Ten years ago, most people would've considered the phrase "black conservative" an oxymoron if they considered it at all. Today, four years after the successful but controversial appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, articulate black conservatives are emerging almost exponentially. Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Ken Hamblin, Roy Innis--these and many others are challenging the negative stereotypes of the late-twentieth-century African-American as nothing more than a welfare sponge populating the inner city with illegitimate kids who'll wind up in gangs, jail, or, if they're lucky, on a basketball court with a budding career as a rapper on the side.
But so far the only black conservative to go so far as to seek the U.S. presidency--as a Republican, naturally--is Alan Keyes, the subject of this interview and the author of Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America (Morrow). In it, he dispenses such bon mots as "[Because] the secularism encouraged by the welfare-state mentality lured the black poor away from their practical dependence upon churches and the network of internal institutions they represent ... [b]lack churches, as well as other organizing and moralizing institutions within the community, were relegated to the role of theaters of emotional catharsis--much the same role the enslavers wanted them to play during slavery."
Dr. Keyes, a lifelong Catholic, has earned degrees from Harvard and served as a university president and a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He has appeared on all the political TV opinion forums that matter and some that don’t. He also hosts a daily, three-hour talk show on the Baltimore-D.C.-area AM station, WCBM. The only thing he hasn't done is win election to high office, although he's run twice for one of Maryland's U.S. Senate seats.
When he met with the Door's Arsenio Orteza at the BWI airport for lunch last January, he had yet to declare for the presidency. Since then, however, he's caught the attention of many who think the time for an outspoken, Christian advocate of limited government with a sensitivity to the needs of minorities has definitely come.
DOOR: Throughout Masters of the Dream, you place Christianity at the heart of every significant advance made by blacks since their arrival here as slaves.
KEYES: What I argue in my book is that, from the point of view of black Americans, Christianity was the most important resource for maintaining a sense of dignity and worth against the degradation of the slave system and of subsequent discrimination. That, of course, is an argument that explicitly contradicts the view that has long been popular among black intellectuals.
DOOR: What view is that?
KEYES: That Christianity was this pie-in-the-sky, do-what-your-master-tells-you religion that was exploited by the enslaving class to make slaves more docile.
DOOR: Christianity wasn't used that way at all?
KEYES: The attempt was made, but it didn't succeed. In fact, what sprang up in the black community was clearly a kind of Christianity that sustained a sense of dignity rather than abetting a surrender to injustice.
DOOR: Did Christianity ultimately expedite or retard the eradication of slavery?
KEYES: From Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, who risked themselves to free slaves, to Frederick Douglas and other great spokesmen who became the focal point in the black community for the fight to abolish slavery, the people who fought that fight most strenuously were Christian people, people who today would be characterized as far-right-wing, fanatical, crazy, evangelical Christians.
KEYES: Because they spoke to God every day, God told them what to do, and they did it. Nothing, for instance, that Sojourner Truth did was done without a sense of acting on God's orders.
DOOR: What was it about Christianity that would engender such heroism?
KEYES: Christianity is a revolutionary concept of one's relationship with the world.
DOOR: Revolutionary in what sense?
KEYES: In the sense that it's based on the notion that one's salvation--one's relationship with God--is the result of individual self-determination. That's true even in the Catholic Church, which is identified with hierarchy and so forth, but which, when you get inside it, is still based on the doctrine that your salvation depends on your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. You have to decide whether to accept the grace or not.
DOOR: But how did a predominantly illiterate slave population make sense of all that?
KEYES: Well, from the point of view of the enslaved, the system said, "You worth is determined entirely by external measures: how much money you fetch, what your master says about you, what work you do." But Christianity turns that on its head.
KEYES: By establishing a basis for moral autonomy. Your relationship with God doesn't depend on external circumstances, not on how rich or educated you are, not on how much power you have in the world. None of that stuff can affect what's most important--your ultimate salvation. Or, to put it another way, while dealing with a world that says, "Your worth what you fetch in the marketplace," you have an internal sense that says, "Excuse me, but my worth was determined by God before you got here and revalidated by Jesus Christ on the cross. So forget you."
DOOR: Uh, where were we? Oh yeah--so how does this "moral autonomy" translate from resistance into action?
KEYES: It becomes a source of liberating courage. You can stand up for what is right in the conviction that, through faith in Jesus Christ, you are working for God's purposes. You can brave death and everything else because it doesn't mean anything to you. This came through in the Civil Rights movement. I think that heritage was what gave real power and appeal to the message of Martin Luther King, Jr.
DOOR: Nowadays, people tend to conceive of that movement as "left wing" and of Christianity as "right wing."
KEYES: Well, we shouldn't impose those categories on history. The important thing about the Civil Rights movement, in terms of the black community, was that it was entirely formed by, and articulated in the context of, Christian concepts. That and the fact that it appealed to the Christianized conscience of America are what made it successful.
