Professor Michelle Smith
Term Paper Fall 2012
December 12th, 2012
Black Religiosity as a Motivator for Political Participation: Myth vs. Fact
Scholars writing on the influential capacity of the black church frequently breeze over their claims that traditional scholarship on the black church supports the notion that the black church is apolitical and leads its members to turn away from 'thisworldly' concerns to concerns of the afterlife, or 'otherworldly' concerns. Few, if any, explicitly cite whom these scholars are, or go in depth with their explanations and interpretations. Nevertheless, much literature is written to counter those positions. The main scholarship within this field thus focuses on the proving that the black church is in fact a mechanism capable of doling out political leaders, communities, and discourses. Some of the literature engages the beginnings of the black church and its conception during slavery, when it was used as means of maintaining humanity for slaves, but most of the literature focuses on 20th century applications of the black Christianity, such as during the 1930s, when blacks in Alabama controversially merged Marxism with Christianity, or during the civil rights movement, when churches were used as recruiting, training, and organizing platforms. I begin this literature review discussing critiques of the approaches for interpreting the activity of the black church that scholars have used to conclude on its apolitical nature. Jacqueline S. Mattis provides an alternative lens for viewing the interactions of black churches within the community that shows the non-traditional ways churches have used as political institutions. Next, I discuss two works by Frederick C. Harris, the first which procedurally lists arguments for religion as an opiate on mass political consciousness, and then counters these claims with empirical facts which correlate participation in the black church to voter turnout and political participation. The second shows further evidence by providing a range of empirical data spanning the 30s through the 90s, showing support for the political nature of black churches.
This literature review also examines arguments made by scholars Harwood K. McClerking and Eric L. McDaniel, political scientists who make the distinction between black churches and political black churches. The latter of the two is later defined in part as having particular behaviors within the internal organization of the church which act as catalysts for political behaviors of its members. These behaviors are compared to those of political parties, and stark similarities seem to turn up. Scott T. Fitzgerald and Ryan E. Spohn contribute to the discourse by discussing the psychological impacts on motivation toward political participation produced by religion. Khari Brown and Ronald E. Brown discuss how the acquirement of civic skills and merely hearing discourse within a church effects the possibilities of the decision to participate in politics by discussing several studies.
Finally, I discuss Robin D.G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe, which supports the bound relationship between Marxism and the black church in Alabama in the 1930s in order to show that secular political aspirations could be fueled by religious motivation, and that the religious can also adhere to the same theory that negates religion as a mobilizer. I continue with Henry Hayward Jr.'s criticism of the black church as fostering docility and contentment with the status quo, and his solution of the radical black church, and end with a possible...