Beyond the Black Church, Or, African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation

by Matthew Cressler

(CC BY-SA) Elvert Barnes
I study, among other subjects, black Catholics. When I tell people I study black Catholics, I am often met with blank stares. If black Catholics occupy any space in the American religious imagination, they conjure images of Catholic Masses with Gospel choirs and the politics of parishes like St. Sabina’s on the South Side of Chicago.  Black Catholics sometimes baffle because they pose a problem for scholars and laypeople alike.  African American religious studies, until relatively recently, may be one of the few instances in which popular imagination and scholarly interpretation align quite neatly.  When African Americans and religion are invoked a specific image usually comes to mind, and black Catholics don’t quite fit.
Lucky for me, while working on this dissertation about black Catholics in Chicago, a number of books have interrupted popular and scholarly assumptions.  What I have realized over the past few years, with equal parts gratitude and relief, is that we have not simply witnessed a number of great books.  Rather, we stand in the midst of a new generation of African American religious studies. African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation, as I’m thinking of them, challenge at least three persistent theses about African American religion.1

The first thesis presumes black people are naturally religious or, if not naturally religious, at least more religious than other Americans. The second thesis assumes black people are not just more religious, but more religious in very particular ways. Black religiosity is presumed to be stylistically emotional and politically liberationist. The third thesis, which speaks more to the internal discourse of black religious communities than to their external study, challenges the “blackness” of those not conforming to the standards of the first two. If a black person or black community is not religious in a particular way, they remain racially suspect.2

But the Next Generation has come to challenge these popular assumptions that black people are naturally religious, that there is one way to be black and religious, and that those black religious outliers are somehow suspect. The real flurry of publications began in 2008.3 Two works in that same year took on the two presumptive pillars of African American religion: the notion of an essential “black religion” and the myth of “the Black Church.”4

Curtis Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion traces the intellectual construction of “black religion” and how this essentialism was weighed down by “the burden of a multiplicity of interpreters’ demands,” whether imagined as “amorphous spirituality, primitive religion, emotionalism, or…‘the Negro Church.’”5 In the end, Evans hopes to free scholars of the burden of black religion’s essence, so that they might be attentive to the actual lives of religious black people—lives that vary quite dramatically in terms of theology, worship, and politics.6

Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us interrogates the narrative of “the Black Church” as necessarily involved in black liberation. She incisively identifies the ways iconic civil rights movement images definitively shaped how black religion and politics were imagined ever since. By unearthing the many debates within the black community about the potential political potency of African American churches, Savage reveals how many scholars “misread the successes of that [civil rights movement] period and applied them retrospectively over the entire span of African American political history, seeing the past through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness.”7 She successfully demonstrates there is nothing necessarily liberationist about the Black Church and, in fact, “the Black Church” itself is a normative notion which tells us more about internal debates over the politics of black religion than it does about black religion in se.

The Next Generation continues to redefine the field of African American religious studies and reshape the ways we think about African American religions and American religion more broadly.8 The New Black Gods: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, edited by Edward Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler, collects the work of eleven other representatives of this new era in an attempt to reinvigorate Fauset’s attempt to study African American religions beyond the Christian conception of the Black Church.

Essays by Sylvester Johnson and Kathryn Lofton offer just two brief examples of this rich contribution. Johnson argues that the search for “religion proper” (the essence of religion) cannot be understood apart from the colonialist construction of “proper religion” (the legitimization of particular ways of being religious and the marginalization of others). Thus, for Johnson, the study of “other” African American religions like the Moorish Science Temple of America not only moves African American religious studies beyond the Black Church but also serves as a postcolonial critique of the normative implications of Black Church history.9

Lofton also brings critical theory to bear on African American religious history, pointing out the ways black religion has been categorized as the primitive foil to the contemplative, cosmopolitan, modern religious subject. Lofton notes that scholars reinforce this primitivist reading in their reproductions of an abstract emotional Black Church, assuming they already intuitively know what African American religion looks and sounds like: “the African American believer remains the body in motion, the voice in song, with eyes affixed, unblinking, to God.”10

Though it has apparently become popular to declare the Black Church “dead,” or to note that it never existed, this is not what makes The Next Generation truly revolutionary.11 It is not enough to simply add in new characters, jettisoning the Black Church for a diversity of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. No, their work is revolutionary because it has transformed what we mean by “religion” when we describe African American religions and narrate African American religious history. It is not that “the Black Church is dead,” per se, but rather we’ve moved beyond it altogether.

Matthew J. Cressler is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. He holds a B.A. from St. Bonaventure University and a M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. He is currently working on his dissertation, “To Be Black and Catholic: African American Catholics in Chicago from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” which won the American Catholic Historical Association’s 2011 John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award.



[1] Yes, challenging the singularity of African American religion is one of them.

[2] This is, of course, an incredibly truncated summary of the long and rich tradition of African American religious studies. I have selected these three theses not because they are representative of all works on African American religions, but rather because they are the primary theses this Next Generation attempts to tackle.

[3] There were, of course, scholars who preceded this new generation. Theologian Anthony Pinn’s Varieties of African American Religious Experience is just one example, which clearly stated “African American religious experience extends beyond the formation and practice of black Christianity.” Anthony B. Pinn, Varieties of African American Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998): 1.

[4] Barbara Dianne Savage has recently published an excerpt of her work under the title “The Myth of the Black Church,” on the online journal Religion & Politics.

[5] Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 5.

[6] Ibid., 279-280.

[7] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008): 2.

[8] Sadly, I don’t have the space to discuss every book in the ever-growing corpus of The Next Generation, which would also include, among many others, Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (California, 2003); Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, 2005); Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU, 2009); Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Harvard , 2010).

[9] Sylvester A. Johnson, “Religion Proper and Proper Religion: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 145-170.

[10] Kathryn Lofton, “The Perpetual Primitive in African American Religious History” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 171.

[11] The “Black Church is dead” debate, sparked by Eddie Glaude in 2010, is obviously intertwined with this Next Generation. However, to a certain extent, this debate is an altogether different beast with normative implications that sometimes overlap and other times diverge from the topic at hand. For more see: “The Black Church is Dead” and “Call and Response on the State of the Black Church”.

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One Response to “Beyond the Black Church, Or, African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation”

  1. Frank says:

    Nice post — Another recent contribution on the overwhelming belief in African Americans’ “natural” religiosity is found in Gerardo Marti’s Worship across the Racial Divide (Oxford 2012).

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