DOOR: Doesn't talk of our country's "Christianized conscience" threaten the separation of church and state?
KEYES: What the founders did, essentially, was to take Christian principles and state them in a secular form that became the foundation for our idea of justice. Martin Luther King imbued that language with a Christian fervor, and by using Christian concepts of love and justice, he was able to motivate the black community.
DOOR: For a conservative Republican, you sure have a lot of admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr.
KEYES: Everything that he articulated--non-violence, the whole business--was so perfect and necessary for the time. He saved America from a lot of bloodshed. In that sense, I think he deserves the reputation he has. But if you look at some of his writings, you find that he was no more immune to socialist temptations than his colleagues, and it's not entirely clear to me that he would've resisted. There were signs that maybe he wouldn't have.
DOOR: Such as?
KEYES: In his works, he tends to adopt the same negative view of black history as others in the black elite.
DOOR: What view is that?
KEYES: That black history is just a series of negative experiences--victimization, depression, oppression. I can hardly think of anything that takes a different look at that history and tries to understand the strength and character that came out of that history. That's why I wrote my book, because I wasn't finding it anywhere. And it's not in King either.
DOOR: For someone who admires Martin Luther King, you sure don't think very highly of him.
KEYES: I don't want to give the wrong impression. He knew the moral strength of the black community. He appealed to it, and his leadership was only possible because of it. But, at a conscious level, he didn't see it when he looked at black history, at least not in those terms. So I think it's quite possible that he would've marched along with his colleagues right off the cliff of liberal socialism.
DOOR: Why have his colleagues, along with close to one hundred percent of the black vote in this country, marched in that direction?
KEYES: During the '60s, the Civil Rights movement got yanked off its real basis. The so-called "black leadership" in this country, including a lot of people who call themselves ministers and reverends, signed on to an entirely materialistic political agenda.
DOOR: Doesn't true spirituality involve the meeting of material needs?
KEYES: Traditionally, black Americans have resisted the acceptance of a material basis for judging their worth. You were not worth what you had but what you were worth in a moral sense. So they resisted anything that sought to measure their worth in economic terms.
DOOR: What changed that?
KEYES: Tragically and ironically, the Civil Rights movement ended up signing on to a political approach that represented the acceptance of this materialistic way of looking at the world. They harped on how much black people did not have in material terms--money, jobs--
DOOR: But black people didn't have money or jobs, did they?
KEYES: But the solutions they found said, "O.K. we need access to jobs, so let's have a government program. Let's spend money." So the whole thing was moved into an economic realm. They accepted ideologies that were essentially materialistic and political, and that was an abandonment of the black American tradition.
DOOR: One tendency among Afro-centrist ideologues is to cite slavery as the basis for demanding even "more essentially materialistic and political" assistance.
KEYES: Part of me believes that this nation has not only paid for a lot of its injustices but actually paid for them several times over. And I don't mean this on some economic level. We'll get to that in a minute. I mean in terms of sacrifice, of real repentance on the part of many people.
DOOR: What are you referring to?
KEYES: I don't think the Civil War, for instance, could've been successfully prosecuted if there hadn't been a real sense of moral turnaround in America among the people at large. These pseudo-sophisticated analyses that say it was all about economics--that's garbage. Lincoln understood this. That's why in his second inaugural address he gave a sermon in which he essentially said, "Slavery's evil. We're fighting against it. If we have to fight against it until every part of this country is destroyed, that's God's judgment, and we'll just have to see it through to the end because this is a moral cause."
DOOR: You mentioned economic recompense.
KEYES: You know what the government should've done, what they could still do today, to revolutionize the situation of black Americans?
KEYES: The ancient Athenians and Romans used to do this occasionally to reward a city or those who had been faithful. They simply said, "You've been great to us, so we're going to remit your taxes for the next umpteen years."
DOOR: So you're saying the U.S. government should--
KEYES: They should look at black folks and say, "O.K., a hundred years of discrimination? We'll remit taxation on all black Americans for the next one hundred years." Do you realize what that would've done overnight?
DOOR: Uh, made all blacks Republicans?
KEYES: Not only that, but all of a sudden black folks would've become very attractive parts of the labor force because you could've actually gotten away with paying black people less, yet they would still have been at the same take-home-pay level as people who would've been paid more but getting taxed on it. Black businesses would've opened up, and they would've been able to have greater profit because they wouldn't have been taxed. It would've revolutionized the prospects of black people at a stroke.
DOOR: But a hundred years?
KEYES: If they'd done it for twenty-five years, it would've had the same effect.
DOOR: Do you think it's too late for that kind of solution?
