make use of the tradition’s religious framework to construct and name his experience. In brief, one does not have to be a member of a religious community to have a religious experience, but one cannot have a religious experience without having the religious symbols through which to construct and name that experience as religious or spiritual.

While religions have political features, my depiction of the political, taken from various sources, is primarily associated with society and how life is organized in the polis in Western democratic nations. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1958) stated that the “polis, properly speaking, is not a city-state in its physical location; it is an organization of people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (p. 198). For Arendt, stories and storytelling found the polis where courage is “present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world” (p. 186). Indeed, for Arendt, the “organization of the polis…is a kind of organized remembrance” (p. 197) that is manifested in the public space of shared narratives and institutions. This communicative space encompasses a complex web of economic, political, and social rules, roles, values, beliefs, fantasies, and expectations/goals that are expressed and lived out in collective, secular rituals, institutions, and narratives. These social-political rituals, structures, narratives, and disciplines inform citizens about whom to trust and where their loyalties lie; they provide a shared identity that is crucial to making ethical decisions or assigning standards to social practices (Nealon 1998); they signify and make licit the kinds of authority, power, privilege, and prestige that are meted out in diverse social contexts (Foucault 1972; Kertzer 1988; Ransom 1997); they represent the good aims citizens are to pursue and the sanctions that result when one fails (Benhabib 1992); they shape who we care for and how we care (Hammington 2004). This intricate economic, social, and cultural web serves as the milieu that gives rise to and shapes the political experiences of its members (Samuels 2004). Political experience, then, points to the use of these socially held systems of meaning and value to organize experience and order behavior in relation to others in the society, social institutions, and public spaces.

Political experience is distinct from religious experience in two ways. First, in general, political experience in Western democratic societies is linked to secular narratives that do not depend on the cosmos or the transcendent for legitimacy and authority. Certainly, political discourse may include religious language, but the political realm’s legitimacy does not depend on these references to the divine. Consider, for instance, Ronald Reagan, who said, “I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between two oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who have a special love of faith and freedom” (quoted in Lundestad 1990, p. 17). Similarly, George W. Bush asserted that American values are “God-given values” (quoted in Ryn 2003, p. 7). Both men wove religious imagery into their political speeches. The theological referents in their speeches, which may seem to have enhanced the nation’s legitimacy for a particular group of voters, were unnecessary for the founding of the political system and its values. One’s political experience as a Republican, for instance, is not socially recognized as authentic or legitimate by reference to God or a religious tradition, but rather to the Constitution. Put differently, the Bible, for a Christian, serves to legitimize and lend authority to his/her religious experience, while the referent for the political is a country’s constitution and accompanying laws. In terms of political experience, the primary referent is the nation state and its constitution instead of God, the cosmos, or the universe. Second, because Western democracies are diverse religiously, political experience is linked to and refers to the general society and its public spaces, while religious experience is more specifically tied to and emerges from a particular community of faith and its traditions, even when the person’s formal membership in this community may be lacking or even non-existent.

The concept of conversion is almost always associated with religion, yet there are instances when people have used it to depict changes in their political beliefs. Conversion, from the Greek and Hebrew, means to turn or return (Rambo 1993, p. 3). Of course, what this “turn” signifies and the various factors and theories that describe and explain it are complex and variously understood (Lofland and Skonovd 1981; Kilbourne and Richardson 1988; Rambo 1993, 1999). Although it is impossible to address this complexity here, I understand conversion as an “observable behavioral phenomenon” that may be both secular and sacred, which, ostensibly, has far-reaching social and interpersonal effects (Oates 1978, p. 149). For Oates, the observable behavior is linked to changes in the person’s values, beliefs, attitudes, etc., which may be religious and/or secular in origin. I prefer to think of conversion as a change in a person’s core values and meanings, which may be religious and/or secular, leading to behaviors and commitments that are understood in terms of these values and meanings. In addition, I, like Rambo (1999), prefer the notion of conversion as a process instead of a singular event—a process where one deepens one’s advocacy, witness, and commitments. The processes associated with these “turns” accompany changes in religious and/or political attitudes, beliefs, and values that are reflected in persons’ behaviors and commitments.

