The Role of the Black Church

The Communist Party USA published my reading/presentation of an essay I wrote on the Black Church for African American History Month. This is an early part of my research addressing the shift of Black folk from religion to atheism, and the Black class struggle. “What was once called the Negro church in the course of the struggle for equality has emerged as a major force advocating, equality, democracy and social change. How did the transition from the Negro church to the black church take place; what were the class and social forces that helped shape it; how did these issues relate to the broader society issues in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th century?

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The Emergence of Black Atheists in American Culture

I am hoping to get some feedback on a research project I am in the process of conducting. Below is a rough abstract to a paper I will deliver on a panel this summer.

The church — both the Black Protestant and white church cannot fully reconcile their racial differences, due to the barrier capitalism poses toward social and class progress. After 1970, capitalism transformed the Black church from an agent seeking radical change, to one procuring cultural materialism, as noted by a consumer-driven culture that seeks status and measures of wealth. As a result, the Black church continues to fall short of being a revolutionary change agent for Black folk, in the dawn of the 21st century, as self-interest and wealth have usurped the Gospels. Such measures of self have not only divided the Black and white working class from their achievable class interest, but have furthered intra-racial division due to commodification and economic inequality.

W.E.B. Du Bois contended that the white church was incapable of mending the color line, but the Negro church, though flawed, provided hope for Blacks, as it held onto the roots of Africa, which were transported to North America. Du Bois also noted that the Negro church presented challenging divisions among its fellowship. Though he did not delve too deeply into the nomenclature of class division within the Negro church, he took a systematic approach in understanding the notion of faith – and Negro religiosity. Du Bois did, however, write about apathy and self-care, as they pertained to the church. And while Du Bois saw the Negro church as a cultural center and fixture for Black congregants seeking rescue from a racist society, he examined the paradoxical nature of religion and individual values. Carter G. Woodson expressed grave concerns when he noted that the Negro church “suffered from a generational divide, a class divide, and regional one but ultimately from a division over ideas”. By the 1950s, the Negro church evolved into the classical Black church, as E. Franklin Frazier published a scathing critique of the Negro church, he noted it no longer existed; as the Negro church died…it was reborn.

This paper offers a lens to critique the historical and emerging shift away from the Black church and religion. My research furthers that notion, as many within the Black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism and belief in God, while others have slowly drifted away, often due to greater economic opportunities at the expense of the Black community. Due to integration, this post-1970 Black bourgeoisie progressed from the Black church—as well as from religion. With black educational attainment and hence the rise of the Black middle class, more and more Black people are reflecting their values by asking, Do I believe in God? Can I afford to believe in God? This shift, in part, reflects the stark class differences among Blacks by the 21st century. This class divide and shift in faith morphed by Blacks to reflect an emerging non-churched bourgeois attitude. Through countless interviews, observations, demographic studies, and discussions with Black atheist network leaders, my research looks at the rise of Black atheists, and the importance of class and materialism, over the church in the age of Black Lives Matter. For some racial identity will be sacrificed, while for others the loss of religion will advance a new consciousness.

Trump Trumps God in 2016

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An August 2007 article in The Economist titled Is America Turning Left? gave a historical draw on the role of the right, especially the Christian right, in shaping American politics. It started off by stating:

            The most conservative president [George W. Bush] in recent history, a man who sought to turn his  victories of 2000 and 2004 into a Republican hegemony, may well end up driving the Western world’s most impressive political machine off a cliff.

In 2004, the Republican Party aimed to distract voters from a slipping United States economy and two foreign wars by making faith a part of its platform. That year many states put issues such as gay marriage on the ballot, urging faith-based voters to cast a vote defining marriage between a man and a woman. Such 2004 right-wing fervor still exist in politics and churches, but the post-Barack Obama era appears to have weakened the base of Christian-Republicans. Traditional Republican candidates quickly dissipated in this past election season. And though Donald Trump promises to appoint conservative judges to the bench, many suspect this is a ploy to maintain Christian Republicans.

If one turned their television to a religious station or attended a church service, they might hear how America is moving down an immoral path to being the next Sodom and Gomorrah. Trump, however, has placed distanced from such language in electing to use nationalism over religion, as noted by his campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”.

Trump’s jingoistic language differs from the Puritanical faith-based thinking of past, which has garnered historical attention for centuries, starting with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, movers of the First Great Awakening, which also cemented the South as the Bible Belt. Starting in the late 1970s, those who supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, unified to shape mass politics. Goldwater was the standard-bearer of the New Right Republican Party. Goldwater engineered a disgruntled white Conservative population fearing the United States was becoming too liberal. This emerging Republican population consisted of conservative ideologues, fundamentalist Christians, and populist voters who deplored the liberal social, political, and economic trends of the 1960s and hoped to change it. Many of them were against the civil rights legislation, arguing that they were unconstitutional as they undermined states’ rights.

Just like the First and Second Great Awakening of the 18th and 19th century, evangelical leaders were content to combat what they called the forces of Satan, by asking all believers to join in an attempt to save the souls of the lost. This action took place during religious crusades and revivals. By the Fourth Great Awakening, there was no need to rally the troops at revival camp meetings. A quick hit of a TV button had the religious right advocating for political candidates and against what they saw as the sins of liberalism. It was Richard Viguerie, a right-wing publicist, who marshaled the power of the computerized direct-mail advertising as a New Right unifier. This, as well as the message of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, served as an impetus to fighting leftism.

Yet in 2016 the religious right has given their soul to Trump – not God. As I recently noted, Evangelical Christians in America must decide if they really value religious freedom or just the religious freedom of Jesus. If they value the latter — there will be a generational rebellion against them, and thus their purpose of Jesus sharing will die, as far too many right-wing Christian evangelicals have not sided with the love and empathy of Christ, but identity politics.

