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Righteous politics: the role of the black church in contemporary politics.

Someday the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of ten million
souls shall sweep, irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of
the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living-Liberty,
Justice and Right- is marked "For White People Only."
--W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Sunday morning visits to large, influential black churches have been a standard strategy of Democratic office-seekers for more than fifty years. Black churches are a site of organized, committed, well-networked, partisan faithful who can be influenced and mobilized by adept candidates. No local, state or national official can claim to have actively courted the African American vote without regular and visible attendance at black worship services. In both 1984 and 1988 Reverend Jesse Jackson's primary presidential campaigns were built on the structure of black Southern and urban congregations. (1) Not only did Jackson employ a rhetorical style reflecting his training as a black preacher, but he built a campaign organization centered on black Christian volunteers, black church contact lists, donations from black religious services and an ideology that relied heavily on black Christian understandings of the connection between the sacred and the political. (2) President Bill Clinton was adept at using black rhetorical styles borrowed from the church as well as the organizational resources and networks of black churches to motivate black electoral support. (3)

Black church voters have been such powerful and reliable allies to Democratic candidates that Republican "Big Tent" strategies have targeted black Christian voters, hoping to chip away at the loyalty of African American believers through moral wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. (4) In both his initial and reelection campaigns, President George W. Bush actively courted black religious voters through high profile connections with black ministers like T.D. Jakes and Fredrick Price. (5) As we enter the 2008 presidential campaign season, the black church is likely to retain its centrality as a site of political mobilization. What shape this influence on contemporary electoral politics takes depends on changing organizational, theological and cultural elements of the African American church.

Can the church still move the people?

Much of the study of African American religiosity and political behavior has largely centered on one defining question: does Christianity encourage or discourage political activism among African Americans? Religion scholars Lincoln and Mamiya refer to the black church as the "womb" of the community because it gave life to important social, economic and cultural institutions of African American life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (6) While few question the historic centrality of the church as an organization, there are scholars who suggest that the church is a force of quietism in black communities, discouraging political action through other-worldly focus on divine restitution in the afterlife. (7) "Opiate theorists argue that religion works as a means of social control offering African Americans a way to cope with personal and societal difficulties and undermining their willingness to actively challenge racial inequalities." (8)

Other researchers have vigorously defended the connection between the church and political action, stressing both the organizational resources that accrue to black churchgoers, such as the networks, skills, mobilization and contact opportunities nurtured in the church, (9) and mapping the psychological resources that contribute to the political actions of black church congregants, such as self-esteem and internal efficacy. (10) These scholars claim that the black church acts as an inspiration for political action by galvanizing black people to work toward political righteousness. Sociologist Aldon Morris articulates this position, stating that "the black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; leadership of clergymen; an institutionalized financial base; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to the struggle." (11) Political scientist Fred Harris points to the church's capacity to cultivate psychological resources writing, "Religion's psychological dimensions could potentially empower individuals with a sense of competence and resilience, inspiring them to believe in their own ability, with the assistance of an acknowledged sacred force, to influence or affect governmental affairs, thus--in some instances--to act politically." (12)

Regardless of the scholarly debates, potential office holders have found the church an effective site of mobilizing black voters and have found that many black churches are actively committed to providing worshippers with the organizational and psychological resources necessary for political action. However, there are two important organizational trends within the black church that may potentially impact the church's effectiveness in upcoming elections.

First, African Americans are increasingly un-churched. (13) Although African American respondents to national surveys overwhelming report that they believe in God, that they pray daily, that they believe the Bible to be the inspired or literal word of God and that they use religious beliefs as a guide to daily life choices, (14) fewer black Americans are members or regular attendees of church. The declining attendance of black Christians mirrors a larger trend in American society, as church attendance rates have leveled or declined for many demographic groups. (15) However, the political implications of declining church attendance by blacks are potentially more meaningful.