KEYES: I don't know. I don't see any resolution at this stage. Right or wrong, this country has spent a lot of money in the last thirty years on what was sold to the public as efforts to address the legacies of slavery and discrimination. I think most of that turned out to be a lot of ill-constructed, misguided garbage, but we still paid for it, didn't we? Everybody did. The best way to handle the problems we face now might be to move in the opposite direction and establish a colorblind system, one in which you help people not on the basis of skin color but on the basis of actual need. Obviously, that would still reach a lot of the black Americans who are still in situations of need and disadvantage, and it would also put everybody in society on a level playing field.
DOOR: Your book is subtitled The Strength and Betrayal of Black America. What was its betrayal?
KEYES: It was the betrayal by the black leadership, starting in the '60s, of that moral identity that had allowed blacks to resist the notion that if you didn't have material stuff you weren't worth anything. It was an abandonment of of the moral perspective that had allowed black Americans to sustain their basic, moral infrastructure--the family--in spite of material disadvantage.
DOOR: From what we hear, the black family isn't doing too well these days.
KEYES: A lot of people like to ascribe the family's falling apart to poverty and joblessness, but that's all a lie. Through the entire post-Civil War period, black folks were poor, had no access to jobs, and endured a rigid system of discrimination that limited their opportunities. Yet, during this same period, black folks put families back together and sustained them at high rates.
DOOR: Afro-centrists would say that Christianity may have been useful, but since it was imposed by whites, it served to erase the pre-slavery African identity. Are there, in fact, defining characteristics of pre-Christian black spirituality?
KEYES: I wouldn't say "defining characteristics."
DOOR: What would you say?
KEYES: I think it's pretty clear that there were residual African influences. Particularly in the early years of slavery, there was a kind of--how can I put it?--intermingling that affected the ways in which black Americans accepted and then expressed Christianity. Everyone knows there's a distinctive difference that you can feel the minute you walk into a black worship service, no matter what the denomination--the importance of music, for instance. Christianity is a very individualistic religion, yet black folks take a very communalistic approach to it. That, I think, reflects a heritage that comes from African roots, keeping in mind, of course, that those African roots are very complex, because there is no such thing as "Africa."
DOOR: No such thing as Africa?
KEYES: Not in a cultural sense. The religions, tribes, groups, and kingdoms in Africa were comprised of people from different parts of Africa. Some had common cultural roots, and a lot of the slaves came from West Africa. But there were also southern Africans. In any case, my point, which I think the so-called Afro-centrists miss, is that black Americans are not Africans. Not only are we not Africans in any purely cultural sense, we're not even Africans in any racial sense anymore.
DOOR: What are you?
KEYES: If you scratch my surface, you'll find French, Cherokee Indian, and African. All three are hidden beneath this surface. That's true of many Americans. Of course, when I go to West Africa, people look at me and think I come from there. My outward characteristics wouldn't tell you there'd been much of a change.
DOOR: What does this have to do with Afro-centrism?
KEYES: There is a unique black-American experience, and while it has elements that reflect the pathology of slavery--and while the way in which black Americans accept, embrace, and express their Christian faith is going to be an integral expression of all that--I think it's absolutely absurd to look at a people who have now developed their own unique character and identity and say that's somehow not an authentic expression of who they are. It's just nonsense! What does that mean?
DOOR: What does that mean?
KEYES: If this is what you've developed in order to sustain your moral self over several hundred years, then it's ignorant and stupid to suggest there's something inauthentic or imposed about that. Whatever the intention of others was, black people made it into something that served the purposes of their survival. And that's where a lot of these Afro-centrists, who pretend to be so concerned with expressing and sustaining a black identity, betray that identity. This phony notion that slavery or anything else had the ability to dehumanize and destroy black America--
DOOR: But didn't slavery dehumanize and, to a large extent anyway, destroy black America?
KEYES: That's precisely what did not happen. Black Americans developed a unique, distinctive character in the course of their successful effort to resist dehumanization, destruction, and even repression. That's why the Civil Rights movement, in its early form, was so successful.
DOOR: You mentioned the difference between black Christian worship and white Christian worship. Isn't the almost complete non-existence of integrated congregations a sign of a lingering problem?
KEYES: Not in and of itself?
DOOR: Is it something we should seek to overcome?
KEYES: Not necessarily, no.
DOOR: Is it a sign of Christianity's inability to bridge race-based rifts?
KEYES: Not necessarily.
DOOR: So you see nothing inherently wrong with the racial line that's drawn down the middle of public Christian worship?
KEYES: I don't think it is drawn. That suggests that it's being externally imposed. If it were being externally imposed, there would be something wrong with it.
DOOR: Why do you think we have congregations that are, for the most part, racially segregated?
KEYES: One of the reasons is that in America there was discrimination against black folks who belonged to predominantly white churches. The A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] Church was founded by Richard Allen because he and a bunch of black folks got fed up with being told to sit in the back of the church and do other stuff that was discriminatory. So they went off and started their own church.
