"Contemporary black religiosity emerges from a culturally specific survival strategy
The following is an excerpt from The New Humanism contributor Sikivu Hutchinson's new book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars
Faith's smorgasboard beckons irresistibly from America's city streets. A cross-country drive tells the story of its market value and allure, its unshakeable hold on the schizoid psyche of sex and Jesus-obsessed Americana. There is a church for every family, every true believer, every providence haggler, and every fence sitter; a supernatural crack fix for every creed, taste, and predilection. In the one mile radius from my house in South Los Angeles to the corner of Florence and Normandie, there are fourteen churches. Most of these structures are storefronts, austere and unobtrusive, denominations flowing from Latino Pentecostal to black Baptist to multiracial Catholic. Woven seamlessly into the workaday facades of other businesses, they offer quiet testimony to the area's shift from a predominantly African American enclave to a mixed Latino and black community. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King beating verdict, Florence and Normandie gained national notoriety as a bellwether for black rage. There is an auto parts store on the northwest corner where white truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle and beaten by four African American young men after news of the verdict exploded across the city. On the other side of the street two gas stations bustle, fronted by a strip mall to the northeast. Emblems of the Southern California trinity of cars, faith, and quick cheap retail, these spaces each tap into different yet similar reservoirs of urban yearning.
In the seventeen years since the verdict and ensuing civil unrest, these streets have not dramatically changed. Whereas development in predominantly white communities to the west has flourished, the grand photo-op promises of federal redevelopment made about South L.A. by then President George H.W. Bush have gone largely unfulfilled. Time lapse photography might reveal the dedication and construction of the strip mall, new oil companies taking over the gas stations, the opening of a Mexican panaderia, and a Salvadoran pupuseria. Time lapse photography would also reveal the resilience of the storefront church, an indelible fixture of segregated communities of color.
While the storefront church is a bit player in my narrative, it has a premier role in the spiritual geography of contemporary African American communities. In an era in which African American communities nationwide are in socioeconomic crisis, the cultural dominance of organized religion merits critical evaluation. In a political climate in which the social justice compass of the Black Church has been broken by consumerism, institutional sexism, and faith-based witch hunts of gays and lesbians, its moral capital is increasingly dubious. Yet, as the late evening audiences at the fourteen storefront church services demonstrate, the narcotic of faith still seduces, captivates, and inspires.
A balm for suffering, a source of atonement, and a nexus for kinship and community, organized religion serves multiple functions in African American communities. However, alternative secular belief systems can challenge its hierarchy of moral principle and offer a basis for meaning and social justice. In Moral Combat I contextualize this 21st century struggle through the feminist lens of black humanist atheist belief, examining such themes as "moral combat" in contemporary American politics, the gender complexities of free thought and atheism, and secular humanist social justice possibilities in African American communities.
While African Americans are not prominent in the New Atheist movement, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey concluded that more people of color are "moving away" from religion. Despite longstanding traditions of secular humanism, skepticism, and "freethought" in African American intellectual discourse, atheism remains a largely taboo belief system in black communities.
In a 2009 Barna study, 92% of African Americans identified themselves as Christians and were more likely than whites to identify as "born-again." The study also revealed that the religiosity of African Americans had actually increased over a fifteen year period. A whopping 84% believed that "God is the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe who rules the world today." As a result, Barna concluded that the "faith of African Americans is…generally moving in a direction that is more aligned with conservative biblical teachings."
…The historical context of black Christian adherence yields important clues to the enduring power of African American religiosity. For example, in the moral order of 17th century America only Christians of European descent were considered fully human. Only Anglo American male propertied Christians were granted full civil and legal rights. Indeed,
Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as "white" or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.
The complex status of Europeans during this period sheds light on how African others were perceived. The fact that whiteness was not a fixed or coherent racial category meant that religion played a critical role in regulating and shaping "difference." If religion and class status superseded racial categorization then the terms of who or what was considered human were ostensibly mutable...
According to Winthrop Jordan, "From the initially common term Christian, at mid-century there was a marked shift toward the terms English and free. After about 1680…a new term of self-identification appeared—white." This transition would have important implications for how race and Christian morality were intertwined in American history. For example, right wing propaganda about the U.S.' status as a "Christian nation" has as much to do with racial purity and white supremacy as with the desire to establish an ironclad connection between American democracy and Christianity. Being an authentic American, an authentic white American, is deeply connected to being Christian. Anti-Obama zealots in the Tea Party, "birther," and resurgent militia movements have masterfully exploited this relationship. Thus, in the 17th century, there was intense debate about whether or not blacks could be redeemed from heathenry even if they did convert to Christianity. Both Southern and New England slave owners routinely invoked biblical scripture (with references to Africans as the accursed descendants of Ham) to justify the brutalization and exploitation of African slaves. African docility and white supremacy was part of the "natural" order ordained by God.
Christianity provided African Americans with a theological lens for exposing the brutal contradictions of a new democratic republic based on Enlightenment values of individual liberty, inalienable rights, and equality…If whites invoked the Almighty while pillaging black bodies and black labor, they were the true savages. If the colonists could preach the gospel against British tyrants—tyrants who promised to grant blacks their freedom for fighting on their side during the Revolutionary War—then the Bible was truly a malleable living document. Hence, African American resistance was both religious and secular humanist in orientation. Petitioning colonial courts for freedom, enslaved blacks used the very language of the Declaration of Independence to indict the slavocracy.
In this sense, contemporary black religiosity emerges from a culturally specific survival strategy. It is in many ways a form of dialogue with the unique paradoxes of American national identity. Urban churches are reminders that racial segregation is still very much the defining factor of contemporary American life. They remind us that the bromides of post-racialism and colorblindness are toxically false. They sit in silent witness to the race/class metamorphosis of "inner city" neighborhoods, memorializing the ritual turn from white to black and brown. They flatter the rich and damn the poor to dependence, testifying to the lie of American exceptionalism and the American dream. They provide a window onto how faith-based social welfare buttresses capitalism. For, in below poverty level communities with a church on every corner, commerce and "the sacred" are wedded as the antidote to ghetto "depravity."