This paper points out the crucial role of the Black church in the survival of African Americans in the Americas. In the world of politics it says that the black church acts as an interest group lobbying for public policies that serve black folks interests. It concludes with the view that as at present there is no alternative to the black church in holding the black community together and working for its interests hence the need to nurture the church and not knock it down as facile intellectuals who say that God does not exist try doing.
The Role Of Religion In African American Politics
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
What we today call African Americans are people who came from many parts of West Africa (folks who came from many African tribes). These people were rudely separated from their tribal moorings and left hanging in the air, rootless.
Generally, human beings seek roots in a place and in a people and its ways of life (norms, mores, rules, culture). African-Americans were abruptly yanked away from their African cultures. In the Americas to prevent them from forming a sense of community hence able to defend themselves from their white masters they were separated; those who spoke the same African language were sent to different areas. Thus, a whole bunch of strangers were gathered together and the slave master made sure that they remained strangers to each other.
Worse, the slave owner did not welcome his slaves into his world; he did not teach them his language (beyond the rudimentary vocabulary needed to hear him give them commands as to what to do). The slave master did not make a conscious attempt to socialize his slaves to his religion (what there was of it, for it can be questioned whether the white man actually is a Christian; if he were and lived by what the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, preached, love one another, he would not have enslaved any one; it is better that the white man is seen as a predatory animal).
Well, a bunch of Africans from disparate corners of West Africa were placed together and used as work mules and otherwise left to figure out how to deal with those imponderable aspects of being that all human beings have to deal with, answer questions such as, who am I, where did I come from and where do I go to when I die, and why am I here...and in this particular case, why did this fate of slavery befall me?
In time these Africans did the best they could and survived in the land of weird white Christians. Somewhere along the line they picked up the nominal religion of their slave masters. Their slave masters were mostly Protestant Christians (Anglicans, aka Episcopalian) and Baptists etc. Somehow they laid their hands on the bible and studied it.
Over time they used the stories in the bible to make sense of their plight. The story of how Joseph’s brothers sold him to slavery in Egypt and how eventually he found his freedom resonated with their situation and certainly was uplifting. Biblical stories of how good triumphed over evil gave black slaves hope that one day they, too, would find freedom in this new Egypt (for them, new Israelites). There is no doubt that the stories in the Bible gave the suffering Africans hope for a better day and enabled them to endure their humiliation and degradation.
(The white man set out to degrade and humiliate Africans in every which way was imaginable. Why do white folks have a need to humiliate black folk? Does it make them feel superior to black folk? Can real superiority be based on putting some one down? This is a topic for a dissertation.)
Over time the African people in God’s own country used the Christian bible and its teachings to form a new community for themselves. Their prior African communities, religions and cultures were systematically destroyed so they formed new ones based on what they gleaned from the bible (and of course also their experience as slaves). The bible and the Christian church became the fulcrum of enslaved Africans life.
The Christian minister, pastor became the unofficial leader of the African American community (real political leaders were prevented from forming for those would have organized rebellion against the white man; only religious leaders who told folks that God has his reason for making them slaves and that they should endure their fate were allowed to stick around for their sermons served the slave masters goal of getting slaves to accept their servitude as ordained by God). The passage in one of Paul’s epistles where he told slaves to obey their masters was stressed over and over again and thus slaves tolerated their white masters. The rest of the bible that asked folks to love and care for one another was ignored by the sociopaths who called themselves white Christians.
Simply stated, the Christian church became the new community for African Americans and the teaching of that Church, as they understood it, became the basis of their new culture, a replacement culture for their lost original African culture. (This is a manner of speaking for there were cultural continuities; Africans in the Americas retained aspects of their African cultures and injected them into their life style; in a different paper I pointed out some of the cultural continuities in the African American culture; we are not addressing that subject here.)
For our present purpose, the church is at the center of the African Americans life; it is his community center, his village square where he goes to have his problems listened to by fellow slaves and later freedmen and genuine attempts, within their constrained context, made to solve those problems.
There is no way one can understand the African American without understanding the role of the Christian Church in his life. It was the Church that gave him hope hence kept him alive. If you removed the Church from his life you would literally kill him.
(This is a warning to pseudo educated folk who run around saying that there is no God, encouraging folk to become atheists without showing them how atheism would form a community that they belonged to; people need a community to belong to and feel a part of something and the Church gave it to African Americans. We must respect African Americans attachment to their churches and their religious ministers for those were their succor during their times of travails in the land of slave masters.)
