To fully celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, we must contextualize her 86 years of living within the black religious traditions that influenced her and birthed her deep spirituality. While countless scholars have analyzed her literary, political, and cultural contributions, few have situated her work within the scope of black religious life, particularly the African-American Christian tradition.
Living in San Diego and having family in Norfolk, Virginia, I probably hear more sermons that involve military life than most Americans. I thought little of it this past Sunday when a video of a naval officer's account of war and call for church members to help those in combat and their families ran across the church televisions. But then we prayed for service women and men. And the pastor had all "retired and active" service people stand. It seemed a bit excessive. Then I realized it was Memorial Day weekend.
It reminded me of the sermons of Gilded Age evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody.
The Harlem Ashram (1940-1948) was a grand experiment that didn't go very far. The interracial Christian commune at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street was modeled after ashrams, or Hindu religious centers, that Gandhi had established in India. Its founders were two white men, Ralph Templin and Jay Holmes Smith, who had been Methodist missionaries in India in the 1930s. There they became interested in Gandhi's synthesis of religion, politics, and nonviolent protest.
Templin and Smith were part of a cohort of American pacifists who saw Gandhi’s work as a potential model for political and religious activism in the United States.
Jimmy Carter rode to the White House in 1976 on the twin currents of his reputation as a “New South” governor and a resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the early 1970s. Progressive evangelicalism, which traces its lineage to 19th-century evangelicals and to the commands of Jesus to care for “the least of these,” represented a very different version of evangelical activism from that of the religious right.
The movie Heaven Is for Real—based on the book by the same name—tells the story of minister Todd Burpo and his four-year-old son Colton. The main plot revolves around Colton’s near-death experience and his claims that while undergoing surgery he visited heaven and sat on Jesus’ lap. Burpo struggles to define what happened to Colton for himself as well as for the community of faith to which he ministers.
American evangelicals and mainliners often seem worlds apart when it comes to engagement with social issues. Take prisons as a case in point. The rhetoric diverges along the lines that one might expect: mainliners rail against the American mass incarceration system, the new Jim Crow that locks away minorities and the poor and is sustained by in-prison private labor and for-profit facilities. They want to fight this sinful system through activism (protests and petitions), academia (lectures and scholarly books), and artistic endeavors (photo essays and poetry).
Long before Sarah Palin met CPAC and the Duck Dynasty clan discovered A&E, George Gallup Jr. famously declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Subsequent commentators often pluralized “evangelical.” They might have done the same for “year,” too. In many years hence—1980, say, or 2004—it was 1976 all over again, to judge from the headlines. Those election years highlighted the Christian Right, a force that was not on Gallup’s radar screen back when Jimmy Carter was the prototypical evangelical in public life.
The years of the evangelicals were not only about campaign politics, however.
As Easter approaches, raising the dead is at the forefront of my mind. But I think of a different vision of resurrected dead, zombies. The popular monsters reanimate as gruesome bodies; their essential natures, spirits, or souls are absent. Zombies are a reckoning of the horror of the dead coming back to life.
The Sportsman Channel touts its newest series, Amazing America with Sarah Palin, in a three-minute video making the rounds on social media. The video, a recording by “the most patriotic band in America,” Madison Rising, contains rousing lyrics, while a variety of activities flash by in rapid succession: men fighting fires, men shooting guns, women shooting guns, men running with bulls, men riding down zip lines, cars racing, and Sarah Palin on a dogsled pulled by pink-booted sled dogs.