On Black Religion and Domestic Globalization

*This post is part of our online forum with the Pew Research Center.


Congregants of the Greater Allen A.M.E. in march & rally at St. Alban’s Memorial Park in solidarity with Emanuel AME, New York City, June 20, 2015 (Shutterstock)

“Faith Among Black Americans” raises a number of thought-provoking questions. I’d like to ponder two. The first revolves around the status and future of “Black Religion”. The second has to do with what I might call ‘domestic globalization.’ Cornel West once noted that, “The great paradox of Afro-American history is that Afro-Americans fully enter the modern world precisely when the postmodern period commences.” The question this spawns in the present context is whether the Enlightenment program and the global diffusion of Western cultural, intellectual, economic and military hegemony has now fully encompassed Blackamericans as a ‘subaltern’ community within the West.  If so, to what extent does Blackamericans’ relationship with religion remain distinct and spontaneous, and to what extent is it now mediated through the delayed (and attenuated) denouement of the early modern European encounter with religion?

By “Black Religion,” I am not referring to “African-American” religion as the super-category encompassing all Blackamerican expressions of “religion.” I am speaking of what scholars such as the late Charles Long (d. 2021), Joseph R. Washington, Jr., and others have in mind when they refer to the uniquely Blackamerican deployment of religious counter-energy in the fight against anti-Black racism. According to Washington this religious reflex was “[b]orn in slavery, weaned in segregation and reared in discrimination.” Long adds to this Black Religion’s critical role in resisting the attempts at psychological subjugation by the “fascinating trickster,” whose appeal to ‘reason’ has routinely been but a thin veneer for ideational and intellectual control. As an orientation, Black Religion is not limited to Blackamerican Christians.1 Even “Nones” can and do embrace it. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, Black Religion goes a long way in explaining the rise of Islam among Blackamericans.  

We learn from the Pew Report of the continued relevance of religion in general for Blackamericans. Compared to earlier generations, however, we also learn of an increasing decline in religion’s significance among younger age-groups. This is despite the continued importance of race and racism as concerns in general and as priorities to which religion is called upon and expected to speak. This suggests that younger Blackamericans are either turning to something other than religion to arm them in the fight against racism, or, assuming religion’s continued relevance in this regard, they simply don’t assign racism the primacy it once had. On either score, Black Religion would appear to be in decline. And here we might ask what this bodes about the future in Blackamerica. How will America’s success or failure in confronting anti-Black racism affect the meaning, relevance and mandate of religion for Blackamericans?  

In the meantime, we might ask why Black Religion in particular is in decline? Has it proved definitively to be an ineffectual platform for anti-racist work?  Or has a perceived decline in racism itself, as its raison d’etre, simply rendered it proportionally less relevant? Does late modern racism effectively secularize all marginalized peoples by increasing the grip of their horizontal gaze at the expense of the vertical? Or has Black Religion’s goal of blocking the “fascinating trickster’s” access to the innermost recesses of the self-taken a back seat to what is perceived to be the more pressing problem of confronting his/her outward power and privilege? Finally, has the late modern obsession with peace and prosperity, alongside the pressure on religion to buy acceptance through self-domestication, blinded religious leaders to what young people really want? Socialism, capitalism and Enlightenment ‘reason’ once said to Europe, “We offer you safety, security and a good time”. Hitler said, “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and a whole nation flings itself at his feet”. Can Black Religion’s holy protest against anti-Black racism still offer younger Blackamericans the sense of adventure, meaning and mission they crave? Or has racial ‘progress’ ultimately put Black Religion out of business?

Or perhaps this exclusively racial (and American) lens is too narrow an interpretive prism. Speaking in the name of modern European identity, the British anthropologist Mary Douglas explicitly associates “primitive” with “religious” and “progress” with “secularization.”2 And as José Casanova suggests, the secularization of Europe might be viewed as part of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Europeans are secular because they believe that as progenitors of modernity and ‘progress’ they are supposed to be secular. Above and beyond the question of race and racism, then, has the ‘Western’ notion and ‘feel’ of ‘civilizational progress’ and its semiotic intersections with public identity made its way to the Blackamerican community? In sum, will Europe’s religious past, beginning with the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the response thereto, be increasingly the religious future of Blackamericans? 

The Pew Report focuses heavily on the Protestant majority and is often slanted in the case of Islam towards the Nation of Islam as opposed to the ‘Sunni’ majority. It also seems to employ a metric, mosque-attendance (by analogy to church-attendance), that will likely give a distorted picture of the religiosity of Blackamerican Muslim women, for whom mosque-attendance is far more ‘voluntary’ than church attendance seems to be for Christian women. Still, the Report is broad, fair-minded, and seeks to be inclusive. And it provides extremely useful information, backed by statistics that give it empirical heft and credibility. In fact, the empirical grounding and ecumenical thrust of the Report went a long way in spawning the questions I ponder here. As such, any future return on these questions will owe an obvious debt to “Faith Among Black Americans.” 

  1.  In fact, there is often overlap and occasionally identity between the way scholars use “Black Religion” and “African American Religion.”  In his book on the subject, e.g., Eddie Glaude, Jr., writes: “I want the reader to see the phrase ‘African American religion’ as a gool of the scholar whose aim is to interpret how religious languages in African American communities have been used to respond to white supremacy in this country”.  See his An Uncommon Faith: A Pragmatic Approach to the Study of African American Religion (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2018) 2.
  2. Cited in T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 22 note 21.
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Sherman A. Jackson

Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).