The Political Future of Black Churches

Last October I wrote a column for Sightings presenting evidence that African American political participation is directly influenced by the content of black religious beliefs (“Black Churches: Liberation or Prosperity?”). Specifically, my piece suggested that black liberation theology and the prosperity gospel offer radically different interpretations of Christ, and that these differing Christologies directly impact black political action. Empirical evidence shows that African Americans who believe that Christ is black are more likely to vote, contact public officials, attend protest demonstrations, and sign political petitions. Those who see Christ through the lens of the prosperity gospel are less likely to engage in all of these political activities.

During the last month, two major conferences have once again highlighted the political consequences of black theological positions. On January 24, the four black Baptist conventions joined for a momentous meeting that brought these historically antagonistic groups together for a week in Nashville, Tennessee. Together they agreed on an extensive platform reflecting an active and progressive social and political agenda. Their plan called for an end to the Iraq war and to the current tax cuts, an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opposition to the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, a broad call to end the prison-industrial complex, a commitment to public education, health care, a national living wage, and development activities in Africa and the Caribbean.

A few days later, more than a hundred black clergy met in Los Angeles, California, to craft a “Black Contract with America on Moral Values.” Calling themselves the “High Impact Leadership Coalition,” these black ministers developed a platform centered on the conservative political agenda of the GOP. This group makes the issue of gay marriage central, and calls for the protection of marriage and family, home and business ownership, and education and prison reform.

These meetings reinforce my earlier empirical evidence about the political consequences of different theological positions within the black church. Both groups derived their political agendas from interpretations of biblical texts. The Baptist conventions focused on a theology steeped in social justice. The High Impact Leadership Coalition, on the other hand, met at the Reverend Fred Price’s Crenshaw Christian Center. Price and his 16,000-member church are solidly within the tradition of the prosperity gospel that preaches a clear message of affluence and personal responsibility.

It is worth asking, particularly during Black History Month, what all this means for the future of black politics. In truth, too much has been made of the increased percentage of the black vote received by President Bush in the last election. African Americans have traditionally given 10 to 12 percent of the vote to the Republican presidential candidate. The GOP’s gay marriage initiatives did not increase the black vote share, but only returned it to historic norms after a precipitous decline in 2000. There has been no major exodus of black voters to the Republican party.

However, these two meetings of black churches reflect political possibilities. 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 conservative political agenda focused exclusively on private morality.

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. The agendas of these two summits suggest that we may be at a crossroads both in black religious thought and black political practice.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.