One way to think about the organizational significance of the church to black politics is to see it as a kind of subsidy to less affluent citizens. The black church underwrites the cost of political participation for African Americans by providing reliable and regular contact with elected officials, political information, opportunities for mobilization and advice about identifying political interests. Those who do not attend politicized black churches must bear the cost of deciphering and navigating the political world without this subsidy, which means that they must gather all the information and opportunities on their own without having it provided through the church. This means that for the un-churched political participation is more expensive. African American communities remain vastly poorer than their white counterparts. Losing the participation subsidy provided by black churches can make the costs of political participation too high to bear and push many potential voters out of politics altogether. In this way, the decline of black church attendance represents a rising cost of political participation for black Americans.

The second important institutional trend among the black faithful is that African Americans are increasingly mega-churched. While a lower proportion of African Americans are regular church attendees, those who do go to church increasingly choose nondenominational megachurches over mainline black denominations. The Baptists, Methodist and A.M.E. congregations that provided the vanguard of black political mobilization fifty years ago are increasingly irrelevant as the Church of God In Christ (COGIC) and a cadre of large, nondenominational churches have taken their place as the primary location of African American worshippers. Churches of two thousand or more members are a fast growing segment of black religion in America. These churches can be found in traditional migration cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, and in Californian enclaves like Oakland, but are mostly concentrated in Southern sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Dallas. Black megachurches tend to be located in or near large African American suburban communities. (16) These churches are attracting increased journalistic and scholarly attention and criticism as observers question "whether black megachurches have effectively maintained the African American church's traditional commitment to an active engagement with broad black-community issues." (17) Alternatively, the rise of the mega-church may mean that black Americans can be more efficiently mobilized toward political action because their church homes provide expansive networks and substantial resources.

In The State of Black America 2000, R. Drew Smith and Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs released some of the first available data on black mega-churches. Based on surveys of more than fifty black churches with memberships over two thousand, these preliminary data suggest that megachurches outperform their smaller counterparts in terms of both political activity and community development. Ninety-six percent of black megachurches indicate that they have helped in voter registration drives, 87 percent have provided rides to polls, 63 percent have advocated on behalf of ballot issues, and 10 percent report participating in protest rallies or marches. "Black megachurches may not be as apolitical as they have sometimes been thought to be. The apolitical image is possibly a problem of perception, created by the fact that the political aspects of black mega churches have not been as conspicuous as other aspects of their ecclesiastical and community activities." (18) However, these data are highly aggregated. They ask about the activities of churches, not of individuals in the church. It is possible that a church can be classified as politically active, even if only one hundred of its ten thousand members are involved in political action. There is no way to discern from these data whether thousands of African Americans are being mobilized for action or not.

Organizationally, the church has often served as a place where African Americans learn important civic skills. Black men and women who are active in the church learn about chairing meetings, passing motions, organizing groups and mediating competing interests. These skills can be used in the political realm. The church is a place where black people become available to mobilization by political entrepreneurs and groups. Candidates, parties, and organizations go to black churches to find voters, campaign workers and community organizers. The church has also served as a place where African Americans develop psychological resources of self-esteem and efficacy. Black Americans reaffirm their intrinsic worth as human beings and use those psychological resources to bolster their capacity to engage with an often hostile American state.

However, new patterns of church attendance and membership raise two central questions at the intersection of black religion and politics in upcoming elections: (1) whether un-churched black Christians can be motivated to vote and participate given that they do not receive the informational and mobilization resources that accompany regular attendance and (2) whether the movement of remaining black churchgoers from one kind of church to another signals a shift in the political influence of the African American church. While these challenges emerge from what we observe about changing organizational elements of the black church, they can only be answered through an investigation of the theological orientations of the contemporary black church.

What black voters believe about God

The black church is not only an organizational space that gives rise to unique racial and cultural formations, but also as an interpreter of the black experience in America that gives rise to unique theological formulations. The black church offers African Americans indigenous religious ideas and organic theologies that distinguish black religiosity. (19) These mass-based theologies of the black church are rooted in specific understandings of biblical texts that grow out of black experiences of bondage and oppression. Black Christianity is distinct theologically because of its specific theodicy. Theodicy is the issue of reconciling God's justice in the presence of human suffering. Many elements of Western theology have grappled with how an all-loving and all-powerful God can coexist with evil. While not unique to black religion, theodicy takes on specific and racialized form in black religious experience. For African Americans, evil takes the very specific and identifiable form of white supremacy first through enslavement, then through Jim Crow and lynch mob rule and continuing in seemingly intractable racial inequality. The evil of racism must be reconciled with the idea of a loving and powerful God. The shocking difficulty of resolving this uniquely racialized theodicy led William Jones to question, Is God a White Racist? (20)

Having to confront, if not resolve, this fundamental dilemma of God's love for black people in the midst of black oppression is a central, if implicit, theological tenet linking black religion and black political action. As we consider the political implications of an increasingly un-churched and mega-churched black population, we must consider how African American believers grapple with theodicy and how the resolutions to which they come influence their political engagement.

