TR: What are the best and worst ways that religion factors into African-American political views and political activity? How is faith leveraged to motivate or to manipulate?
MDH: Churches provided a ground to openly discuss politics and inform the populace of the positions of candidates, which is necessary in a democratic society. Unfortunately, those positions were looked upon using the values of a Bronze Age collection of stories. The pulpit can be used to push ideas that may be outdated but aren’t supposed to be questioned because they came directly from a supreme being. Black America is especially susceptible because often, church is the only place where they find their politics, which may explain why religious black voters tend to be fiscally liberal and socially conservative.
TR: Could the civil rights movement have happened without Christianity?
MDH: The better question here may be, “Would the civil rights movement have been necessary without Christianity?” For years the congregation was told that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” and that their rewards would come in heaven. This does not sound like liberation theology.
Christianity can easily be used to keep a population from rising up in revolution. Yes, the civil rights movement centered in the churches, but again, that’s just because that’s where black people got together and talked about serious issues. We mustn’t forget that the movement came on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of enlightenment and critical thinking that was rife with atheists and agnostics; nor should we forget that plenty of open atheists, such as A. Philip Randolph, played integral parts in the civil rights movement.
TR: If Christianity — and religious belief overall — declines in the African-American community, how, if at all, will it impact the fight for social justice moving forward?
MDH: I have always been under the impression that people weren’t good people because of religion, but good people seek religion because they are raised to believe that it is necessary to be a good person. Without religion, we will still have the same amount of good people; however, we will lose a lot of the infrastructure that churches have built over the last century. With the emergence of secular black communities, organizations and activist movements, the church will find itself struggling to stay relevant in the progressive world.
TR: If more African Americans are atheists or agnostics these days, what does that say about where we are as a community? What does it predict for the future of black people in America?
MDH: If this growing atheism is a result of self-exploration and rational criticism of the results churches have given us, then I foresee a very bright future for black America.
Tomorrow: Jamila Bey, host of Sparring With Jamila: The Sex, Politics and Religion Hour on the Voice of Russia Radio.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.