Type 1—the lingering influence of religious experience in political experience

Some individuals, who are born into a religious tradition and community, later reject, disclaim or simply “lose” their religious faith. Usually, this involves a twofold conversion or change in self-understanding and their concomitant use of religious symbols and narratives. For many, the first movement is the child’s deliberate acceptance of his/her family’s religious tradition, which is often marked by a religious ritual (e.g., baptism, Bar Mitzvah). During this period, the person understands him/herself in terms of a particular religious tradition and community, and makes use of these symbols to organize experience. So, for instance, an individual’s experience of love or awe would be interpreted and understood primarily in terms of the religious narratives of his/her community and its traditions. The transcendent referent for love and awe would be God, Yahweh, Christ, Allah. The second change occurs in late adolescence or adulthood when the individual, for an assortment of reasons, leaves his/her religious community, thus letting go of his/her family’s religious narratives to understand and organize experience. Some people replace these religious symbols with political narratives and ideas, which shape the person’s self-understanding and behaviors—behaviors, for instance, that take the form of greater political engagement or activism. The referent for love and awe changes to humanistic or secular objects or aims (e.g., social justice). This said, while the individual no longer believes in or makes use of his/her earlier religious faith, some core religious values continue to permeate his/her political worldview. James Baldwin’s life illustrates this type of religious-political experience and conversion.

When James Baldwin (1963) was 14 years old, he underwent “a prolonged religious crisis” (p. 15). During that hot summer, Baldwin wrote, “the moral barriers that I had supposed exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society” (p. 23). Fearful that a narrow thread kept him from descending into the despair of addiction and the temptations of criminality in the ghetto, Baldwin sought the security and solace of religion. Instead of going to his father’s church, where the senior Baldwin preached, James went to his friend’s church where one evening “everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar” (p. 29). Not long after joining the church, James Baldwin became a young fiery preacher. He would often rush “home from school, to church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart” (p. 34). Adolescent fervor for Jesus infected his preaching, inflated his sense of self, and served to defeat and deflate his father’s ego (p. 32). Baldwin’s deliberate acceptance of the religious faith of his parents, while overdetermined, led him to view himself through the lens of Christian symbols and values, shaping his behavior and relationships.

Within two years of Baldwin’s initial religious experience and conversion, his perspective began to change. The bargain Baldwin made with Jesus at the foot of the cross—that Jesus would keep Baldwin blind to his inmost secrets and doubts (p. 34)—began to unravel. Going to school at a predominantly Jewish high school, Baldwin was frequently confronted with questions and critiques of the religious tracts he distributed, which he increasingly found difficult to defend and even more difficult to believe. The contradictions his Jewish friends pointed out were only part of the growing number of questions and doubts about his religious faith and conversion (pp. 35–36). His disappointment and disillusion with the hypocrisy of Christian ministers who fleeced their congregations prompted him to doubt Christianity and the possibility of Christian virtue. Baldwin’s disillusionment with himself also emerged from an awareness of the gap between his public persona and private thoughts. Gradually, he realized that his preaching was fueled by a desire for recognition and acceptance rather than the love of God. Baldwin was also keenly aware of his father’s failures and prejudices, as well. He experienced a very painful revelation one day after his Jewish friend had left the house. Baldwin’s father asked if James’ friend was saved and James replied coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” His father’s response was to slap him across the face “and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing” (p. 37). This split between the message of Gospel love and the realities of life in his family, the church, and society became increasingly painful for Baldwin to navigate. When he “faced the congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike” (p. 39).

