Following the streams of African-American religion
Spirituality and political activism exist side by side
– R. Drew Smith
The iconic images of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black churchmen leading their congregations in protest against segregation are permanently etched into the world's consciousness. These enduring pictures of church activism can lead to the perception that African-American religion is inherently political in nature.
“This perception I try to confirm or disconfirm,” said R. Drew Smith, director of the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. Smith unpacked this paradox at 2004 conference on religion and public life.
“During the civil rights movement, African-American churches had a very high profile – the image of African-American clergy and church members on the front lines, on Capitol Hill, on the streets protesting. Because of this high profile, there has been a tendency to project that image more broadly than is justified,” Smith said.
But for many African-Americans, religion has always been primarily a spiritual endeavor and a refuge from the harsh social conditions to which they have been subjected.
“On the one hand, you have a stream of activism and resistance, but on the other hand you have a stream of refuge, noninvolvement, docility, or quietism,” Smith said. “These two streams have always existed alongside each other, oftentimes in tension with one another. They have often had to negotiate with each other and feel their way forward.”
But it is the activist stream that usually makes the news, and coverage waxes and wanes. “There have been periods of time when it bubbles into the public consciousness – onto the front pages, on the television and into the public consciousness, and then it disappears and recedes, and something else takes its place,” Smith said.
“We need to understand the activist stream is fairly limited within the broader family of African-American church life.”
The two streams go back to the days of slavery and abolitionism. Early
on, black churches were at the forefront of resistance. Still, for many African-American
slaves, their religion remained with the confines of their private spiritual
“On one hand, many African-American slaves interpreted Christianity in a way that led them to resistance. But there were also many African-Americans for whom that was not the case. Their approach to spirituality and their religious life was focused less on impacting the temporal world and focused more on the otherworldly and transcendent dimension. For these people, their church was a place of refuge, apart from the social context, where they could find meaning, purpose, significance and affirmation. It was a place where they could experience God and the spirit,” Smith said.
“There was a separation between those two realities – the physical and the spiritual. The one didn't necessarily impact the other. The Africans in America could be bound by slavery in their physical and social sense, but be very free and above that situation by virtue of their very real spiritual experience and their very real relationship with God.”
The duel streams of African-American religion carried forward throughout the antebellum period, segregation, the civil rights era and to the present day.
“Those distinctions are still operative today: One can embrace faith in ways that sometimes lead to resistance, and sometimes more toward refuge and transcendence. Both of these embodiments of the faith experience are very powerful and very legitimate,” Smith said.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many African-Americans on the activist side adopted a separatist or “immigrationist” strategy – quitting America and returning to Africa.
“Their assessment of the U.S. social context was that there would be little opportunity for African-Americans to achieve full political rights, and the best strategy would be to seek better opportunities outside of the United States,” Smith said.
The immigrationists founded the African-American colony of Liberia, but the movement did not get too far. Other movements emerged at the same time, including black nationalism, exploration of Islam, and other different religious philosophies and traditions.
Others adopted an integrationist strategy, seeking empowerment within the political context of the United States. African-American Christians who adopted this strategy eventually came to define the civil rights movement.
“At certain historical moments, the activist stream has achieved ascendancy. In the 1960s, activist African-American Christians had their day in the sun. Their concerns were front and center. This expression of African-American Christianity was front and center during the 1950s and 1960s and received attention around the world. This understanding of one's faith has everything to do with the world we live in and the necessity of trying to change that world – to improve it and make it better,” Smith said.
“But this expression of black Christianity was not sustained over time. There have been peaks and valleys as it relates to this activist tradition within African American religion. The same could be said for social life in general. We have social movements that percolate up from time to time. But we don't live in a world where life is centered around social movements on an ongoing basis. Social movements come and go. They have their day, and sometimes recede into the background or sometimes disappear completely from the radar screen. So it has been with African American Christianity,” Smith said.
With the passing of 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, various Supreme Court decisions favoring integration, and the successes of the civil rights movement, civil rights eaders faced a new challenge: What to do next.
“Every historical period has its own challenges and nuances. Coming into the civil rights movement, African-Americans were dealing with a context in which the primary issue was their exclusion from American political and social life. Coming out of the civil rights movement, a brand new society began to emerge, and African-Americans and African-American churches had to make all sorts of adjustments to this new situation,” Smith said.
One outcome to the hard-won changes was a much more diversified set of social opportunities for black Americans. During the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, social opportunity and advancement was extremely limited. For ambitious African-Americans who wanted to pursue leadership and professional advancement, the church was the one of the few settings.
“Churches were, by default, the social institution for African-Americans to pursue social influence, power and leadership,” Smith said. “This all shifts after the civil right movement; because suddenly, African-Americans, at least theoretically, have access to many different social and professional opportunities. This has huge implications for the role of African-American churches.”
After the civil rights movement, the balance of power in African-American community life began to shift from “sacred to secular.” In 1965, there were about 100 elected black officials in United States. Presently, black elected officials number about 9,000. This includes elected officials at all levels – federal, state and local.