In 1864 slavery was ended. On paper African Americans were now free. Freemen, such as it was possible in the land, still had to form communities of mutual interests. The Church again gave freed slaves a place to come to and feel belonging and have their problems listened to by those who cared for them. Surely slave masters did not care for their problems and there was no point in telling them about them; it was black ministers who cared and who nurtured the spiritual yearning of Africans in the land.
(As I pointed out in another paper African American Christianity is infused with African ways of approaching God; if you went to any African American church you would think that you went to an Aladura Church at Lagos, Nigeria for their pattern of approaching God is similar: singing with emotional abandon, fervently believing that their God hears them and is saving them, jumping up and down when the spirit takes hold of them; and as it were, speaking in tongues; the women getting up and waltzing through the corridors, dancing in praise to their creator. The point is that West African religious ways are retained in African American Christianity).
THE CHURCH AS AN INTEREST GROUP
Since African Americans were overtly and covertly prevented from participating in politics, developing professional political leaders who formed political parties to compete for the opportunity to win elections and form the government was out of the question. What came to be was that the Christian Church acted as an Interest group for the African American community. Like all interest groups, the Church lobbied those in power (white folks) and hoped to influence them and perchance they would enact legislation that served the interests of black folk.
The leaders of black Churches would seek audience with white Politicians, even with presidents...Frederick Douglas had meetings with Abraham Lincoln; NAACP leaders and Martin Luther King would invite themselves to the White House and bring along their wish list to the president and ask him to try to implement them into some kind of policies. Martin Luther King probably influenced President Kennedy and Lynden Johnsons interest in civil rights legislation.
African American religious leaders networked with white political leaders and tried to get them to enact public policies that served black interests. We should not underestimate the power African-American ministers wielded on their white leaders. We must remember that most of those white politicians were raised by black women and knew black women more than they knew their own white mothers. Indeed, many of them had children with black women and would not publicly acknowledge them (even Thomas Jefferson had black mistresses and had children with them.)
Simply stated black folks were shut out of participation in white political parties and used interest group politics to gain some of their ends.
There were always a few black members of Congress but for all intents and purposes they were inconsequential; they were not given leadership roles in Congress, such as allowed to serve as the powerful chairmen of the various congressional committees...it was only in the last twenty years that blacks were elevated to such roles...and even then as we speak there is no black man in the US Senate; a population of nearly 40 million persons has not one single representative in the Senate; is this democracy or what?
Things have changed a bit in the twenty first century. Black folks are now actively participating in the Democratic Party and are allowed to hold leadership positions in it. That been said we should not under appreciate the still powerful role played by the black Church. The black Church is probably the most powerful group in the black community.
The black church is the center of normal black folk’s lives in America and therefore we must reinforce the Church’s continued existence. Human beings ask metaphysical questions and will continue to do so. Religion plays a key role in people’s lives. It is true that many of the people trained in the physical sciences have a difficult time accepting the seeming fairy tales told in the bible yet those people should be very careful in undermining the black church.
One does not see a replacement for the black Church in the horizon. Clearly, many people are leaving organized religion and finding solace in personal spirituality, personal understanding of their relationship with whoever they believe created them but the fact is that the majority of the people need religion and its rituals to feel connected to a higher power hence efficacious. Until those who have found happiness in spirituality can provide the masses of the people with a methodology with which to find peace and joy in spirit they should leave the black Church to keep on doing the good work it is doing.
Religion keeps the people together and gives them a sense of community; in my understanding people need that sense of fellowship and until a scientific means of attaining it is discovered I would not knock religion and its pastors.
The Christian Church serves a powerful function in the African-American community. It not only provides the people with a sense of community but gives them a culture to belong to. Seeing that their African cultures were deliberately destroyed and they were deliberately prevented from mingling with white folks hence could not acquire white folk’s culture and feel belonging to the same community as white folks, it is the church that has given African Americans a meaningful culture to internalize as their guide in life.
The church and its leaders acted as interest groups on behalf of African Americans. In some instances pastors even became politicians and continued serving the interest of African Americans in the political arena. Thus the church is probably the most powerful agent in the black community, an agency to be nurtured and not desecrated by scoffing pseudo intellectuals telling folks that there is no God.
Without the Church it is doubtful that African-Americans would have survived the assault on their dignity launched by those Bobby Wright called the cold cave dwelling sociopaths from Europe.