Over time, Baldwin became more aware that the “transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door” (pp. 39–40). He had not changed as a result of his conversion. Even if he could continue to feel the love of God in the church, the Holy Ghost had not transformed his hatred. Put differently, for Baldwin, the painful and tragic irony was that the “passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves” (p. 41). Hatred and fear of himself and others, Baldwin eventually realized, were the result of the oppressions of racism. Blacks “in this country…are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world” (p. 25). Initially, the antidote for this self-hatred and the self-destructive behaviors of addiction was the church, and Baldwin’s religious experience and conversion were expressions of his desire to smash the chains of being black and poor, and to be freed from the shackles of self-loathing. Baldwin secretly believed that the bargain he made with Jesus—to keep from Baldwin the secrets of his heart (p. 34)—would free him. Of course, it did not, and Baldwin became increasingly and painfully aware that he was imprisoned by hatred, self-loathing, and fear. Moreover, he could no longer ignore the deceit and greed of his fellow preachers. Nor could he fail to see the insidious effects of racism—injustice and stifling poverty. Experiences of disillusionment and profound disappointment led Baldwin to question Christianity and himself.

We see the bridge from the religious sphere to the political and secular realms in Baldwin’s angry desire to tell people “to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike” (p. 39). This transition included Baldwin’s awareness of his hatred. He also recognized the gap between his desire for love and his desperate need for recognition and appreciation. Lastly, Baldwin increased his awareness of the pervasiveness and roots of oppression—an oppression of African-Americans that implicated Christianity. Baldwin wrote,

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him. (p. 47).

Although Baldwin was disappointed in and disillusioned about Christianity, he did not reject it or all other religions. Rather, he could not make use of these religious traditions to understand his experience or motivate his behavior. He replaced Christianity with a more political and secular interpretive framework, largely informed by the ideals of freedom and equality that are rooted in the U.S. Constitution and the social-political narratives that affirm the fight for freedom. Baldwin used these narratives and attending ideals to enrich his self-understanding vis-à-vis his identity and political and social activism.

Once he changed, once he crossed the bridge to the shores of the political-secular realm, Baldwin continued to be influenced by Christian values of love and mercy. He wrote, “It demands great spiritual resistance not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate” (pp. 99–100). In a letter to his nephew James, Baldwin wrote, “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope....that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (pp. 8, 10). In my view, Baldwin turned away from Christianity but did not jettison some of its core values, such as love for one’s enemies. This love was realistic; it was hard-nosed love that included the recognition of the crimes of racism and white proclamations of innocence (pp. 6–7). It was also an inclusive love and acceptance. Baldwin advocated loving blacks, seeking to set them free of the chains of racism, but he also knew that this love must be accompanied by the work of accepting and loving whites; otherwise society would not change. Without this dual approach, the transforming, spiritual power of love would remain confined to religious services and communities, leaving society unchanged and racism untransformed. In brief, Baldwin’s conversion to a more secular-political faith included some of the Christian values and ideals of his youth.

James Baldwin’s life reveals a journey away from the religious roots of his childhood to a more secular-political self-understanding and commitment. Despite his turning away from Christian to secular-political narratives to understand himself and the world, he continued to be influenced by some of the values and ideals embedded in these earlier Christian narratives. Put differently, as an adult, Baldwin’s political experience and self-understanding were informed, in part, by the religious experiences and values of his youth.

Type 2—from nominal or no religious background to religiously informed political activism

In secular societies, it is not uncommon for children to grow up in families that do not participate in any religious community or make use of a particular religious faith tradition. Still other families have a nominal or tenuous relationship with a religious community and tradition, going to church or synagogue on major holidays. In adulthood, some of these individuals may experience a religious conversion, which informs their political views and activism. Dorothy Day, for instance, became a Roman Catholic as an adult and this faith informed and deepened her desire to help the poor even as she criticized the political leaders and the economic and political systems that fostered and legitimized poverty. To the right of Dorothy Day, politicians such as George W. Bush and Tom Delay, while perhaps possessing political motivations for saying this, have spoken publicly of their adult religious conversions, which both insist influenced their political decisions. While there are many examples of this type of religious-political conversion, I wish to focus briefly on Malcolm X’s (Haley 1964) religious conversions and their impact on his political activism.

Malcolm X’s early life was filled with tragedy. His father, a Baptist minister, was most likely murdered when Malcolm was very young, leaving his mother to care for the children during an economic depression. Struggling to survive, Malcolm X’s mother turned to the Seventh Day Adventist community for solace and help. The pain of grief, the deprivations of racism, and the burden of caring for children without much help was apparently too much for his mother to endure. While in grade school, Malcolm X’s mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital and Malcolm X was sent into foster care with a white family.

