An American Religion
- ISBN: 9780190058777
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: June 2022
“How could this have happened?”
This question lingers over the long and fraught history between marginalized religious groups and the state, and most strongly when those interactions become deadly confrontations. Richard Kent Evans places it at the center of his powerful study of MOVE, the Philadelphia religion bombed almost into oblivion by local, state, and federal law enforcement in 1985.
Evans’ MOVE: An American Religion pulls no punches as it examines the ultimately tragic interaction between what is clearly a religious movement and the forces of government determined not to recognize it as such. Over nine chapters, plus a preface, introduction, and conclusion, Evans establishes the group’s religiosity by detailing its beliefs and practices, and situates its confrontations with the state within the broader context of police brutality, Black resistance, and religious freedom. Part ethnography, part deep exploration of previously unexamined archives, Evans’ tightly written and fast-paced book is the definitive treatment of the MOVE bombing and the events leading to it. And it correctly places religion—both the group’s insistence that it was religious, and the state’s equally insistent denial of that claim—as the key to answering the book’s central question.
From its beginning in 1972 to its near eradication in 1985, MOVE was on the margins. Founded by Vincent Leaphart, who rechristened himself John Africa, the group was a product of the turbulent period from which it arose. Leaphart was a son of the Great Migration, a Vietnam veteran, and a Black man in a city rife with police corruption and abuse—and corresponding religio-racial innovations. Evans details this context and shows how it influenced John Africa’s religious teachings, leading to a movement dedicated to rescuing its adherents from a System, as the group styled it, dedicated to their destruction.
As Evans makes clear in the book’s first three chapters, MOVE is undeniably a religion as most people would define it. John Africa produced a holy text, The Guidelines of John Africa; he developed a dualistic cosmology that included a divine entity; and he and his followers engaged in ascetic dietary and hygiene practices based on his prophetic teachings. But the group also rejected traditional eschatological frames, insisting instead on a revolutionary approach centered on destroying the System in this life. The potential for misunderstanding thus was seeded early, especially given the movement’s predominantly Black demographics.
What makes the tragedy at the center of Evans’ book so disturbing is how preventable Evans shows it was. Time and again, authorities in Philadelphia misunderstood MOVE and escalated their interactions with it, perpetuating a cycle of violence. Even traditional religious authorities, as Evans details in chapter 4, rejected MOVE’s status as a religion, defending their own power by denying recognition to a group they saw as threatening. MOVE’s religious claims were rejected by police, courts, and civic and religious leaders, in large part, Evans argues, because they could not recognize Black assertions of power as religious.
The climax of the book is of course the bombing itself on May 13, 1985, when Philadelphia police, using state and federal resources, surrounded the MOVE house and fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a building housing seven adults and six children, then dropped a bomb on the roof, causing a fire that authorities intentionally allowed to rage out of control. In one of the most important revisions to the official narrative to date, Evans shows that police shot at MOVE members, including children, trying to escape the blaze. One adult and one child survived.
If the story of the MOVE bombing is harrowing, the story of its subsequent forgetting is instructive. In chapter 9, Evans argues that after an initial investigation led to no criminal charges (the only person convicted in connection with the raid was the lone adult MOVE survivor), Philadelphia quickly moved on. The bombing was literally unthinkable; the city and its residents convinced themselves it was an unprecedented mistake, and therefore chose not to think about it anymore.
But, as Evans points out, “the reality of the MOVE bombing is that it’s perfectly ordinary” (244). State violence against Black people was not uncommon then, nor is it now. Suppression of Black movements, religious or not, has been endemic since at least the 19th century. Evans draws connections to the 1971 Attica prison uprising, as well as the 1963 KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the 1969 Chicago police assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Evans also engages with the literature on new religious movements: He shows in chapter 7 how the development of the “cult typology” in the late 1970s and early 1980s ultimately, and ironically, led to greater recognition of MOVE as a type of religion, but an illegitimate one, as they became labeled a “cult” with all of the stereotypes regarding violence and brainwashing the word had collected by that time. But he limits his analysis to contemporary and historical comparisons, leaving undiscussed the tragic federal raid of the Branch Davidians that occurred just eight years after the MOVE bombing.
Evans could have drawn further comparisons as well. He points out the pernicious influence of the cult typology on how authorities view children and the potential for violence in distrusted religious groups. And at least twice in the decades since, representatives of the state have raided the home of a marginalized religious group—the Branch Davidians in 1993 and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008—at least in part because of fears about weapons and child abuse. Yet the Branch Davidian raid is far better remembered than the similarly tragic, and similarly motivated, MOVE bombing. Exploring why would likely tell us more about race, news media, and the state, and would further bolster Evans’ arguments for why MOVE’s religion was not recognized by the people holding power in 1970s and ’80s Philadelphia.
Paul A. Anthony is a PhD student in American Religious History at Florida State University.Paul AnthonyDate Of Review:February 22, 2022