“No longer is the clergy the leadership of choice for African-Americans. No longer can the clergy necessarily claim to be the primary leader within the African American community. They are now alongside leaders representing many different sectors of society – most importantly, black elected officials,” Smith said. “So you begin to have a kind of tension between these two groups of leaders – their styles, issues and orientations to the world.”
Also following the civil rights movement, black advocacy organizations began to multiply. Before the 1960s, there were a handful of influential black organizations: the NAACP, the Urban League, the Council for Negro Women, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress for Racial Equality. In the 1970s and 80s and 90s, a number of small and single-issue advocacy organizations emerged, including the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), TransAfrica, more black women's organizations, and several smaller civil rights organizations.
“In the 1970s and 80s, black organizational life began to parallel the broader society, specifically, the trend toward decentralizing and a movement away from broad umbrella organizations like the NAACP and the emergence of single-issue advocacy organizations,” Smith said.
In addition, since the civil rights movement, the broader United States society has gone through significant ideological shifts – primarily toward the right.
“Since the 1960s, the ideological climate has shifted dramatically away from activist government and public responsiveness to social ills. You hear more about the evils of bloated bureaucracy and social engineering,” Smith said. “Collective responsibility to the well-being of society has shifted to an emphasis on personal well-being.”
All of these things put together – the increase of black elected officials, the emergence of new black advocacy organizations and a shift in national philosophy – have had an impact on the role of African-American churches and the clergy, Smith said.
“It's not about rallying the masses and taking to the streets any more. The nuts and bolts of political life have become much more complicated and more controlled by political organizations. This speaks to a growing professionalization of political activism – not just in the African-American community, but in the United States in general,” he said.
“You need to have lots of expertise and money to be influential in public life. African-American churches don't necessarily have lots of either. A clergy person speaks to 100-1,000 people on any given Sunday. The media has much larger access; big corporate movers and shakers on Capitol Hill have lobbyists and political action committees. There is a big disparity in who influences whom and how much.
“All of this put together place serious constraints on the ability of African-American churches to engage in effective political activism. They have fewer resources than the people they're competing with; they are not necessarily policy wonks; they're not professional activists; they don't know the nuts and bolts of Capitol Hill or the state house or city hall the way other professional activists or lobbyist might know,” Smith said.
Despite all of the changes of the past 40 years, the two streams of African-American Christianity that have existed from the beginning still persist, but in different forms.
“If we look at our current situation, we have an interesting mix of these two streams: Black religious activism remains strong, and so do black religious expressions that are not focused on political activism. There is movement back and forth between these two traditions in terms of which has ascendancy,” Smith said.
Even within individual congregations there is a mixture of political activism and purely religious expression. “Or you might have an elected official who is a member of a congregation whose pastor has no interest in politics whatsoever. So that elected official is going to do whatever he or she does in the public sphere, but comes to his congregation to get something else,” Smith said.
Beyond politics, black churches also focus on other forms of social activism, such as economic development, urban issues, education, etc.
In 1999-2000, the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project conducted a survey of black clergy in America on numerous issues related to political and public involvement.
“The project is trying to get a handle on the contemporary relationship between African-American churches and public life, and the contemporary context in which churches operate and what the churches are actually doing,” Smith said.
The survey garnered 1,956 responses from church leaders across the United States.
Among the questions and responses:
Should black churches be involved in politics?
- 38 percent strongly agreed
- 42 percent agreed
- 16 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. (page 31)
How often have international, national or local political issues have been discussed as part of the regular worship services?
- Frequently – 29 percent
- Sometimes – 49 percent
- Never – 22 percent
During the last 10 years, has the congregation been involved with civil rights as part of the congregational mission?
- Yes – 31 percent
- No – 28 percent
- No answer – 41 percent
The survey also asked about affirmative action, public schools, criminal justice and other public policy issues. About 10 percent of the congregations surveyed could be considered “activist organizations,” Smith said. That is about the same number of congregations that were actively involved in protests during the civil rights movement, leaving the majority of congregations more oriented toward “religion as refuge.”
But in comparison to American churches of other ethnicities, African-American Christians are much more orientated toward social involvement than others.
Clergy members are not permitted to endorse political candidates, according to IRS code, which classifies religious congregations as 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations.
“A clergy member would jeopardize that status by endorsing political candidates,” Smith said.
Since the civil rights movement, many clergy have run for public office and been elected. About 10 percent of the clergy surveyed indicated they either presently held public office or had in the past.
“They are wearing two hats,” Smith said. “But generally you have a tension between a clergy rooted in forms of activism associated with the civil rights movement versus the new black political professionals and the new political climate.”
The Public Influences of African-American Churches Project indicates political activism in other areas:
- 77 percent of the respondents said they “advocated issues with
- 50 percent said they are currently involved in the activities of a
civic or political organization.
- 46 percent have allowed political candidates or elected officials
to deliver speeches or remarks during worship services.
- 30 percent have frequently or sometimes advocated issues with public officials.
Despite overt political activity, Smith said the government rarely goes after churches for political involvement unless someone commits a particularly egregious violation.
“Generally, the government looks the other way, but I don't know how long that will hold up, particularly in the current debate over church-state separation engendered by President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative and the 1996 Charitable Choice Act,” he said.