By all accounts, Malcolm X’s religious upbringing was nominal, even though both parents had clear religious convictions. This said, Malcolm X’s first conversion occurred during his eighth-grade year. One fall afternoon, Malcolm X’s eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, asked Malcolm if he had considered a career. “The truth is I hadn’t. I never have figured out why I told him, ‘Well, yes sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.’” (p. 38). Here we see a young boy aspiring to reach for a socially esteemed profession. His teacher replied, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everyone admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” (p. 38). From this point, Malcolm withdrew from white people and no longer would let the term “nigger” slide off his back. This painful and jarring epiphany involved the realization that even though he identified with whites, he would be forever excluded from privileged social-economic spaces. No matter how bright or gifted Malcolm was, he now knew that the only options open to him occupied the lowest sphere of economic and cultural life. Malcolm X’s painful disillusionment included Christianity. He turned away from Christianity, believing it was a white man’s religion. For years, he disdained African-Americans who accepted this religious faith, because it only served to shackle them to white domination. In my view, Malcolm X’s rejection of Christianity was a religious conversion with political underpinnings. In other words, Malcolm X consciously turned away from Christianity and this rejection was also a political turn or change as well, because he increasingly recognized the racism present in and fostered by social, economic, and political structures.

Malcolm X’s second religious conversion was, by his own confession, a hustler’s attempt to leave prison (p. 159). His brother, Reginald, had told Malcolm X of his plan to get him out of prison. The first thing he had to do was to stop smoking and eating pork. Later, when Reginald told him about the devil (white people), Malcolm X began to reflect on the moments in his life when white people had control over his life. In this reverie, he recalled a white Jewish man who had been kind to him, yet Reginald said all whites were devils, because they exploited black people. The kindness of whites, Reginald argued, was an illusion that blinded Malcolm X and other blacks from the deviousness of whites. Malcolm X went on to recall the white judge, white teachers, and white medical personnel who took his mother to an asylum. All of this churned in his mind. Shortly after Reginald’s visit, Malcolm X was told the story of “Yacuba’s history,” which detailed the superiority of black people and their eventual betrayal by whites—a washed-out race (pp. 167–171). This story and his relationships with his family and Elijah Muhammad served to bolster Malcolm X’s religious commitment to the Nation of Islam and his political views about white racism. During his remaining time in prison, Malcolm X diligently studied both his newfound faith and U.S. political history.

Malcolm X’s religious conversion to the Nation of Islam accompanied and was informed by the political realities of racism and the subjugation of black people in the U.S. In other words, the redemption and freedom offered in and through the Nation of Islam was inextricably linked with the political desire and commitment to free African-Americans from the bonds of religious, political, economic, and social structures of racism. For instance, as an assistant minister, Malcolm X railed against white political oppression, praised the beauty of black people, and preached against the illusions of Christianity: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on us.” “My beautiful black brothers and sisters…” (p. 205). “The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re dead, while this white man has his milk and honey” (p. 224). Malcolm X’s initial religious conversion and commitment to the Nation of Islam were intertwined with a political conversion and a determination to awaken and free African-Americans from the insidious shackles of racism.

Malcolm X understandably idealized Elijah Muhammad. Eventually Malcolm X had a “psychological and spiritual crisis” that catalyzed his third religious-political conversion (p. 214). The crisis largely stemmed from his disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad, who had had extra-marital affairs, and the knowledge that people within the Black Muslim religious-political hierarchy wanted Malcolm X dead (pp. 300–305). Disillusionment and a deep sense of betrayal, however, did not lead Malcolm X to reject Islam. In one sense, this was not a crisis of religious faith, if we understand faith to be his relationship with Allah. It was, however, a crisis of faith in his religious leader and his faith in the religious-political organization of the Nation of Islam. In response to this crisis, Malcolm X channeled his disappointment in innovative ways, creating a new political organization and starting a new mosque in New York City. The most significant response, however, was his decision to make a pilgrimage to Mecca—a decision that would prove instrumental in his religious experience and political activism.

