Race, Politics and Christianity in America

Against the Current, No. 140, May/June 2009

Angela Dillard

God and Race in American Politics:
A Short History
By Mark A. Noll
Princeton University Press, 224 pages, $22.95 cloth.

Your Spirit Walks Beside Us:
The Politics of Black Religion
By Barbara Dianne Savage
Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $27.95 cloth.

11:00AM ON SUNDAY morning is the most segregated hour in American life, and the implications of this stubborn fact have been known to unexpectedly erupt into our national political culture. In the invocation at the presidential inaugural, Pastor Rick Warren reminded us that we are not a nation united by race, or blood or religion — but he left our divisions on these grounds unarticulated, despite the role he has played in helping to generate them.

The lingering and pervasive social distance between Black and white Christians was amply displayed, for instance, in the controversy surrounding the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity Church of God in Christ and former spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama.

For those who knew of the Reverend Wright only through the grainy images uploaded on YouTube and rebroadcast continuously on Fox and CNN, he was regarded as an unpatriotic fiend (“God damn America”) and dismissed as part of the Black lunatic fringe — even though Trinity Church is part of a predominantly white denomination.

Indeed, by some strict definitions, Trinity does not even belong inside the category “Black Church.” It falls outside of the seven major denominations or “conventions,” dominated by the Baptists and Methodists, said to constitute the historic Black Church. Yet no one would really describe Trinity, which bills itself as “Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Christian,” as interracial.

This South Side congregation that serves thousands, both inside and beyond the walls of the church, is squarely rooted in Black religious traditions and Black cultural expression. Barack Obama captured some of the experiential flavor in the narrative of his own conversion at Trinity during a sermon preached by Wright on “The Audacity of Hope.”

In his autobiographical Dreams from My Father Obama describes the sermon, the choir and the other congregants who surround him; he narrates the desire “to let go,” “to escape” and to “give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.

And in that single note — hope! — I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary Black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. The stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this Black church on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. (294)

But this emotional, tearful conversion is only part of Obama’s formative experience with Black religion. In a 1990 article Obama described the Black church as a “slumbering giant” in urban landscapes such as Chicago. Such institutions are ripe, he continued, for partnerships with community organizers to work collaboratively to improve education, housing and employment opportunities along with the “spirit” of inner city communities.

Both sides of this faith-based equation, the priestly tending to souls and to the Spirit, along with the prophetic call for social justice in the here-and-now, have coexisted in the Black religious tradition, and from time to time have framed the mission of the Black Church.

Dangerous Image, Familiar Reality

Few commentators have been willing to question Trinity’s dedication to the struggle for social, political and economic justice. What instead became most troubling for the Obama campaign was the branding of Reverend Wright, who retired from the pastorate in May 2008, as a dangerous purveyor of Black Theology.

Many white Americans may not know what Black Theology is, but it’s close enough to the old cries of Black Power for them to know it’s not good. For many African-American Christians, however, the form and content of Wright’s sermonizing, even ripped from the context of a Black church on a Sunday morning, was deeply familiar.

Black Christians recognize the prophetic style of address that will damn the nation for its national and international vices as quickly as it will damn evidence of equally sinful behavior in the lives of the congregants. Black Christians are also well acquainted with the preformative qualities of Black preachers and can tell the differences between righteous anger and wicked humor.

That impression of Reverend Wright’s sermons tended to bifurcate along racial (and ideological) lines should not be surprising. Nor is it surprising, from this point of view, that Obama seemed not to anticipate the problems his association with Wright would cause.

So great has been the distance between Black and white Christians that the noted mid-century sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called the Black Church “a nation within a nation,” one often in conflict with a dominant white society beset by exclusionary institutions and racist practices. Thus two nations, one white, one Black, separated by a common faith.

Race, Religion and Politics

The history of this gulf and the social and political circumstances that produced it is the subject of Mark Noll’s sweeping treatment of the interrelationship of race, religion and American politics from the 19th century to the present. God and Race in American Politics provides, as promised, a short history of a long and complex interplay of forces that continues to shape the tenor and tone of American political culture.

Noll sets out to explain how, precisely, race and religion have interacted to shape national politics — from slavery and the violent revolt led by Nat Turner, the slave preacher and mystic, to the presidency of George W. Bush. To cover so much ground, Noll has had to whittle away huge chunks of history, as he acknowledges, but manages nonetheless to string together a series of historical moments to create an often-compelling analysis of the collusions and collisions of race, faith and nation.

