Black Religious Fostering of American Civic Ideals

This post is part of our forum on Black Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy.

Marian Wright Edelman, January 14, 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Black Christians have been key agents in a centuries-long effort to prevent American democracy from succumbing to its own inherent contradictions and self-destructive tendencies. Strategic to the promotion and preservation of American democracy has been the reinforcement of the idea of a broadly construed American public, and a robust vision of the public good. A cadre of Black Christian leaders have featured among America’s most courageous and vocal champions of these public ideals, with Black churches serving as rich and reliable wellsprings of Black civic capital and public-minded citizens. Even when America’s core democratic ideals have been abandoned by those formally entrusted with their preservation, notable Black Christian leaders have been on the front lines in defending those principles—a fostering of those ideals in both senses of that word.

This Black public activism has been guided largely by Black affinities toward the US Constitution and approached out of a spirit of religious conviction and political necessity. Although not unswerving, a Black Christian confidence in America’s public purposefulness has endured over many years, expanding and contracting along the way in response to existing circumstances and events.

Frequent attention has been drawn to a Christian-based “civil religion” operating “residually and informally” among the American populace, and characterized by a belief in a divinely purposeful history and in the sacred agency of specially desig­nated peoples, but coupled along the way with prophetic denunciations when those sacred obligations have not been fulfilled.1 These “jeremiadic” convictions achieved early systematic expression in Puritan criticisms of the increasing erosion of the sacred logic by which the American nation was to be defined and the need for American political leaders to return to the righteous purposes at the heart of their divine national mission of “socio-religious perfection.”

African American religious leaders, beginning at least with Frederick Douglass, have been known to admonish in the spirit of the Puritans that America repent of its moral failings and fully embrace its guiding ideals. Douglass both affirmed those ideals and criticized their betrayal in a famous 1852 “Fourth of July” antislavery speech in which he declared, “in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, [I] dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!”

In that same spirit of affirmation and admonishment, Martin Luther King, Jr. hailed the Emancipation Proclamation’s end to Black slavery as “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” “But 100 years later” said King,

the Negro still is not free. . . . One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land . . . When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

Inherent American civil religious ideals and moral obligations have been explicitly advanced as well by high-profile Black Christian laypersons. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was the primary speaker at a June 1996 “Stand for Children” rally at the National Mall, organized in support of a bill called the Child Health Insurance and Lower Deficit Act. Championing the bill, which was intended to expand health insurance for millions of children and pregnant women without health coverage, Edelman lifted up the bill’s provisions but also a broad vision of America’s common good and moral necessities:

This is a day about rekindling our children’s hope and renewing our faith in each other and in our great nation’s future. It is about America’s ideals and not about any group’s ideology . . . We will not let anybody talk about two nations, one for them and one for us.  We are one people.

Edelman’s closing challenge to the audience (and to all Americans) was that they might become ever more committed to “America’s and God’s sacred covenant with every child,” and to all that is “just and right in [God’s] sight.”

These affirmations of America’s divine favor and sacred obligations were echoed by another Christian layperson, Barack Obama, whose Black church affinities informed his presidential leadership at key points. Obama spoke in his 2009 inaugural address of an America that had achieved great things through “risk-taking,” “sacrifice,” and “struggle,” but that had been “badly weakened . . . by greed and irresponsibility” and by a broader collective retreat from duties to ourselves, our nation and the world. But Obama assured the nation, “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” America’s “better history” will prevail, stated Obama, because “giving our all to a difficult task . . . is the price and the promise of citizenship” and “the source of our confidence [is] the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Obama’s tone here was clearly upbeat, though not uncritical, and frames America’s prospects in conditional terms, where living up to its potential depended upon its faithfulness to its constitutional and religious principles and its reliance on God.

This tradition received very recent high-profile expression from Raphael Warnock, the long-serving pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta who was elected to the US Senate in January 2021. In a March 2021 speech on the Senate floor, Warnock argued for the preservation and expansion of voting rights as a core conviction within American democracy, extending from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr. to John Lewis (after whom the voting rights legislation Warnock was promoting was named).2 Warnock stated, “there is something in the American covenant—in its charter documents and its Jeffersonian ideals—that bends toward freedom. And led by a preacher and a patriot named King, Americans of all races stood up [bringing] us closer to our ideals, to lengthen and strengthen the cords of our democracy.” Warnock remarked further, “Ours is a land where possibility is born of democracy—a vote, a voice, a chance to help determine the direction of the country and one’s own destiny within it.”

Certainly, the civil religious paradigm represents a key trajectory of the relationship between Black faith praxis and public ideals, and it is the one with seemingly greater popular appeal. But this has been a trajectory both contested and countered by African Americans with more deep-seated skepticisms about American political possibilities. Indeed, there have been rich and varying Black religious responses to American public purposes and practices, with approaches characterized by a spectrum of guardedness and enthusiasm and with Black religious leaders accounting for some of the most strategic affirmations and constructive criticisms of American civic principles along the way.

It is important to be reminded of these traditions during this current period of rampant anti-democratic assaults and intentional diminishments of public obligations and the public good.

  1. Robert Bellah, “American Civil Religion in the 1970’s,” in American Civil Religion edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, 34.
  2. The legislation in question is the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (introduced in the Senate as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act).
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


R. Drew Smith

R. Drew Smith is a political scientist and ordained clergyman and is the Henry L. Hillman Professor of Urban Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and former director of its Metro-Urban Institute. He is founding co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and also holds an appointment as research professor at the Institute of Gender Studies at the University of South Africa. Dr. Smith previously held faculty appointments at Indiana University and Butler University and residential faculty fellowships at Emory University, University of Virginia, and Case Western University. He also served as director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and as scholar-in-residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has lectured in many international venues, including as part of the U.S. State Department’s Speakers Bureau, and was selected in 2005 to serve as a Fulbright professor at the University of Pretoria and in 2009 as a Fulbright senior specialist at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Cameroon. Dr. Smith has published widely on religion and public life, including editing ten books and authoring more than 80 articles, chapters, and essays. He has recently completed a monograph on Black religion and public life and is currently working on a monograph on urban dislocations and sacredness of place. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, and Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, and Ph.D. from Yale University.