Blog Post

A New Era in African American Religion

Wallace D. Best

Edna Greene Medford opened the session, “What is African American Religion”? by describing the question as “simple, yet complex” and the panelists as “feisty rebels.”  She was correct on both accounts.  And, by the end of the presentations, I was convinced that a new era in the study of African American religion had been launched. 


This new era has been developing for a while in the work of some scholars of religion, including my own relatively recent insistence on an African American religious history beyond Protestantism and beyond “belief.”  But it seemed fitting that Eddie Glaude, Judith Weisenfeld, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Anthea Butler would usher in this new direction in our field at a conference entitled, “The Future of the African American Past.”  Their reflections called for greater attention to the terms we use, the sources we employ, and the people we include in our scholarly accounts of African American religion.


Glaude seemed to build on his provocative 2010 essay, “The Black Church is Dead.

Drawing a distinction between “African American religion” and “African American religious experience,” he asserted, “the social and political context in the U.S. is necessary” for rightly understanding anything that we can call “African American religion.”  For Glaude, the category is a scholarly invention developed to call attention to it as “the matter under consideration.”  It is not an entity unto itself and is certainly not limited to the normative assumptions of Protestant Christianity.  Indeed, viewing “African American religion” in such a way not only risks reifying a “Protestant bias,” but also of denying the complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity intrinsic to the religious experiences of African Americans.  Like “the Black Church” the terminology of “African American religion” may have outlived its usefulness.  In that case, Glaude concluded, “it’s about time we got rid of it.”


Judith Weisenfeld’s elegant and visually rich presentation challenged us to broaden the scope of what comprises African American religion and religious history, as well as the sources we use in our scholarly investigations.   To do otherwise would be to miss “the full complexity of this history” and to marginalize a host of “social actors” who have played crucial roles in its formation.  Sampling a robust body of sources from her forthcoming book, Weisenfeld showed how Father Wentworth Matthew, and followers of Father Divine and the Moorish Science Temple offer important insights for the construction of interwoven “religio-racial” identities. The sources witness to the exercise of State power and the confrontation to State power as an exhibition of religious expression.   “Creativity, contestation, and change,” have always characterized African American religious history, Weisenfeld argued, and to acknowledge this provides a “more textured understanding” of the African American religious past.


Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s brilliant exposition on “Bible Politics” returned many of us to familiar territory, but with new insights about the fusion of religion and politics in nineteenth century freedom struggles.  Higginbotham has helped to standardize research on the political implications of black American religion with careful attention to models of resistance to slavery and Jim Crow.  Her presentation explored the radical origins of the concept of “Bible politics,” seeing how it made a direct connection between God’s laws and the foundation of American civil laws. And it continues to have an impact on the discourse and implementation of African American political life.  The important intervention Higginbotham makes is to see black politics as fundamentally a  “Bible Politics” in so far as it continues to exhort the nation to live up to the ideas found in its own civil texts.


Anthea Butler has become known for her impassioned delivery, and she did not disappoint.   Beginning her remarks with a compelling story from her youth, Butler aligned herself with both Glaude and Weisenfeld in a call to jettison the “traditional markers” of African American religion for the practiced ways black Americans actually express faith.  “It is time to destroy the idea of ‘the black church’ that has held African American religion enthralled,” she contended.  Like Higginbotham, Butler seeks to make an important intervention.  To tell “the whole story,” she maintained, historians of African American religion must find “alternative narratives” and different historical trajectories that get us beyond the triumphalism of “slave religion.”  The result will be what she described as a “broader world” of black religion throughout the diaspora.


The stirring presentations generated productive dialogue (and some expected tension), as we contemplated the underlying claim in each of them.  “The black church is dead.”  Long live a more dynamic, nuanced, and inclusive understanding of African American religion. 


SESSION 5: What is African American Religion?