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What are ‘political’ black churches?

Much attention has been given to white evangelical congregations and parachurch groups in studies of so-called “political churches” and politically active Christians. While studies of such white evangelical congregations have been at the forefront of scholarly attention to religious politics, the historic participation (and debate over the participation) of black churches in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s also gave rise to parallel questions about how African American Christianity might represent different approaches to the question of the relationship between religion and politics based on the unique social and spiritual contexts of black church life in America. And recent movements for racial justice in the United States—and across the globe—have increasingly emerged and grown from non-religious contexts.

The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is more notably detached from the black church tradition and has strong secular currents. But, given the significant historical participation of black churches in racial justice and civil rights struggles, observers of African American Christianity and stakeholders in black churches have asked about the relationship between black churches and movements like Black Lives Matter.

Scholars of black religious politics have often approached questions social and political engagement in terms of whether particular churches have a this-worldly versus other-worldly orientation. In fact, this has been a durable typology, reaching from early debates over whether black churches could better the social conditions of black Americans. Using such terms, some scholars have argued for the idea that black churches have, by and large, retreated from politics in favor of attending exclusively to the other-worldly spiritual and religious needs of their communities. Others have seen black churches as this-worldly social institutions deeply connected to various secular aspects of community life, including politics. Political black churches, then, have been thought of as those that bring a prophetic religious voice into the public sphere, preaching an emancipatory social gospel that often condemns the religious and political establishment. More inward-focused churches eschew political engagement in favor of attending to the immediate spiritual needs of their members, often in theological terms inflected with notions of prosperity.

While these analytical boundaries have been tremendously useful for thinking about what black churches are and how African American Christians approach political issues, I have found that they break down in certain places and in thinking about certain political issues. I study black churches that get involved in the issue of Israel and Palestine. Staunchly pro-Israel African American Christians (i.e., Christian Zionists), in particular, complicate some of the binary ways of approaching black church politics. Having found this, I suggest that a religious-political phenomenon like African American Christian Zionism requires a wider analytical approach to thinking about political engagement in black churches—an approach that pays increased attention to theologically conservative congregations.

Some black churches work innovatively with and within black church culture to create a space for forms of political engagement that challenge black Christians to transcend privatistic or spiritual concerns in favor of attention to global political issues—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they often do so in prosperity-inflected terms, rather than in prophetic, liberationist, or emancipatory terms. For example, Christian Zionist black pastors and their churches exhibit prosperity gospel influences in the ways they encourage “supporting” or “blessing” Israel so as to expect God’s blessing in return. And paradoxically, they also invoke a prophetic calling to engage in politics beyond providing social services and charity.

Key to this turn towards political engagement in surprising terms are black church pastors, who stand between their congregations and issues of broader concern. These pastors negotiate competing concerns and make choices about how their members and institutions should relate to political issues as part of their broader missions. These issues include providing social services, participating in electoral politics, or engaging in protest. But, as the case of African American Christian Zionism shows, the avenues for political engagement that black pastors mediate can also include global issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Returning to the present question of the relationship between black churches and the multi-faceted Movement for Black Lives, the issue of Israel and Palestine has become particularly relevant to how black churches respond to this movement and this political moment. The Movement for Black Lives has included Israel and Palestine in its platform, putting contested global solidarities at the forefront of decisions for black pastors and congregations about what political issues and movements to support. The particular and competing ways that black pastors and black churches invoke African American history and identity, then, become important to how they frame and understand competing perspectives on polarizing political issues—like Black Lives Matter protests or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the question of the role of churches in contemporary movements for racial justice remains open and contested.

Featured image credit: Black Lives Matter. CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay

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