Malcolm X’s encounter with an internationally known Muslim scholar, Dr. Mahmoud Youssef Shawarbi, challenged Malcolm X to reconsider his rejection of white people. Dr. Shawarbi said, “No man has believed perfectly until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (p. 326). Shortly after this brief meeting, Malcolm X flew to Mecca. His first stop was Germany, where he encountered other Muslims traveling to Mecca. The religious believers “were of all complexions…the feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here” (p. 328). More accurately, there was a diversity of colors and nationalities among Muslim travelers. At an airport in the Middle East, he was again struck that there “were white, black, brown, red, and yellow people, blue eyes and blond hair, and my kinky red hair—all together brothers” (p. 330). The world was not bifurcated into black and white. Allah, Malcolm X realized, loved and valued people of all colors equally. This acceptance of social and racial diversity changed the way Malcolm X conceptualized his stance toward white people. He continued to acknowledge the pervasive destructiveness of racism in U.S. culture and politics (pp. 380–382), but he also recognized that there were good white people who sought to address the structures of oppression. Put differently, his religious epiphanies not only broadened his religious views, they also resulted in a more democratic and inclusive vision of humanity. He wrote, “Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists. I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are Uncle Toms! My friends are black, brown, red, yellow, and white” (p. 382).

The journey of Malcolm X reveals a movement from a nominal religious experience as a child to deep religious-political faith as an adult. His first conversion involved a turning away from Christianity and a growing awareness of the pervasiveness of racism in the political and economic realms. In prison, his initial turn toward the Nation of Islam eventually led to his surrender to Allah and the teachings of the Nation of Islam. This conversion was inseparable from and informed by changes in his political views and activism, which involved freedom for African-Americans. The third religious-political conversion did not change his earlier political and religious commitments for freedom, but it did change his stance toward whites and people of other religious faiths. In brief, Malcolm X’s political experiences cannot be divorced from his religious experiences and conversions. Each informed and deepened the other.

Type 3—religious upbringing to religiously informed political awareness and activism

There are men and women, like James Baldwin, who grow up in religious families and eventually leave their families, as well as their religious tradition and community. There are others who retain their religious traditions and communities and, as they age, become more politically informed and active. Their core religious values shape, justify, and give meaning to their political activism and their political activism shapes their religious faith and experience. In this type of conversion, the movement is from a childhood religious conversion—or conscious acceptance of and participation in one’s family’s religious faith—to increasing awareness that something is amiss in society and motivation to engage in the political sphere. Their motivation and engagement are understood in terms of central religious values, which are, in turn, joined to their political values and commitments. There are numerous examples of this type of political-religious experience and conversion. A number of South and Central American liberation theologians, for instance, grew up Roman Catholic and in adulthood became political activists and critics of political elites and structures (Gutierrez 1985; Sobrino 1984). Their activism was informed not only by political theories, but, more importantly, by their Catholic faith. In South Africa, Desmond Tutu (Allen 2006) was baptized in the Methodist Church and later joined the Anglican Church. The deepening of his religious faith accompanied a growing passion for justice in an apartheid-riven nation. In the U.S., the life of Martin Luther King is an illustrative example of this type of religious-political experience and conversion.

King grew up in a religious household. His father, whom King adored and admired, was a prominent Baptist pastor in Atlanta. His mother was the “daughter of A. D. Williams, a successful minister” (Carson 1998, p. 3). At the age of 5, King joined his parents’ church. This act, King later wrote, was less a heartfelt conversion than it was “a childhood desire to keep up with my sister” (p. 6). Joining the church was natural and seemingly inevitable since his family life revolved around church—a church that served as a second family. King’s religious commitment and experience at age 5 were followed by a painful shock a year later when a white friend was no longer allowed to play with King. Confused, hurt, and angry, King turned to his parents, who told him that “I should not hate the white man, but that it was [my] duty as a Christian to love him” (p. 7). This response was singularly unsatisfying, leaving him to wonder “How could I love a race of people who hated me and who has been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years” (p. 7). This parental response exemplifies the intersection of the religious and political, which became a part of King’s religious-political struggle and journey. In the midst of the social and political realities of racism, which King was beginning to experience consciously, his parents advocated the Christian maxim to love one’s enemies—a challenge extremely difficult for any adult, let alone a child. This event, in my view, was King’s first conscious political experience, which his parents understood in terms of their core religious convictions—religious convictions that for years niggled at King’s psyche and religious life.

