“Benjamin E. Mays, Christianity, and Democracy in America”
While Benjamin E. Mays was open to other religious traditions and practices in the American society, he primarily relied on the transformative teachings, moral virtues, and ethical force of Christianity to foster change in the American society. He envisioned America to be both “a truly democratic” state and a “truly Christian” society. He construed Christianity and democracy distinctively as a twin (renewal) power and the very engine of change for societal progress and for improving race relations and human dynamics in the United States.
“If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom of evil one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, can construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize in one generation.”
Mays believed that the American democracy was not functioning effectively for a large segment of the American population, chiefly the African American people whose lives were trapped under racial segregation (Jim Crow laws) and a racialist structure; although, they have partially tasted the freedom of democracy, but did not have the full access to the promises and provisions (i.e. employment, voting rights, justice, equal treatment under the law, education) of the American Democracy. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Mays mentored for many years, in his 1963 historic speech, “I have a Dream,” would make allusion to this same theme.) Similarly, Mays assessed the public work of American (White) Christian churches and (White) Christian institutions as inadequate progress toward Biblical-centered race relations. Not only Mays has deemed the nation’s Christian institutions as bankrupt, Christian churches in America were not contributing substantially to the democratization of American Christianity and correspondingly to the christianization of the American life.
This observation is clearly demonstrated in his 1945 Commencement Address at Howard University, where Mays served as the Dean of the School of Theology, from 1934 to 1940:
“We are what we do and not what we say. We are as democratic as we live and we are as Christian as we act. If we talk brotherhood and segregate human beings, we do not believe in brotherhood. If we talk democracy and deny it to certain groups, we do not believe in democracy. if we preach justice and exploit the weak, we do not believe in justice. If we preach truth and tell lies, we do not believe in truth. We are what we do…The United States is obligated by virtue of its Federal Constitution and by virtue of its Christian pronouncements to become Christianized and democratized. If America is to maintain integrity of soul, and if our Government is to escape the label of hypocrisy and deception, it has no choice but to plan deliberately to bring to full fruition the four freedoms—for which we claim we fought on the battlefields of Europe and Africa; and for which we calm we are fighting in the Pacific.”
Finally, Mays construed the “American Christian” as just another “American institution” that was complicit in the suffering, dehumanization, and disfranchising of the African American people. He criticized Christian churches in America and American Christians for their lack of integrity, moral virtues, social responsibility, and to truly display in public a Christian character that is worth imitating as well as being an unwavering witness and testimony of change in the American public sphere and civil society.
—Benjamin E. Mays, “Democratizing and Christianizing America in This Generation “(1945)