The book maintains the episodic feel of the series of lectures out of which this book grew. In less proficient hands this might be a problem, but this is a ground that Noll, one of the nation’s most noted evangelical scholars, knows well.

Author of over 15 books, including The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind about the anti-intellectualism of the American evangelical movement, Noll was named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America by Time magazine. Like George Marsden, whom he recently replaced at Notre Dame, Noll has secured his formidable reputation through his passionately even-handed studies of evangelical beliefs and their effects on the broader culture.

Evangelical Christianity is in many ways the mainstream of American culture, and it is one of the great paradoxes of race and nation that the two groups most united by their devotion to this rendering of faith — white southerners and African Americans — would be so divided within it.

To understand the nature of this division it is necessary to mine the terrain of slavery and regional antagonism, and Noll is at his best when detailing the religious justifications for slavery and the degree to which the Civil War can be understood as a religious conflict.

God on Whose Side?

The effects of the Calvinist origins of Protestant Christianity in America and the deregulation (and proliferation) of faith encouraged by the First Amendment prohibition on state religion can be seen in bold relief in the antebellum debates over slavery.

The nation’s Calvinist heritage left a legacy that stresses what Noll calls a direct and activist application of religious principles to public problems, a style perfected by the Puritans but endemic even among those far removed from Calvinism’s explicit injunction to purify the community and uplift the state. Evidenced in energetic lay mobilizations, the spirit of voluntarism, and evangelization, this style is most evident in the use of the Bible to influence political decisions, from Indian removal policy, to temperance reforms, to the question of slavery.

Although Noll provides only a barebones account of pro-slavery religious thought, it is enough to support his contention that splits among white evangelicals over whether the Bible and therefore God supported slavery prefigured and perhaps even paved the way for national division. He makes good use of John C. Calhoun’s prophetic observation that once “the great religious denominations” became divided amongst themselves then “nothing will be left to hold the states together except force.”

By 1845, seemingly irrevocable splits had sundered the national bonds among the Methodists, the Baptists and the Presbyterians. A decade and a half later, the nation would follow suit. Not even the post-Civil War fall of Reconstruction and the dawning of the age of Redemption, whereby white supremacists regained control of the old Confederacy, would manage to repair the breech.

Noll excels when dealing with the exclusionary practices of white Christians. While he doesn’t ignore Black religious anti-slavery thought and while he notes the spectacular growth of Black independent churches and their organization in national denominations of their own, one fails to really get a sense of parallel developments in Black faith during this crucial time period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the nation’s Second Reconstruction in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

When Noll turns to the civil rights movement, there is much here that will be familiar even to general readers. This is especially true given his heavy reliance on the work of other scholars, most notably David Chappell, author of the 2004 book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.

In that work, Chappell juxtaposes the deeply irrational and quasi-mystical faith that mobilized and sustained hundreds of Black southern protestors, on the one hand, with the lukewarm support for segregation provided by the white southern religious establishment on the other. That white southern evangelical preachers failed to give Biblical sanction and moral support to the forces of massive resistance to desegregation is one of the great, unheralded observations of the movement’s history that Noll adopts from Chappell. The argument that Black prophetic faith had little in common with “bloodless” mid-20th century liberalism is the other.

The precise nature of Black faith often invoked in this book remains nebulous, however. I admire Noll’s ability to answer succinctly the question of how and why religion and race mattered in the debates that have shaped so much of American political history. But he fails, I think, to fully elucidate the internal workings of the Black Church when it is not clearly part of the larger story of the interactions between race, religion and national politics.

The Black Church’s Inner Struggle

Noll doesn’t consider the inner life of the Black Church and the Black faiths that have sustained it. Nor does he present much of a critical story. The Black Church on the whole is presented in a favorable light, and Noll is extraordinarily respectful of the role of churches within hard-pressed Black communities and within the nation’s major movement for racial justice.

Barbara Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk beside Us, does not labor under the burden of such caution. While Noll takes a relatively uncritical look at Black religion, Savage emphasizes the historical debate over whether Black churches could ever act as a progressive force.

