"It means that others love him, too, love him so much that they have set me free to be there. He is not alone; we are not alone." (James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk) What does this say about the role of religion and state of the time period (contemporary America)?
In James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, religion is presented in the sadly cynical manner that inevitably resulted from its application by those who claimed to speak on the Lord’s behalf while casting forth judgments in His name that represented an entirely other and vastly more hateful perspective. In Beale’s narrative, the most religious character is Alice Hunt, who is also, not coincidentally, the most spiteful and angry. While both Tish and Fonny’s families support their relationship and welcome the imminent arrival of the separated couple’s baby, Alice stands out for her anger and bitterness towards her would-be daughter-in-law for the sin of tainting her son. An early hint at Alice’s character, and of Baldwin’s indictment of the perversion of religion, is offered by her husband, Frank, who, in contrast to Alice, joyfully awaits the baby’s birth and Tish and Fonny’s eventual union:
"Whatever Alice don't feel like being bothered with," Frank was to say to me, much later, "she leaves in the hands of Lord."
That Baldwin intends his most religious character to stand alone among the positive attention directed towards Tish by the others among the two families is further cemented by Alice’s repeated references to “the Holy Ghost.” At a gathering of prospective grandparents, it is Alice who continues to vent against the young couple’s relationship, and against the unborn child she should, one could expect, welcome:
"And who," asked Mrs. Hunt, "is going to be responsible for this baby?"
"The father and the mother," I said.
Mrs. Hunt stared at me.
"You can bet," Frank said, "that it won't be the Holy Ghost."
Frank’s ability to poke fun at his wife serves to both lessen the tensions in the room and to further alienate Alice. Alice’s response to Frank’s attempt at humor is to spew forth the most hateful of admonitions directed toward the most innocent of souls, the unborn child: “The Holy Ghost will cause that child to shrivel in your womb.”
Baldwin’s point is that religious piety is not necessarily the same as morality. That Alice is the most religious and the most bitter is no accident. Morality, he is saying, is not a product of Biblical references, but of a life lived with love and charity. When, later in the novel, Baldwin has his young pregnant protagonist express the thoughts specified in the student’s question, he is reaffirming that importance of love and family while marginalizing the zealotry of those who can quote Scripture but who rarely live its meaning. In that, the author suggests, those closest to God are those who act out of love and not out of anger and hatred. When Tish states “he is not alone; we are not alone,” she is referring to her and Fonny’s respective families, minus, perhaps, the latter’s mother, but also to the role of God in their lives. She doesn’t need to quote the Bible because she is living its intent.
America during the 1960s and early 1970s was riven with political, cultural and social divisions resulting from the war in Vietnam, the unfolding Watergate scandal, and the continued struggle for civil rights. From Baldwin’s perspective, it was not the politically and culturally and generally morally pious conservative segment of the population who best represented the ideals of the New Testament; it was the counterculture that exemplified those ideals in its opposition to war and prejudice. Baldwin, the stepson of a physically abusive preacher, almost certainly imbued the young man with a certain cynicism regarding organized religion, and his emotional and intellectual development witnessed a further deepening of the divide between himself and religion, even as he preached the Gospel himself. The social turbulence of the period, though, contributed to his cynicism, and he became increasingly critical of organized religion. If Beale Street Could Talk captures that cynicism quite well.