One important way that black people have grappled with theodicy is through distinct interpretations of the bible that recasts God as primarily egalitarian. Biblical studies professor Vincent Wimbush argues that African Americans have a distinct approach to reading and interpreting biblical texts. "African Americans used the Bible to make self-assertive claims against a racist America that claimed to be a biblical nation. African Americans were clamoring for realization of the principles of inclusion, equality, and kinship that they understood the Bible to mandate. Beginning in the nineteenth century and extending into the twentieth, African American consistently and systematically attempted to make use of the Bible to force 'biblical' America to honor biblical principles." (21) Guided by this hermeneutical key, African American religiosity chooses to emphasize particular elements of the Bible, "the adventures of the Hebrews in bondage and escaping from bondage, and those about the wondrous works, compassion, and resurrection of Jesus ... and the prophecies, especially the prophetic denunciations of social injustice and the visions of social justice." (22)

To reconcile an egalitarian God with their deeply unequal circumstances in America, black religious traditions developed a jeremiad that serves as "the constant warning issued by blacks to whites concerning the judgment that was to come from the sin of slavery." (23) Named for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, a jeremiad is a form of literature or rhetoric associated with the divine destruction of a wicked people and the deliverance of the children of God. The jeremiad warns that those who have sinned against God or God's chosen people will soon pay the consequences of their sinful actions, and that the chosen people will be led to a land of safety and peace far from the pains of their oppressors. The black jeremiad has been an important form of black political understanding that has helped structure the expectations of black America related to the politics. The black jeremiad understands African Americans to be living in a land of oppression similar to the Old Testament experience of ancient Egyptian bondage. As Yahweh delivered His children then, so too will He deliver black America.

Other elements of the black religious tradition have sought to make Christianity relevant for African Americans engaged in political and cultural struggle against white racism by asserting that God has a unique relationship with African Americans and reimagining a black Christ who sides with African Americans as they struggle against social, political, and economic marginalization. (24) This liberation theology reasons that Christ takes on the position of the poorest and most despised in any historical moment, thus in the American context, Christ must be understood as black. This theological formulation allows African Americans to see themselves through a lens that asserts their inherent uniqueness as individuals and emphasizes spiritual qualities, such as wisdom and morality, over material possessions as a standard for self-evaluation. (25)

The traditions of black jeremiad and liberation theology mediate a particular understanding of the relationship between blacks and the Americans state. From the late nineteenth century to the contemporary era black America solidified its relationship to the state as communal rather than individual. In this regard, black politics drew heavily from black religiosity. Political scientist Michael Dawson explains, "The communalism of African American public life shared its roots with the communalism of African-American religious thought. One of the critical differences between black and white Protestantism is the African American belief in self-realization of individuality within community. In opposition to the American liberal tradition, African Americans have adopted the worldview that individual freedom can be realized only within the context of collective freedom, that individual salvation can occur only within the framework of collective salvation." (26)

Today, there is evidence of a shift in this communal orientation toward both religion and politics in contemporary black religious patterns. The megachurch phenomenon is not driven primarily by the jeremiad or liberation elements of black religious tradition. Instead, many large congregations with fast-growing populations of black adherents preach the prosperity gospel. Prosperity gospel is a constellation of beliefs that are variously grouped under the titles Health-Wealth, Word-Faith, or Name it-Claim it. In its crudest form prosperity gospel teaches that followers who tithe regularly and maintain positive, faithful attitudes and language will reap financial gains in the form of higher incomes and nicer homes and cars. In more subtle forms, prosperity gospel connects God's mission for his people to financial freedom and security for individual Christians. Visualization and positive confession are advanced as part of a spiritual law that encourages God to bless individuals. Wealth is seen as evidence of God's blessing and Christians who follow certain formulas in their personal and spiritual lives will reap substantial material rewards. (27)

Prosperity gospel offers a radically different interpretation of God's relationship to His people. The prosperity gospel asserts God's desire to help his people be financially free and secure. It teaches that Christ helps individuals who follow certain formulas in their personal and spiritual lives. Christ is an investment strategy and a personal life coach whose power can be accessed by believers to improve their finances, protect their families, strengthen their faith, and achieve personal authenticity.