King recalled other childhood experiences of social-political humiliation that only served to intensify his questions and heighten the separation between what he experienced in church and what he experienced in the larger white-dominated society. These early experiences of segregation and social degradation, in my view, shaped King’s political sensitivity to pervasive legalized injustices, which he struggled to understand using a Christian interpretive framework. That is, King and his family knew they were children of God, loved and valued. Anything that seemed to negate this Christian reality and truth was unjust. Hence, his parents’ admonition to love his enemies reflected their Christian value of being just in the face of social and political injustices. Yet, as a child and later as a teenager, King grew angrier at these social humiliations and economic injustices and they served to deepen the question he had at age 6—how could you love someone who actively hates you? King continued to struggle with this question, gradually arriving at some answers while he was in college and graduate school. Thoreau, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, Marx, and especially Gandhi became his teachers as he wrestled with how to answer the question and reconcile core Christian values of love and reverence for others with the political and social realities of racism. King’s religious-political conversion or answer to the question posed when he was a child was nonviolent political action, which he justified theologically.

While King was interested in confronting racism as an adult, a pivotal turning point or conversion occurred when he was faced with the decision to return to the South. This turning point, in my view, is a wonderful illustration of the intersection and deepening of his political and religious values and commitments. This decision was yet another step in the process of conversion toward a religious-political stance of nonviolent activism. Soon after King finished his doctorate, he received a number of job offers. After living in the North for several years, King was reluctant to return to the segregated South. Nevertheless, he received an offer to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. “I was torn in two directions,” King wrote. “On the one hand I was inclined toward the pastorate; on the other hand, toward educational work....And if I accepted a church, should it be one in the South, with all its tragic implications of segregation, or one of the two pulpits in the North?” (p. 44). He and Coretta decided that they had a moral obligation to return to the South. This decision, in my view, was a turning toward greater religious-political activism that would flower in the desiccated grounds of a segregated South.

This decision was just one in a series of religious-political experiences and resolutions that deepened King’s religious-political commitments. Two brief examples illustrate this. Shortly after Rosa Parks’ arrest, King gave a speech. In one section, he said, “And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth” (p. 60). This is a beautiful example of the intersection of religious and political beliefs and experiences. That is, King’s (and others’) experiences of injustice were understood in political and religious terms and these interpretive frameworks accompanied and informed King’s increasing activism. Another example of this occurred not long after, when King was weary, anxious, uncertain, and drained of confidence. He laid his head on the table and confessed his weakness, lack of courage, and fear to God. In response to his pleas, King heard a quiet, assuring voice: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world” (pp. 77–78). King recalled, “At that moment I experienced the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything” (p. 78). Each of these experiences and decisions reflects movements toward a political activism that, for King, was understood primarily in religious terms.

King’s life is an excellent illustration of the interweaving of the political and religious aspects of experience and conversion. We can tease out religious and political strands, but they are tightly woven together. Indeed, King’s religious experience and conversion informs his political experience and conversion—and vice versa. King’s core conviction manifests the inseparable realities of the religious and political aspects of life. “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch,” King wrote, “that any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (p. 18).

Type 4—religious upbringing to a political understanding of self and commitment

Martin Luther King’s religious beliefs and experiences were clearly in the foreground of his passionate political commitments. There are other public figures whose religious experiences and beliefs are screened by their political views and actions. While they claim that their religious faith is important, it is often difficult to determine the degree to which their religious experiences and faith shaped their political perspectives and commitments. Unlike James Baldwin, people that fall within this type retain the religion of their youth, though in adulthood their political experiences and commitments are clearly in the foreground of their self-understanding. Put differently, those that fall within this type of political-religious experience tend to understand the changes in their lives primarily in terms of their political experiences. Nelson Mandela’s life and work epitomize this type of political-religious experience and conversion.

