The Decline of African American Religion

With Easter Sunday just passing, a slew of resurrection films, documentaries on Jesus Christ, and academic pieces debating the merit of Heaven and Hell on the History Channel have once again inundated our living rooms. I greatly enjoy this time of the year due to the diversity of discussions about Christ, and that of religion in general. However, this post is not one seeking to articulate my beliefs or the beliefs of my friends and colleagues; it is a post offering some reflective thoughts regarding the general nature of religiosity, and its subsequent impact on both the American conservative and liberal.

Growing up in the home of agnostics, Easter carried very little meaning. But, as is the case for many Americans, it provided an opportunity for some discussion on faith. In general, American blacks are highly spiritual and far more conservative than mainstream white culture realizes. However, the notion of black liberalism is encapsulated by societal constructs forcing blacks to eradicate racism, fight classism, and promote cultural views of themselves in the media; it is the latter point that has brought about a false assumption of black ghettoization; hence, black folks killing black folks; promoters of the welfare state; and the perception of dominant sexual beings vis-à-vis Yo MTV Rap, a once popular music video show. Keep in mind, there is a difference between being spiritual and that of religious; I suspect many black brothers and sisters attend church not for the religious value of salvation, but the comfort of the spiritual.

In truth, the majority of black folks are highly conservative. Often time, conservative to a point that contradicts the general gains manifested during the civil rights era. Thus, the church has long been the center of black social, political, and economic discourse between both the academic brother, and that of the common layperson. Yet, there are black folks that have drifted away from mainstream Protestant and Catholic beliefs; in part, this is manifested by a sense of suspicion in the two mainstream religious cannons. I think back to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose notion of religiosity is prevalent in his writings and artwork, but not always clearly defined. This is one reason there is some debate among Du Bosian scholars about the extent to which he is religious. Being an academic with Du Boisian interest, I find great conflicts in his religious prowess, where much of my confusion centers on his belief in Christ. He references Christ in his writings, at times noting that Christ is a symbol of socialism, and denoting how society should care for each other.

A mistake many make is they assume Karl Marx concocted this whole notion of socialism. But yet, there is evidence that it existed well before Marx. After all, “Jesus preceded Marx historically by nearly 19 centuries.  In addition, Marx built his entire socialist philosophy on the initial premise that God is merely a human delusion, and the second that religion is nothing more than an “opiate of the masses.”  Thus, Du Bois’s framework of Christ as a symbol of socialism clearly reflects his suspicion of the existence of Christ as a divine being.

Though most of us are not at the intellectual level of Du Bois, it is safe to say that black religiosity has declined since the 1970s.  The 21st century black church is in a dilemma. With the civil rights era over, black folks witnessed the rise of neoconservatives during the late 1970s. Such neoconservatives elected a conservative regime that declared war on black society. Thus, with the rise of hip hop and gangster rap, and the demise of the Black Panthers and the black church, black folks turned to gangs and other practices of socialization. Now, this is not a ubiquitous phenomenon. There is a vibrant black middle class aiming to hold on to the cultural value promulgated in the black church; however, many of the black bourgeoisie look toward the intellectual notion of ideology as a guide. Like Du Bois, the more education blacks gain, the more secular they are in thought. Yet, this secular element is more conservative than what existed during the civil rights era. As noted before, hip-hop and Jesus Christ are not synonymous; however, the two are drawn together through a “sense” of spiritual reconciliation.  Christians contend that the Bible offers hope and understanding to those that are lost. The hip-hop artist also contends that his lyrics offer a “sense” of hope and salvation, much like that of Jesus Christ. Religious historians have given very little attention to the impact religion has had on hip-hop and rap culture.

As noted by Anthony Pinn, this demoting of black churches will not simply result from external pressures” — those opposed to churches for whatever reason(s) — but will also result from internal inconsistencies and conservatism. How can churches address current and pressing issues of discrimination when sexism and homophobia are so very alive within pulpits and pews? How can these churches speak to the integrity of life when in practice and conversation they reflect a deep distrust and discomfort with physical bodies and how they give and receive pleasure? How can churches address in sustainable ways community development when they can’t manage their own budgets?”

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4 thoughts on “The Decline of African American Religion

  1. Great post. I just assumed blacks were very Baptist and very religious. I have not given much of what you wrote about much thought. This topics is a bit beyond me. Most of the things you and Chilli discuss are beyond me.

  2. Carson,

    We have had this conversation before; I am excited that you are going to write more on this matter for various talks, conferences, etc. I think you are holding back some. There is a bit of caution here. Why is that the case? I do agree with you, but why the caution.

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