Data from a survey of black Americans suggest that liberation theology promotes political action while prosperity gospel reduces it. Survey respondents who believe that Christ is black are more likely to vote, contact public officials, attend protest demonstrations, and sign political petitions. Those who see God through the lens of the prosperity gospel are less likely to engage in all of these political activities. (28) Through the narrative of jeremiad and liberation theology there is a mandate for a collective approach to politics and critiques systems of inequality. Christians are called by Jesus' example not both to serve the poor and to destroy the structures that create and reproduce poverty. The prosperity gospel advances a pervasively individualistic conception of Christ. To the extent that the prosperity gospel promotes an individualized, dispositional understanding of the world, it discourages collective political action. Beliefs in more instrumental and individual ideas of Christ, like those prosperity gospel, make black Americans less likely to engage politically.

This has implications for the future of black politics. Prosperity gospel is a fast-growing theology among black Americans. Preachers like Creflo Dollar and TD Jakes have congregations, viewers and readers numbering in the tens of thousands. There is some evidence that their individual and instrumental message dampens political activism among African Americans. When the black church offers a theology rooted in a social gospel tradition, emphasizing the alleviation of poverty, the advancement of racial and gender equality, and the promotion of peace as moral values, it leads to a progressive political agenda among African Americans. When black churches advance a pervasively individualistic conception of the gospel that breaks the link between moral reasoning and structural inequality, it leads to a more conservative political agenda focused primarily on private morality.

Taken together these organizational and theological patterns of black religious life may suggest a shifting contribution of the black church to black political life. The growing un-churched population means that fewer black Americans are learning civic skills in churches and fewer are available for political mobilization through the organization of the church. Therefore, Democratic Party office seekers will have to find new ways to reach out to and mobilize this powerfully important segment of the partisan base. Further, if the influence of the megachurch prosperity gospel is supplanting the more racially progressive social gospel, then there may be opportunities for Republican office seekers to mobilize black church-goers. To the extent that prosperity gospel encourages a strict focus on individual action, accountability and sexual morality, it can increase the salience of sexual ethics issues that have been key to building GOP victories in 2000 and 2004. However, before concluding that current black religious trends all point to an increasing conservative influence of the black church on black politics, it is important to recognize that the influence of the church in black political life extends beyond both its organizational and theological centrality in black communities. The church also directs and influences important elements of black cultural life. Lincoln and Mamiya argue that the black church is deeply embedded in black culture. "The core values of black culture like freedom, justice, equality, an African heritage, and racial parity at all levels of human intercourse, are raised to ultimate levels and legitimated in the black scared cosmos." (29)

Black Church as Black Culture

The black church operates as a kind of cultural training ground for African Americans, extending its influence far beyond Sunday morning worship and penetrating black political discourse, ideas and practice at many levels. Sociologist Mary Pattillo demonstrates the "power of church rituals as cultural tools for facilitating local organizing and activism among African Americans." (30) The church is a place where actors learn cultural norms and styles that are then employed in secular settings. African Americans use prayer, call-and-response-interaction, and Christian imagery when coordinating non-religious activities. From this perspective, the black church helps us to understand not only the what of participation, but the how of social action. "Black church culture constitutes a common language that motivates social action." (31) The centrality of the black church to black culture requires that we consider the capacity of church culture to mediate the relationship between African American voters and partisan office seekers. The church is organizational, theological and cultural. Therefore a candidate must come to church, must present political ideas in a way that connects to black religious thought, and also must be able to speak in the language and style of the black church.