Nelson Mandela was born into the Xhosa tribe on July 18, 1918. Some of his earliest memories involve his father telling “stories of historic battles and heroic Xhosa warriors” and his mother recalling “Xhosa legends and fables that had come down from numberless generations” (Mandela 1994, p. 11). While his father was “an unofficial priest” of the Xhosa religion, Mandela’s mother was a Methodist Christian. Initially, religion, Mandela wrote, “was a ritual that I indulged in for my mother’s sake and to which I attached no meaning” (p. 20). Later, when Mandela went to a missionary school, “religion was a part of the fabric of life and I attended each Sunday” (p. 20). Mandela identified two central factors in his life, namely “chieftancy (Xhosa leadership) and the church.” Both significantly shaped Mandela’s early experiences and commitments. It is apparent, in his autobiography, that political leadership or chieftancy was in the foreground and the church in the background of his concerns, self-understanding, and motivations. Put differently, what becomes clear in his autobiography is the prevalence and importance of African culture in forming and framing his experience and views of the world. Since African culture for centuries intersected with Christian missionaries, Mandela’s religious experience as a child was both Xhosan and Christian—with Xhosan culture and chieftancy being the most prominent.

The importance of Xhosan traditions was evident in one of the key turning points in Mandela’s life—his initiation into adulthood (pp. 25–29), which was both a cultural and spiritual experience. Also, during his teen years, two experiences seemed to awaken Mandela’s political consciousness, moving him slowly down the road to political chieftancy instead of the religious chieftancy apparent in the life of fellow South African Archbishop Tutu. Mandela had a passion for learning about African history and he set out to listen to the “most ancient of chiefs,” Zwelibhangile Joyi (p. 23). From Chief Joyi, he learned how the white man came to Africa with “fire-breathing weapons,” shattering “the fellowship of the various tribes” (23). He listened to heroic tales of Xhosa warriors and learned about the dignity of his people. After his initiation into adulthood at age 16, Mandela listened to Chief Meligqili tell the audience that Xhosas “are slaves in our own country. We are tenants on our own soil” (p. 30). Mandela initially rejected these words, because, at age 16, he did not perceive or experience the white man as an oppressor. His response was to become angry at the chief, later realizing that “his words soon began to work in me” (p. 30). Both chiefs initiated a gradual turn or conversion in Mandela’s political views and experience. Freire’s (1978) concept of conscientisation fits here. Mandela gradually became more aware of the pervasive racism and oppression in South Africa.

Mandela recounts many other life events that changed his experience, his self-understanding, and his commitments. As an adult, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became deeply involved in the leadership of this organization and in the public aspects of political activism. Not surprisingly, the primary hermeneutical framework for interpreting these events, experiences, and commitments was a political one. In other words, Nelson Mandela, unlike Martin Luther King, understood his desire for and commitment to freedom and justice for black people mainly in political terms. While the political framework was dominant, Mandela’s religious views and experiences were present, though much further in the background. For instance, when Mandela was 42 he addressed a meeting of ministers in Cape Town. The meeting began with a prayer that “stayed with me over these many years and was a source of strength at a difficult time” (p. 265). The prayer exemplifies the intersection of the political and religious aspects of his life. The minister “thanked the Lord for His bounty and goodness, for His mercy and His concern for all men. But then he took the liberty of reminding the Lord that some of His subjects were more downtrodden than others, and that it sometimes seemed as though He was not paying attention. The minister then said that if the Lord did not show a little more initiative in leading the black man to salvation, the black man would have to take matters into his own two hands” (p. 265). While Mandela’s religious experience and commitments took a back seat to his political obligations and self-understanding, they were not completely absent. He plainly states twice in his autobiography that Christianity was a key influence in his life, though it is difficult to be clear about how his religious experiences and values shaped his political experiences and commitments.

