The Politics of Black Religion

Historian Barbara Savage's new book examines tensions between faith and political activism in black churches.
December 29, 2008

Growing up in the South, Barbara Savage was born too late to take part in the great movement that delivered the descendants of former slaves to what the Reverend Martin Luther King called the “Promised Land,” the racial equality that was their “rightful place in God's world.”

Now a professor of history at Penn, Savage remembers those dramatic and historic events. “The civil rights movement entered our home through the televised images of black churches opening their doors for political rallies and the funerals of martyrs. … I saw Southern black people speaking and singing a language of prophecy and praise that I had come to know in the sacred space of a country church in Virginia … but they were [also] doing things in public that I had never known black people, especially black church people, ever to dare to do.”

Savage, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought, teaches twentieth-century American history, the history of American religious and social reform movements and the history of the relationship between media and politics.

"A preacher and a politician are destined for conflict even when both are African American Christians." - Barbara Savage

We often hear political pundits talk about the central role the black church played in America’s civil rights movement, but in her new book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, Savage states, “there is no such thing as the ‘black church.’ It is an illusion and a metaphor that has taken on a life of its own, implying the existence of a powerful entity with organized power.” Our mistake, she says, is to look back at the whole of African American history “through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness” that construes black churches as “savior institutions.” The truth is far more vexed.

Faced with grinding poverty and discrimination, the black churches—some of the few stable institutions of an oppressed race—were called upon over and over for rescue. But from many corners of the black community, it was at best a reluctant call. “[Throughout] the twentieth century there were spirited debates among varied groups of African Americans about whether religious doctrines, religious people and religious organizations were a blessing or a curse in the struggle for black freedom and racial progress,” Savage writes.

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us sheds a light on the crazy quilt of diversity in African American religious institutions and nearly a century of contention over whether they were suitable partners for progressive political activism. Part of the “incurable tensions” that gripped the black community was due to the extraordinary but discordant variety of their churches, from Baptist and Methodist to storefront and African-derived congregations and mosques. Those faith communities were not a monolithic “black church,” but independent groups marked by intellectual, theological and political differences. Even the great African American luminaries and leaders of that era—W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Benjamin Mays, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Elijah Mohammad and many others—could not agree among themselves on the responsibility of churches on the long march to liberation.

“For all these reasons, the relationship between African American religion and political activism,” Savage writes, was “at once complementary and contradictory, full of promise but also damned by exalted expectations.”

In her book, Savage “recovers” this long and unresolved debate. She cites the fallout between the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and President-Elect Barack Obama as just one of the “new versions of old tensions between African American religion and politics.” During the presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from his religious mentor by calling attention to a generational divide. “Dubbing himself and his followers members of the ‘Joshua Generation,’ Savage observes, “Obama urged [his supporters] to join forces and shout down the walls of Jericho in a unified and racially diverse campaign.” He portrayed the Reverend Wright as holding “static” views that short circuit the promise of racial reconciliation in America. Wright insisted on his vocation as a prophetic minister like Martin Luther King, who challenged the foreign and domestic policies of an oppressive state. “In these and other ways,” Savage writes, “a preacher and a politician are destined for conflict even when both are African American Christians.”