The Theology of Civil Disobedience: The First Amendment, Freedom Riders and Passage of the Voting Rights Act
46 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2012
Date Written: April 1, 2012
In 2011, usage of the term “civil disobedience” resurged in the American lexicon for at least two reasons: (1) there was widespread civil protest in Egypt; and (2) America observed the fiftieth anniversary of the now-celebrated Freedom Rides. Both reasons demonstrate the continued relevance of the twentieth century American Civil Rights Movement (“the Movement”).
American media widely covered Egyptian citizens’ nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as Egyptians peacefully protested governmental corruption in demanding free and fair elections. Further, since 2011 marked the golden anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the United States, Americans were reminded of the nonviolent civil disobedience undertaken by an interdenominational movement of clergy and laity, undergirded by a Judeo-Christian suffering servant theology. Dissident adherents literally sacrificed themselves for the democratic cause in which they believed.
Notwithstanding differences, the respective movements shared a common goal: indiscriminate citizen participation in voting. Accordingly, civil disobedience led to both movements being successful. In Egypt, the government announced unprecedented open elections. In the United States, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”).
This interdisciplinary Article argues that a Judeo-Christian suffering servant theology undergirded the use of civil disobedience in the the Movement and caused it to be successful because, among other things, the VRA was enacted. The Movement’s success can be quantifiably measured through the VRA, as America became a more inclusive society. Indeed, after the VRA’s passage, African Americans were elected to federal, state, and local offices as never before.
As a focal point, this Article details the theology of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the Movement’s key leaders. This Article also details several key Supreme Court decisions that resulted from dissident acts of civil disobedience and shaped the First Amendment’s scope, while also paying tribute to the Freedom Riders, a group of young college and seminary students that literally risked their lives in a nonviolent fight for democracy. Finally, this Article concludes by highlighting both empirical and anecdotal evidence that support the author’s assertion that the Movement’s success can indeed be measured by the VRA’s passage.
Keywords: law and religion, civil disobedience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr
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