Righteous Politics: The Role of the Black Church in Contemporary Politics

Article excerpt

Someday the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of ten million
souls shall sweep, irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of
the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living-Liberty,
Justice and Right- is marked "For White People Only."
--W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Sunday morning visits to large, influential black churches have been a standard strategy of Democratic office-seekers for more than fifty years. Black churches are a site of organized, committed, well-networked, partisan faithful who can be influenced and mobilized by adept candidates. No local, state or national official can claim to have actively courted the African American vote without regular and visible attendance at black worship services. In both 1984 and 1988 Reverend Jesse Jackson's primary presidential campaigns were built on the structure of black Southern and urban congregations. (1) Not only did Jackson employ a rhetorical style reflecting his training as a black preacher, but he built a campaign organization centered on black Christian volunteers, black church contact lists, donations from black religious services and an ideology that relied heavily on black Christian understandings of the connection between the sacred and the political. (2) President Bill Clinton was adept at using black rhetorical styles borrowed from the church as well as the organizational resources and networks of black churches to motivate black electoral support. (3)

Black church voters have been such powerful and reliable allies to Democratic candidates that Republican "Big Tent" strategies have targeted black Christian voters, hoping to chip away at the loyalty of African American believers through moral wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. (4) In both his initial and reelection campaigns, President George W. Bush actively courted black religious voters through high profile connections with black ministers like T.D. Jakes and Fredrick Price. (5) As we enter the 2008 presidential campaign season, the black church is likely to retain its centrality as a site of political mobilization. What shape this influence on contemporary electoral politics takes depends on changing organizational, theological and cultural elements of the African American church.

Can the church still move the people?

Much of the study of African American religiosity and political behavior has largely centered on one defining question: does Christianity encourage or discourage political activism among African Americans? Religion scholars Lincoln and Mamiya refer to the black church as the "womb" of the community because it gave life to important social, economic and cultural institutions of African American life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (6) While few question the historic centrality of the church as an organization, there are scholars who suggest that the church is a force of quietism in black communities, discouraging political action through other-worldly focus on divine restitution in the afterlife. (7) "Opiate theorists argue that religion works as a means of social control offering African Americans a way to cope with personal and societal difficulties and undermining their willingness to actively challenge racial inequalities." (8)

Other researchers have vigorously defended the connection between the church and political action, stressing both the organizational resources that accrue to black churchgoers, such as the networks, skills, mobilization and contact opportunities nurtured in the church, (9) and mapping the psychological resources that contribute to the political actions of black church congregants, such as self-esteem and internal efficacy. (10) These scholars claim that the black church acts as an inspiration for political action by galvanizing black people to work toward political righteousness. Sociologist Aldon Morris articulates this position, stating that "the black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. …