As African Americans faced first slavery and then Jim Crow, they nestled in the black church as a haven. In the 1950s and ’60s, blacks congregated to fight legal oppression. In The Color of Christ, American religion historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey argue that blacks and whites were once unified under the mantle of Christianity in efforts to combat societal vice and ills. Yet in more recent decades, black religiosity has shifted.
Though many within the black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism, others have slowly drifted away.
In some spaces, stories are told of glass ceilings but with no mention of those stuck in the basement. Many African American Christians tell stories of driving while black or other times they’ve personally experienced racial profiling. But they are silent when it comes to the devastating impact of police brutality and mass incarceration on poor black communities. Some love to point people’s attention to how their presence has too often caused white people to cross the street or to clutch their purse, but yet turn their faces away from how young black people are stereotyped and criminalized as thugs and jezebels.
In years and decades to come, we’ll remember the last two weeks. The Emanuel A.M.E. massacre, the sudden shift away from the Confederate flag, the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of the Affordable Care Act and its extension of same-sex marriage to every state. Last Friday there was an awesome funeral service for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel and one of the victims in the shooting. And all of it while once again black churches have been burning, some under suspicious circumstances.
For all of America’s secularization, actual and expected, each event was resonant with religious significations—and each prompted a wave of public theology.
Paul Harvey's introduction to the history of African-American Christianity emphasizes both the
fraught relationship between black and white Christians and the tensions
within black religious institutions and communities.