DOOR: That's what we mean. Isn't that a sign of unresolved corporate sin?
KEYES: If it's imposed that way, by prejudice and racism, then it's a bad thing because prejudice and racism are bad, un-Christian things. On the other hand, if it comes about as a natural expression of one's cultural background and heritage, that's not a bad thing any more than it's a bad thing for there to be Italian-type churches in Italy. Human beings come in different varieties, and I don't think Christianity implies that all those varieties disappear.
DOOR: What does Christianity imply along these lines?
KEYES: It simply implies that in the context of that diversity one comes to the consciousness of the unifying potential that exists because of your relationship to God through Jesus Christ, which then forms a community out of mankind, always keeping in mind that it is not a community in the way of the flesh but in the way of the spirit.
DOOR: In practical terms, what does that mean?
KEYES: That you don't have to wipe out fleshly differences, but through those fleshly differences you do have to express your common allegiance to God and to Jesus Christ. So, in a way, we're different but all the same. I think that cultural expressions can be quite healthy.
DOOR: Elsewhere in this issue, we interview David Duke. You recently gave a speech at the Louisiana State Republican Convention. Was he there?
KEYES: David Duke? Yeah.
DOOR: Some would consider your belonging to the same party as he does to be a PR problem for you.
KEYES: Well, afterward, I was talking to somebody, and at one point I turned around and found myself confronted with Mr. Duke, who was passing by behind me.
DOOR: What happened?
KEYES: As I turned around, he stuck out his hand. It took a minute for this to compute. All in the space of a flash of a second, I debated with myself whether I would shake his hand.
DOOR: What made you hesitate?
KEYES: Because he's somebody whose background and views I thoroughly disagree with and disapprove of. But I decided in the end to shake his hand. Afterward, a lady who was there came up to me and said, "You know, that picture of the two of you shaking hands will do him a lot more harm with his constituency than it will with yours."
DOOR: Do you agree?
KEYES: Absolutely, because my constituency consists of a whole bunch of different kinds of people.
DOOR: Who are your constituents, in your opinion?
KEYES: Many of them are motivated Christians, and they know that, in the end, David Duke's fate is in the hands of God. They don't expect Alan Keyes to act like a beast just because other people do. As for his followers (laughs)--
KEYES: I wouldn't want to speak to the same sense of charity in them if they subscribe to his views on race. He does, of course, have followers who are taken in by his advocacy of conservative issues that have nothing to do with race. And part of the reason that folks like me have to be active and vocal in politics is so people who are motivated to support conservative causes for the right reasons will have champions and not have to follow people like David Duke, who will then make them part of movements that will be very harmful.
DOOR: We spoke earlier about Martin Luther King, Jr. What's your opinion of the man many consider to be his philosophical complement--Malcolm X?
DOOR: There's a great disparity, after all, between the legendary Malcolm X and the actual one, isn't there?
KEYES: I don't know. Malcolm X is one of those historical figures who loom much larger in the minds of people today than he ever did when he was alive.
DOOR: He didn't loom large in the '60s?
KEYES: Let us be frank: I think that at the time most people would've considered it incongruous to put Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the same plane, especially in terms of their influence on the black community. Malcolm X was, all the way up to his death, a marginal figure in the life of black America.
DOOR: Because of his identification with Elijah Muhammad and Black Islam?
KEYES: I think so. They're a marginal movement. It's not a Christian movement. The center and heart of the black identity and the black experience is Christianity. People may not like to hear this, but it's true, and it's still true today. Martin Luther King stood squarely at the heart of that identity; Malcolm X was on a fringe somewhere. He's built up a lot today, but that doesn't mean he necessarily deserves to be, does it? Just because people today would like to make movies and pretend that their icon--I'm speaking especially of black intellectuals--somehow represented what was doesn't mean he did. He did not.
DOOR: How do you explain his popularity today?
KEYES: I think the admiration that some black-American intellectuals have developed for Malcolm X is one of the indications that they've strayed from, and have contempt for, the grass-roots reality of the black identity, which is not Malcolm X or Islam. It's Christianity, pure and simple. Nevertheless, there's been this tradition among black intellectuals of despising Christianity.
DOOR: Why do you think they despise it?
KEYES: Partly out of jealousy. The intellectuals think they should have the power the ministers have.
DOOR: And they don't?
KEYES: No, because the inward revolution that Christianity creates--especially in the context of slavery or any system that represses people on the basis of material forces--is unique. First, it helps you retain a sense of your own dignity and worth. But, second, it invalidates death.
DOOR: In what sense?
KEYES: In that the usual mechanism of controlling people by force is to manipulate their fear of death. Christianity frees you of this fear. It asks, "Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?" The significance usually ascribed to death is removed. And it then becomes, as I said, a source of liberating courage.