African American Religion and Public Life: An Assessment

Article excerpt

Introduction

It is an honor to dedicate this essay to the memory of my longtime friend and colleague, the late Lowell Livezey. His novel project, "Ecologies of Learning," is arguably the most significant contribution to theological education in the past several decades. Our hope is that seminaries and religious organizations will do all they can to guarantee the continuation of this collaborative model of teaching, research, and action by teachers, students, and religious leaders thinking and acting together.

African Americans outside the southern region of the United States have lived in the nation's largest cities for most of the twentieth century. Consequently, their religious associations have been shaped largely by that urban context. Most important, historians, sociologists, ethnographers, and other scholars have centered their studies on this urban phenomenon which, for many decades was hindered by the structural constraints of racism. Yet, they were not totally immobilized by those limitations. Rather, from the days of their enslavement up to the present they have struggled to overcome the many and varied societal obstacles by envisioning new possibilities for the well-being of their people. Although much good was accomplished, many new challenges confront them in our day--challenges that need critical assessment and deliberative action. This essay comprises a primer concerning the history, development, and ongoing challenges of that institutional phenomenon.

Historical overview

It is important to state at the beginning that African American religion is not a unified phenomenon but, rather, a very diverse reality in organizational, historical, sociological, theological, and liturgical forms. In fact, its breath includes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, and countless forms of hybrid messianic groups. Admittedly, this vast diversity reflects the influence of massive demographic shifts in the African American population from the rural south to southern, western and northern cities between the first and second World Wars.

From the late eighteenth century onward, however, the vast majority of African Americans have adhered to their own modified forms of independent Protestantism, the rapid growth of which evidenced their collective response to the racist thought and practices of the Euro-American churches. Consequently, one cannot overestimate the historical importance of African-American religion in the public life of this nation. Even prior to their admission to full citizenship during two and a half centuries of slavery followed by another century of racial discrimination and segregation, African peoples in America struggled tirelessly for the eventual realization of freedom. They were denied the right of full citizenship by the constitution of the nascent republic and, despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments, that right was denied them twice by the U.S. Supreme Court: first in the 1846 Dred Scott decision and second, in the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision. The latter remained the law of the land until it was overthrown by the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision. The long journey of African Americans to citizenship was finally accomplished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then and then alone did African Americans rightfully gain full citizenship rights. It is ironic that a people formerly known as Africans in America and subsequently degraded by such racial designations as colored and Negro, now proudly embrace their self-proclaimed hybrid name, African American. This practice did not become generally accepted until the 1980s.

Although African slaves could only assemble in clandestine ways during slavery, they succeeded even under the conditions of bondage to organize their own public realm within the context of what E. Franklin Frazier called the "invisible church" and what I call the "concealed church" because it had been invisible only to whites. …