In 1998 Nobel Prize winning, African American author Toni Morrison suggested in a New Yorker article about Bill Clinton that, "white skin not withstanding, this is our first black President." Morrison's description of Clinton as black was prompted by his experience of personal, public humiliation at the hands of his political foes. When Morrison labeled Clinton black, she was not making a claim about his genetic heritage, but instead drawing parallels between his public debacle and the historic treatment of black public figures. She was also commenting on his experience with and use of cultural markers that often stand for the denigrated elements of black life in America. "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." (32)

Although Morrison drew a firestorm of responses from African American observers angered by the assertion that these "negative" traits constituted blackness, Morrison had correctly tapped into an important and unique connection between Clinton and African American people. One of the most fascinating elements of the black president label was that Clinton himself relished it. Clinton acknowledged his "honorary blackness" in a 1999 speech at the Congressional Black Caucus' annual dinner and frequently thereafter. His choice to locate his personal office in Harlem at the close of his Presidency confirmed the deep connection he had cultivated with black Americans. Morrison's critics notwithstanding, on the whole African Americans perceived Bill Clinton as a great president and as a friend to the race. Clinton's willingness to pay attention to racial issues and Clinton's "comfort with black people" were among the most frequently cited reasons that blacks assessed him positively. (33) Both the intensity and character of Clinton's popularity among African Americans is unique among modern presidents.

Journalist DeWayne Wickham compiled a fascinating array of interviews with African American leaders and lay persons chronicling the unique relationship between Bill Clinton and black America. The interviews throughout Wickham's text enunciate common themes of shared cultural understanding and genuine personal connection that Clinton exuded to both black leaders and masses. The interviews in Wickham's text point to the deeply rooted cultural practices that Clinton shared with black America. Among the most important was Clinton's command of and ease with African American religious rhetorical styles. In delineating his support for affirmative action, Clinton spoke of experiences of discrimination and segregation he witnessed while growing up in the American south. (July 19, 1995) Clinton made the widely heralded step of offering an apology for the Tuskegee Study on black men in Alabama. (May 16, 1997) He used the language of the black national anthem and turned on its head the cheer of southern segregationist in his celebration the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas saying, "Let us resolve to stand on the shoulders of the Little Rock Nine and press on with confidence in the hard and noble work ahead. Let us lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, one America today, one America tomorrow, one America forever." (September 25, 1997)

Most visible in the case of President Bill Clinton, but resonating throughout black electoral politics, is the role of religious culture in mediating the relationship between African Americans and political leaders. African American politics is imbued with religious cultural practices, even when the issues being discussed are not overtly defined as religious in nature. The cadences of racialized religion resonate in black politics even among the un-churched or newly megachurched. Political leaders intent of securing the black vote are more effective when they can readily adapt to and make use of these religious cultural practices.

The centrality and power of black religious culture has been criticized by some observers who argue that Clinton used the style of black religious culture to dupe African Americans into believing he had a prophetic voice when, in truth, his politics failed to promote racial equality. These critics argue that many of the political and policy choices Clinton made in office were both symbolically and substantively troubling to black political interests: his abandonment of Lani Guinier; the precipitous increase in the numbers and percentage of incarcerated African Americans; the imposition of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Minimally, Clinton's presidency never produced legislation of the magnitude and importance of Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, but Johnson left office with far lower approval ratings among blacks than when Clinton left office. Some question how Clinton could be broadly adored when his policies frequently clashed with community interests, and these critics point to the possibility of using religious culture to obfuscate troubling politics by tapping into black cultural expectations. However, black cultural norms associated with black church life provide African Americans a standard against with to determine the validity and relevance of the political claims of elected officials. Candidates are judged, in part, by their authentic invocation of black religious styles and ideas.

Toward the 2008 Elections

The centrality of black church--organizationally, theologically and culturally--to African American politics illuminates the fascinating choices facing black voters in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Which of the three leading candidates--Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, or former Senator John Edwards--will benefit most from the continued relevance of the black church?

