Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Your Spirits Walk beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Your Spirits Walk beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

Article excerpt

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. By Barbara Dianne Savage. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2008, Pp. 368. $27.95.)

"I do what pastors do," Jeremiah Wright told the National Press Club on 28 April 2008, and, referring to Barack Obama, "he does what politicians do." Contrary to the appearance of the remark, Wright was endeavoring to underscore the continuity, not the contrast, between the black church and black politics. But Barbara Savage, University of Pennsylvania historian, argues in Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion that the continuity between the black church and black politics, indeed the very existence of a black church, is an illusion. The matrix for that illusion was the Civil Rights Movement. There "the perception emerged that black religion and politics were innately compatible and mutually reinforcing. The power of this idea," Savage contends, "eclipsed the history and memory of intra-racial conflicts about the place of religion in political struggles. Yet those tensions were present before, during, and after the movement" (270).

The movement with churches at its center was actually "a startling departure" and a "miracle," Savage claims, rather than "a natural progression" (2). The most lamentable consequence was "the insistence on black religious uniformity in the face of just the opposite - the enormous diversity of African American religious beliefs and practices both within and outside Christianity" (118). Separate decisions by Absalom Jones to found Philadelphia's African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas - of which Savage herself is today an active member - within the predominately white Episcopal Church, and, on the other hand, Richard Allen to found an independent black Methodist tradition illustrate "the historical diversity among black churches, their ambivalent relationship to white American Christianity, and their political natures" (4).

Savage takes her title comes from Robert Hayden's 1944 poem, "We Have Not Forgotten," about the faith and hope whereby blacks endured slavery to achieve the possibilities of American democracy and bestowed their strengthening "spirits" to post-emancipation generations who have continued their self-same struggle - right up to the inauguration of Barack Obama. Those "spirits" constitute an historical hagiography of black intellectuals and activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois who as a New England Episcopalian viewed the church as "a spiritual State within a State" (38), emotional displays in worship as a holdover from Africa and slavery, and the clergy as an obstacle keeping the black church from offering political leadership and economic resources its people needed. …

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