Mandela grew up with two religious traditions, though as an adult he identified his religious faith as Christian and his cultural faith as Xhosan. As he grew to adulthood, Mandela increasingly engaged in the political fight for freedom. These changes and experiences were interpreted primarily using political narratives and values, though Mandela’s self-report is that religion continued to be influential as an adult. Nevertheless, an examination of his life makes it difficult to see how strongly the religious shaped the political.

Type 5—turning from the political to the religious

On occasion, people who are involved in the social and political spheres of life have a religious experience(s) and conversion that leads them to turn away from the political realm. I am not referring to groups, like the Amish, who sequester themselves from the larger culture and political life of society. Rather, I am addressing individuals who are engaged in various ways in the dominant political-cultural life of a society and who then turn away from this as a result of their religious experiences and conversion. This turning away may be for the rest of their life or for a period of time. A well-known 20th-century example is Thomas Merton. Merton is an interesting illustration of this type because he moved from the “world” to the monastery, where for years he lived a life apart from the world. Then, later in his life, he became more politically engaged, while he remained in the monastery. While Merton did “convert” to a more politically engaged religious faith, for the purposes here, I focus on his initial movement from a political-social life to a religious life sequestered in a Trappist monastery.

In his widely popular biography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton described his journey from the secular world to a monastic community in Kentucky. As a child, Merton’s parents “were concerned almost to the point of scrupulosity about keeping the minds of their sons uncontaminated by error and mediocrity and ugliness and sham” (1951, p. 9). One feature of their concern meant that the children never received formal religious training. While a young man, Merton left Europe for good in 1934, recognizing the political unrest, fear, and violence that were spreading across Europe (p. 127). During this same period, the irreligious, Merton turned to Communism because of its promise of peace, economic justice, and equality (pp. 131–140). For a time, this political philosophy served as the interpretive framework for understanding his world and himself.

While at Cambridge, Merton developed friendships with people who were religious. A friend, Lax, invited Merton to read Aldous Huxley. Merton did so and had an epiphany that was a preliminary step, not only toward a religious conversion, but away from the political world. He wrote, “My hatred of war and my own personal misery in my particular situation and the general crisis of the world made me accept with my whole heart this revelation of the need for a spiritual life” (pp. 186–187).

Other insights would quickly follow. After delving into William Blake’s writings, Merton “became more and more conscious of the necessity of a vital faith, and the total unreality and unsubstantiality of the dead....I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God” (pp. 190–191). Over the months, Merton read more Roman Catholic authors, such as Hopkins and Newman. Eventually, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism, though this was only another step in his spiritual journey. Desiring to deepen his commitment, Merton began exploring Roman Catholic religious orders. After a short stint with the Franciscans, Merton traveled to a Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, for a retreat. Merton had heard of this monastery from his friend Dan. During that week, Merton had a number of religious experiences, which moved him to begin considering this life as a vocation. There were other steps, experiences, and conversions along the way to his becoming a monk. This vocation, for Merton, initially meant turning from the world to deepen his devotion to Christ and a life of prayer. This religious attitude was especially noted in this book, which Merton wrote while he was still a young man and a young monk. For instance, he wrote, “I do not understand much about politics. Besides, it would be outside the scope of my present vocation if I tried to make any political analysis of anything” (pp. 141–142). It is a clear example of removing himself from understanding and engaging in the political life of the larger society. Instead, Merton immersed himself in this monastic community and for years let his political experiences and values (e.g., political nonviolence) recede into the background.

I have selected this portion of Merton’s religious experiences and conversions to illustrate a type of political-religious experience that involves a movement from the political milieu to the religious. In shunning the political, people that fall within this type, generally, are not inclined to wed the political and the religious. That is, they see these as two distinct realms and experiences. This said, I am referring only to Merton’s spiritual autobiography, which was written during the early period of his monastic vocation. His later works clearly show increasing interest in the political, as well as a marrying of the religious and political.


In the U.S., many of us grow up hearing that religion and politics do not mix. This adage may grease the wheels of social discourse, but the truth is that they are often mixed in complex and varied ways. Religious experiences and conversions are, for most persons, never simply and solely religious. I have briefly endeavored to categorize the complex intersection of the religious and political into five types. A more in-depth analysis may reveal other features, as well as other types.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011