If we consider only the organizational element of the African American church, Senator Clinton may have the advantage in mobilizing black voters. Building on the existing and enduring networks established by Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton enjoys a substantial grassroots network of Southern, Midwest urban, and Northeast urban black churches. Clinton's organizational capacity in key primary states has been touted by some journalists as among the most powerful political machines in American politics. One key ingredient of that political base has been the vocal, visible and willing support of black religious leaders throughout the country. Senator Clinton and her supporters have access to black church pulpits and the influence that goes along with them. There is no question that she commands the longest standing and most influential set of supporters among black clergy. Thinking of the black church solely as an organizational asset for the Democratic Party, Senator Clinton appears to be the frontrunner. However, with an increasingly un-churched but religious youth population among black voters, candidates will have to employ theological and cultural aspects of black religiosity in addition to traditional organizational uses of the black church.

Thus far, Senator Barack Obama has made the most compelling claim on the black church's theological understanding of the connection between the sacred and the political. Memorializing the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in March 2007, Obama articulated a vision for his leadership drawn specifically from a racialized, Biblical tradition. Senator Obama argued, "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done.... We're going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens. There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn't mean that they don't still have a burden to shoulder, that they don't have some responsibilities. The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side." (34)

The Exodus narrative in which Moses leads the people of Israel out of bondage by the authority of God is the single most important anchor of black religious thought. (35) Martin Luther King, Jr's final "Mountaintop Sermon" drew on these same themes of leading the people to, but not himself entering the promised land. (36) Therefore, when Senator Obama frames his own political project with this particular biblical interpretation, he makes effective use of traditional black religious tropes. In addition to his capacity to employ traditional, racialized social gospel theology in his political self-understanding, Senator Obama has also appealed to the more individualist, private morality of contemporary megachurches. For example, Senator Obama explains persistence racial inequality in academic achievement as resulting from a youth culture that emphasizes cool over smart. (37) This "individual responsibility" narrative which criticizes youth cultural practices rather than structural inequality is likely to resonate with the dispositional analysis offered in the prosperity gospel.

While Senator Obama has effectively deployed both the more traditional and the newer forms of black religious ideas in connection with politics, it is not completely clear whether these multiple understanding can be easily reconciled among black voters. There has never been a single black church or a monolithic black politics. African American religious traditions have always blended concern with social justice and demand for personal righteousness. Black political attitudes have often combined political progressivism with personal conservatism, but in the current political context of highly partisan politics, African Americans may find it difficult to combine these multiple traditions. For now, Senator Obama is leading the Democratic hopefuls in his ability to employ black religious ideas in connection with his political project.

While Senator Clinton is leading in the organizational capacity of the black church and Senator Obama is superior in deploying black religious ideas, it is not clear who leads in connecting with African American voters through black religious culture. Although Barack Obama is himself an African American who regularly attends a black church, it is not clear that this identity and these experiences are translating into a sense of shared cultural experience with black voters. Substantial press attention has been given to the question of whether Barack Obama is "black enough" for black voters because of his mixed-race parentage, his childhood socialization that differs from typical black experiences, and his apparent unease with offering strong opinions on issues of race. (38) Senator Clinton may reap the benefit of her marriage to President Clinton who was widely heralded as being highly adept at black religious cultural practices. However, Senator Clinton is sometimes judged against the standard of President Clinton and regularly falls short. (39) Further, some black voters are uncomfortable with President's Clinton's campaign presence on behalf of his wife in black communities because it is seen as a cynical attempt to entice black voters based on the earlier connection between black voters and the Clinton administration. Although former Senator John Edwards has not yet distinguished himself as an important contender for black voters, he may have a cultural edge on both Obama and Clinton as the campaign continues. Like President Clinton, Senator Edwards is a southerner from a disadvantaged background. His personal narrative of uplift, struggle and a particular Southern commitment to faith in the midst of personal crisis may translate particularly well in the vernacular of black religious culture.

It is possible that the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries will not produce a single candidate with a majority of the black vote, but instead the frontrunners may divide the vote based, in part, of their command of different elements of black religious life at the intersection of black politics. Regardless of the electoral outcomes, the black church is likely to remain the single most important political organization among African Americans. It is the oldest indigenous black institution and it is historically and presently significant in developing African American political culture and encouraging African American political participation. But churches are not political organizations. Their sacred and spiritual functions, not their political ones, are the primary purpose of their existence. However, worshipping in black congregations, believing racialized religious ideas and imbuing black religious culture continues to have relevance in the political world as well as the sacred.


