Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism

Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism

Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism

Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism


Frederick Harris wades into a perennially contentious debate: the degree to which religious experience is central to African American political involvement and success. For the first time applying the new techniques of a cultural resource model to this question, Harris makes a strong case for the formative influence of religion, both as a source of strength and often determinative in practical political consequences. Harris's argument overturns a large body of quantitative research on political activity, principally in the Chicago religious community.


My God is a rock in a weary land, My God is a rock in a weary land, Shelter in a time of storm. African-American spiritual

During the modern civil rights movement, religious institutions provided critical organizational resources for protest mobilization (McAdam 1982;Morris 1984). As Aldon Morris's extensive study of the southern civil rights movement noted, the black church served as the organizational hub of black life, providing the resources that--along with other indigenous groups and institutions--fostered collective protest against a system of white domination in the South (1984).

In this chapter I survey the early history of the role of black religious institutions in electoral politics. I argue that, from Reconstruction to the present day, black churches have served as a source of information, organizational skills, and political stimuli. I will then show how black religious institutions operated under different opportunity structures for participation during the Jim Crow period. My analysis then turns to the present and shows, through participant observation, primarily in Chicago churches, how politicians' explicit courtship of black churchgoers brings those churchgoers both information and political stimuli, as well as providing the politicians with an easily mobilizable constituency. Finally, I take up the controversy over church-based political activism, concluding that most black churchgoers approve of it so long as ministers do not explicitly endorse particular candidates.

Church-based activism predates the modern civil rights movement. Understanding the emergence of that movement and subsequent church involvement in electoral activities requires that we understand the history of the black church. As Adolph Reed asserts, "[a]ny rigorous analysis of the link between politics and the black church must delineate the developmental context--and the trajectory of actions and choices dictated by this context--through which the twentieth- century black church evolved" (1986b, 45).

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