Indeed, Savage’s analysis is grounded in the fact that scholars, activists and other observers of the Black Church have so often been critical or dismissive of these embedded institutions. They have raised criticisms of the training and education of preachers, of their otherworldly orientation sermonizing, and of the stark gender imbalance that places so many women in the pews of churches and so few in the pulpits.

Above all, critics ranging from W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson to E. Franklin Frazier raised serious questions about the efficacy of Black religion itself.

Before the rise of the postwar civil rights movement and throughout the 20th century, Savage notes in her introduction, “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.

Although churches were continually called upon to be savior institutions, historically they were most often criticized for failing in that mission. In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant political narratives treated African American religion with despair and disdain. The emergence in the late 1950s of a Southern civil rights movement with churches, church people, and church culture at its center was a powerful and startling departure from that story, rather than a natural progression. (2)

Thus Savage situates her analysis at the center of a series of critical tensions surrounding the church and its not-always-deserved reputation as a source of progressive social change. These tensions and indeed paradoxes stretch back to the inception of Afro-Christianity in the context of slavery and racism.

If Christianity, in a highly truncated form, was deployed on slave plantation as a mechanism of social control and oppression, then how could slaves and other oppressed Black peoples possibly reconfigure it as a tool of liberation?

Did the experience of slavery so “taint” religious practices that they are hopeless marked by antiquated, even “primitive” tendencies of emotionalism and what W.E.B. DuBois once termed “the Frenzy?” Are African Americans “over-churched?” Has the Black Church been overly “feminized?” Does Black religion encourage or forestall active engagement in progressive political activism?

Scholars and the Faithful

Barbara Savage, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to highlight rather than submerge these tensions and to explore both “the possibilities and the restraints” that religion has brought to the Black freedom struggle.

Ignoring this inherent duality of possibilities and restraints of Black religion as both help and hindrance to a progressive politics, she chides, “will only perpetuate deep misunderstandings about the place of religion in African American political struggle.”

To this end, Savage provides ample and detailed analysis of the criticisms and calls for reform made by the first generation of Black church/Black religion scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with the maturation of the field in the mid-20th century, a period dominated by E. Franklin Frazier.

Frazier may have called the church “a nation within a nation,” but he wasn’t exactly happy about this fact and tended to view the Black Church as largely compensatory for its members’ suffering. In the future, he prophesized, modernization and assimilation would continue to run their course and the need for separate Black congregations would fade away.

In this instance the disjuncture between scholars of Black religion, the majority of whom adopted a functionalist approach, and the practitioners of the faith is almost palpable. As Savage shifts from the former to the latter in the second half of the book we get a much more compelling analysis of the lived tensions between faith and politics.

I could have done without the ponderous treatment of ponderous scholars, though the range of figures she treats is impressive. Savages surveys not only DuBois, Woodson and Frazier, but also social scientists such as Charles Johnson, Gunnar Myrdal, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, authors of Black Metropolis, and anthropologists — Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Huff Fauset, Hortense Powdermaker — whom she credits with a more sympathetic and flexible view.

With the exception of the three anthropologists whom she places at the margins of the social science enterprise, Savage judges the bulk of these scholars with being “intellectually and emotionally unprepared for their confrontations with the dominance and power that religious beliefs, practices, and institutions held in Black community life” (70); with being dismissive of the voices of their subjects, especially of those members of “cults and sects” who fell outside of the mainstream; and with maintaining a stubborn myopia on questions of gender.

   Savage utilizes the second half of the book to compensate and correct for these past failings, to enact a better model for the study of religion and politics, at least in the lives of Black religious intellectuals and activists.

Diverse Journeys

Concentrating on the first five decades of the 20th century, Savage focuses on three representative figures: Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Benjamin Mays, with reference to his wife, Sadie. All three were southerners born to formerly enslaved parents. All three bridged the so-called divide between the sacred world of church and spirituality and the secular world of politics, education, public policy and activism. And all three embodied Zora Neale Hurston’s observation, which Savage quotes approvingly, that Black religious life was composed of practices “at once communal and absolutely individualistic.”

This is particularly true of Bethune. Founder of Bethune-Cookman College, advisor to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and long-time leader of the National Council of Negro Women, Bethune embraced a staunch religious ecumenicalism and rejected the limitations — especially the gendered limitations placed on women — of the “orthodox Negro Church,” as she called it.