God and Black People

The Negro soul is a complex soul. Black folks will tell you that the black soul hides the burdened of millions of Negroes who suffered at the hands of white supremacy. The march from the oppression of slavery to the injustice of Jim Crow has left the soul marked with millions of burdens that only God can remove. Black oppression was God’s design. In part, a comparative design he handed the Jews. Black folks have long held to the Jewish-Exodus narrative as they relive the accounts of their bondage, which involved centuries of slavery, a migration from mass injustices, lynchings, unemployment, and mass incarcerations.

lynching

As noted by the drawing published in Crisis Magazine by editor W.E.B. Du Bois, the white South represented a moral contradiction to the Gospel of Christ, who reminded the white South, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”. This 1916 depiction showcases the fear that encapsulated blacks to the point of drawing on biblical narratives about freedom.

However, not all blacks hold close the Christian narrative. Better yet, many have seperated themselves from the narrative of being God’s righteous people. Being a black atheist in America is a challenging position to reside. A black atheist within the black community has amounted to levels of criminality. Black folks have long used religion as a way to find answers for their historical suffering within the confines of white America. And though there are black folks who live a life of moral contradictions vis-a-vis scriptural rules, there is no place for nonbelievers. Remember, God rescued the American Negro from bondage. Centuries of lynching and years of Jim Crow created a universal sense of “togetherness” as it relates to the black church.

ray-lewis

Above: Ray Lewis, the once arrested but never convicted of murder is seen here on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Lewis, who is quick to thank God for his many blessings, was captured in an image of baptismal renewal. Lewis will tell you that God gave him a second chance, seeing that many felt he was involved and guilty of at least destroying evidence.

Black entertainers represent one of the greatest misrepresentation of normative black-religious culture. After one scores a touchdown, he pauses to give thanks to Jesus, pointing to the heavens or saying a prayer, while marking his uniform with a cross like action. Speeches, interviews, and award acceptances are easily engulfed in a thanks be to God reference. So when NFL running back Arian Foster stated he does not believe in God, it caught many by surprise. Foster’s denial of God will receive greater criticism from the black community. God has blessed him with riches and fame, yet he rejects a God who rescued his race from oppression. Thus, Foster and others have rejected their righteous place in the kingdom of heaven.

Being Black, Another Thought on Faith

Black folk — during the days of Harriet Tubman, shared folk tales via singing to describe Christ’s coming to save them from Egyptian bondage; it was Tubman (black Moses) who emerged in the days of the Exodus to guide the enslaved across the Red Sea into the northern region; she was guided by the northern star – the one followed by the wise me of Christ’s days. Such religious tales illustrated a “sense” of religiosity” that still exists among black folk, yet no longer carries the same fervor.

Edward Blum’s work speaks to the religiosity of Du Bois as a spiritual intellectual. Cornel West’s writings often discuss the soulful needs of faith and the church as a process of survival for black folks in a world dominated by white supremacy. In an age of reason, one that places too much attention on academics for profit, such as the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the norm of thought is that intellectuals lack a faith in God — particularly white academics. The thought of blacks being nonbelievers used to be uncommon, however, that has shifted in the post-civil rights age.

During the age of Jim Crow, black folks congregated in the black church, as many do today. For some it is a form of spiritual “togetherness” and a show of political and economic solidarity. The church once served as the center of political and social lifer for black Americans. Though still true for some, the rise of secular culture, academic life, science, and materialism has changed that dynamic.

What is different about black theology?

According to James Cone, “it is due exclusively to the failure of white religionists to relate the gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society.”

For nearly three hundred years, the enslaved house worker had been listening to their owners’ prayers and Bible readings….They were able to interpret their own inexplicable situation and give themselves reasons to stay alive. This notion has transformed itself from the plantation to the political arena as seen by such actors as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

While many African-Americans seem to belong to the general segment known as Baptists, the first African Baptist church began this trend in Richmond VA, in 1838 when the pastor and members of the First Baptist Church of that city debated its growing difficulty: What to do with the growing black population in the church. Perhaps one of the reasons so many African Americans today consider themselves Baptists is because of its orthodox and conservative nature as a branch of Christianity.

It is at this point one might see a division between those of religious academic type and those of a more spiritual devotion. The religious academic types see the church as a vehicle to bring about social justice in eradicating poverty, racism, and social ills that permeate society. This type of black folk tend to be far more progressive than those rooted in the deep southern tradition of the orthodox Baptist church.

My Classroom Visit

I spent my AM visiting the English Department. Steph Holmes — a friend and colleague invited me into her III rd form English class to discuss race and religion. Her students were great. She was great as she connected my talk to their study of the “Color Purple.”

Holm's Class

Above is a picture she shared and her thoughts on social media about my visit:

“A big thanks to Mr. Edward Carson for his lesson “Jesus was a Black Man from the Hood.” The conversation enhanced our study of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and more importantly, he challenged us to consider the relationships between religion and race, power, class, gender and sexual orientation–as well as the origins of those relationships, how they are depicted in art and literature, and the impact on contemporary American culture. You’re always welcome in my classroom, Eddie!”

Is God Dead?

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Above: My presentation slide

As one of the editors for The Christian Century Magazine Then & Now, I am excited to share an essay we edited and published. Neil Young’s piece here reminds us that this month is the 50 anniversary of the Time Magazine cover, Is God Dead?, and that the faith-based movie God Is Not Dead 2 just released reflects the culture war of religion and society. The magazine cover is something I teach and one I will share in my presentation regarding American Jesus and the tension over religion in American society.