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17. Smith, R. Drew and Tucker-Worgs, Tamelyn. 2000. Megachurches: African-American Churches in Social and Political Context. In Daniels, Lee (editor). The State of Black America 2000. Hutchinson, Earl Ofari. "New Worries About Mega-Black Churches." Black World Today. February 2, 2001. Liblaw, Oliver. 2001. "God on a Grand Scale: Mega-Churches Grow Bigger and Bigger." ABC News.

18. Smith, R. Drew and Tucker-Worgs, Tamelyn. 2000. Megachurches: African-American Churches in Social and Political Context. In Daniels, Lee (editor). The State of Black America 2000 .p. 187.

19. Some have argued that the black church does not have a distinct theology or did not have one until the mid-1960s. Cone, James H. and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. 1993. Black Theology: A Documentary History, Volume One: 1966-1979. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. In the introduction Cone and Wilmore argue that "when blacks separated themselves from White denominations and organized their own churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries they did not perceive their actions as being motivated by theological differences. They accepted without alteration the church doctrines and politics of the White denominations from which they separated." (pp. 89) In some ways this assertion is an overstatement, one that does not credit the distinct worship styles and religious emphases that distinguished slave religion from the Christianity of white Americans, but it does reflect the lack of a fully articulated academic theological perspective to guide black Christian worship. I am making a claim to a more organic form of theology built around commonly held understandings of religious texts that circulate in black churches.

20. Jones, William R. 1973. Is God a White Racist? Beacon Press: New York

21. Wimbush, Vincent. 2003. The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History. Fortress Press: Minneapolis. pp. 40-41

22. Ibid, p. 24

23. Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 1993. Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth. Pennsylvania State University Press.

24. Cone, James H. 1969. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: The Seabury Press. Hopkins, Dwight N. 1999. Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. New York: Maryknoll.

25. Ellison, Christopher G. 1993. "Religious Involvement and Self-Perception among Black Americans." Social Forces. Volume 71, Issue 4, 1027-1055.

26. Dawson, Michael. 1994. Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pp. 99-100.

27. Harrison, Milmon. 2005. Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

28. Harris-Lacewell, Melissa. 2007. "Liberation to Mutual Fund: The Political Consequences of Differing Conceptions of Christ in the African American Church." Chapter in edited volume, From Pews to Polling Places: Political Mobilization in the American Religious Mosaic, J. Matthew Wilson: Editor. Georgetown University Press: Washington DC. In this chapter I analyze data from the 1993-1994 National Black Politics study. The analysis shows that there is an independent role for black theology in influencing African American political action. Even after controlling for demographic variables, racial attitudes and organizational resources, key tenets of African American theology have a discernable impact on black political participation. Those who perceive Christ as a black messiah are significantly more likely to participate politically. Conversely, those who see God more instrumentally, asserting that black oppression is a reason for perceiving God as absent, are less likely to be politically engaged. The black Christ of Black Liberation theology has a separate, discernable, and positive impact on black political action.

29. Lincoln, C. Eric and Lawrence H. Mamiya. 1990. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press. pp 7.

30. Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. "Church Culture as a Strategy of Action in the Black Community." American Sociological Review. Volume 63, Number 6. pp. 767-784.

31. Ibid, 769

32. Morrison, Toni. 1998. The Talk of the Town. The New Yorker. October 5,1998.

33. Bobo, Lawrence and Dawson, Michael. 2001. "Poles and Polls Apart: Blacks and Whites Divided on the Clinton Legacy." Preliminary report from joint project of Dubois and CSRPC.

34. Obama's Selma speech. "How should I cite?"

35. Raboteau, Albert. 1978. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. Oxford University Press: New York.

36. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last public sermon on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee. At the close of the speech he invoked the biblical experience of Moses saying, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

37. Bacon, Perry. 2007. "Obama Reaches Out with Tough Love: Candidate says criticism of black America reflects its private concerns." Washington Post. Thursday, May 3, 2007.

38. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "Is Obama Black Enough." Time. Thursday, Feb. 01, 2007

39. Morris, Dick and McGann, Eileen. "The Democrats: Hillary Blunders; Obama Surges (Again)" Saturday, March 17, 2007
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Author:Harris-Lacewell, Melissa V.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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