Bethune was passionate about the need to train Black women to assume positions of power, influence and racial leadership inside of churches and within the broader society. She saw a special role for Black churches and Black colleges in the advancement of the race, despite a growing affinity in the last decades of her life for what Savage describes as a politics of Pentecost.

Based on the account in the Book of Acts, the Pentecost refers to the moment the Holy Spirit descended among the followers of Jesus, allowed them to speak and hear as one body, despite their many languages. This is the language Bethune adopted to characterize the founding convention of the United Nations, to which she served as a U.S. delegate:

As the sessions continued, and the language and voices constantly made articulate their common plea for world peace, world cooperation, world good-will, world freedom and world security — a spiritual something began to weld them together and to undergird their efforts as they worked on the development of a program for the common good. The leaven of democracy was at work. (145)

Increasingly an internationalist, as well as an integrationist, ultimately Bethune became a dedicated follower of the Moral Re-Armament movement.

Founded by Frank N.D. Buchman, a white American Lutheran preacher, rabid anti-Communist and one-time reputed fascist sympathizer, Moral Re-Armament based itself on principles of absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness and absolute love as the only means to restore wholeness to individuals and to a world wrenched by war, the atomic bomb, racism and other forms of hatred. [This peculiar formation arose from the “Oxford group” in the mid-1930s, which also gave rise to the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. In the 1960s, after its founder’s death, Moral Re-Armament gave birth to “Up With People” — ed.]

It was also a movement in which Bethune immersed herself as part of her decades-long search for ways “to move beyond what she saw as the perils of religious and racial exclusivity.” (156)

While Bethune’s journey took her far afield, all three of Savage’s representative yet highly individualistic figures struggled with the paradox of using the Black Church to press for greater integration into mainstream American life.

In a 1950 article Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., predicated that the next 50 years would be “decades of integration” leading, inevitably, to the dismantling of segregated churches. “In the year 2000,” he forecasted, “the names of all denominations with Negro or colored designations will have been changed. The words “Negro Baptist” will not appear in the Federal Census of Religious Bodies in the year 2006.” (217)

Ultimately, Savage uses the three chapters devoted to Bethune, Burroughs and Mays to further develop the theme of ambiguity, tension and paradox at the heart of Black religion and Black politics.

She also deploys them to contextualize the stunning emergence of the southern civil rights movement, most notably emphasizing the interconnections of generations of women like Bethune, and especially Burroughs who was a leading figure in the Women’s Convention, an auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, with younger women activists such as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Marian Wright Edelman, Fannie Lou Hammer and Mary King. King was one of the early white members of SNCC, and one of the figures whose “movement memoirs” Savage uses to good effect in an otherwise perfunctory narrative of the movement.

The Civil Rights Revolution

   As with Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics, Savage also takes a long view, with the post-World War II civil rights movement emerging as a critical juncture in their respective narratives. According to both authors, the civil rights movement fundamentally altered the terrain of race and politics in the United States.

It also, as Savage notes, prompted social scientists to revive old debates about the relationship between charismatic leadership and organized political activism — just in time, as it turns out, to make sense not only of the recent past in terms of the civil rights movement but also to understand the rise of the anti-abortion movement and the development of the Religious Right since the 1970s.

The ties between the civil rights movement and the Religious Right should not be ignored. Jerry Falwell had once condemned King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council for engaging in appropriate political activity as opposed to preaching the gospel.

“I believe,” Falwell proclaimed, “that if we spent enough effort trying to clean up our churches, rather than trying to clean up the state and national government, we would do well.” Years later, Falwell and his Moral Majority would follow King’s lead across the sacred/secular divide, and attempt to undo some of the movement’s victories, especially in school desegregation.

Both authors use their conclusions to comment on more recent developments in American politics: Noll on the mobilization of white evangelicals and the rise of the Christian Right, culminating in the election of former president George W. Bush; Savage on the current debates about the Black Church and the advent of first Senator and now President Barack Obama.

As Obama struggles to publicly define his faith as rooted in both the uniqueness of Black religion and in the universality of its message, and as a post-Bush Republican Party continues to struggle with its unwieldy evangelical base, we are repeatedly reminded of the decisive yet often divisive realities of faith in American politics.

ATC 140, May/June 2009