Understanding African-American Religious Diversity Blacks in America have a rich religious history. But the diversity of African-American religion doesn't stop with Christianity. For more on the many facets of black spirituality, Farai Chideya speaks with professors Barbara Savage and Obery Hendricks.
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Understanding African-American Religious Diversity

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Understanding African-American Religious Diversity

Understanding African-American Religious Diversity

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host.

On News & Notes, we bring on voices that reflect the diversity within the black American experience, and that extends to religion. This election season put the black religious tradition in the news and under the microscope, but there's a broader canvass of black spirituality, one that includes religious diversity, conflict and collaboration. We're going to kick off a conversation with Barbara Savage, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania - she's the author of "Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion" - and also Obery Hendricks - he's a minister and author of the book "The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted." Welcome to both of you.

Dr. BARBARA D. SAVAGE (History, University of Pennsylvania; Author, "Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion"): Thank you.

Reverend Dr. OBERY HENDRICKS (Biblical Interpretation, New York Theological Seminary; Author, "The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted"): Thank you, thank you, Farai. By the way, I'm not a minister. I'm a professor of biblical interpretation.

CHIDEYA: Yes, thank you very much.

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: OK.

CHIDEYA: I appreciate that.

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: So, Barbara, I want to start with you. Congratulations on your new book.

Dr. SAVAGE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Religions played such a major role in the organization of social movements in America. So, what do you think has been evolution over these pasts - just a couple of years as - there's been, I think, a wider audience looking in on what the black Church is?

Dr. SAVAGE: Well, over the last few years, I think that we've seen kind of a culmination of the long history of diversity among African-American believers. I think that the - certainly belief and the belief in the possibility of change and of a future that's better that today, something that I think that we've seen historically, this notion that there's an emancipatory potential in African-American Christianity, for example, and in other systems of belief as well. And so, it seems to me that one of the core aspects of African-American social progress is this idea of looking into a future and of not giving up and of being able to have some faith that in fact tomorrow will be better.

I mean, that's a very basic understanding, and I think it's something that's - you know, that we see playing out even more dramatically in the last few years with the emergence of black mega-churches, churches that are large and very financially prosperous, some of whom have dedicated their resources to community improvement and broader social movements. So, there are a lot of aspects of that, but I think that's one that comes immediately to mind.

CHIDEYA: Obery, when you look at the framing of religion, both within discussions in the black communities around America, and also as those - as our communities interact with the larger American community, how do other religions play into the picture, other religions besides Christianity? Is there an active dialogue about what role they play in African-American communities?

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: No, I - maybe increasingly, you know, incrementally increasingly, it will be a very (unintelligible) Christianity before it'll have a (unintelligible). But Islam is - as you know, is growing quite rapidly in America, but it remains - these are my observations - pretty insular. And so - and we haven't seen any real significant participation by the Islamic community, or black Baha'i, or Sons of (unintelligible) in the political process and in the community development. So, you know, looking at - and if you look at it in terms of their social involvement in the larger issues of society, we don't see - they're not perceived as major players at this time yet.

CHIDEYA: Do you think, Barbara, that that's going to change over time?

Dr. SAVAGE: I think that it can change over time. I mean, one of the interesting things always about religion and the religious institutions that we ally ourselves with is that they are so idiosyncratic that they turn on what individual communities want. And so, I think one of the conflicts that we've seen even among African-American Christians is the degree to which individual churches want to be involved in social movements or want to move outside of the question of individual salvation or taking care of one's own.

And so, I don't think that there's anything intrinsic in terms of - in theological terms that would prevent other religions outside of Christianity from engaging those questions and really becoming more visible and becoming more politically active if they should choose to do that.bI think among the freedoms that African-Americans have been able to exercise most dramatically is religious freedom, and that includes the question of what kind of religion and the relationship between ones religion and broader social problems.

CHIDEYA: Obery...

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: (Unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Oh, please go ahead.

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: I think there's a - you know, a lot of African-Americans turn to alternative - I might call it the alternative religions to Christianity, as much out of cultural concerns as spiritual concerns and sometimes political. Many of my generation turned to Orthodox Islam or to Elijah Muhammad's brand of Islam as a rejection of Christianity or rejection of wealth - Western culture, and that's why - and so they get ensconced in the cultural concerns. We see this in - with Orthodox Muslims quite a bit - get so involved in the cultural aspect of event, they tend not to be - they to be particularly apolitical when it comes to the larger issues of society.

CHIDEYA: Both of you used the word politics in the title or subtitle of your books. We don't have a lot of time, but Obery first, why do you think religion is so integral to how politics play out for Black Americans?

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: Mm, mm, mm, mm. Well, I think - I think is that integral - so, I don't know that politics and religion are - it's not always directly - it's not always a direct relationship.

CHIDEYA: Well, when I say politics, I don't necessarily mean electoral politics, I mean the broader cultural politics.

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: Well, you know, because the black church (unintelligible) the major institution and a place where black people have had freedom of speech and religion and have come together a community. I mean, that has been the center and the locus of us for so many years of all the social and political activity. And so, they were conflated in for the few churches that really saw Jesus as a liberator and moved them to resist. Others came together for comfort and (unintelligible) as in response to - you know, to political stimuli.

CHIDEYA: Mm. Barbara, just quickly.

Dr. SAVAGE: Yes, I see African-American religion in politics as being (unintelligible) intertwined, both historically and I think in the contemporary period. And part of this, as Obery said, comes in the fact that black churches and black religion institutions more generally remain the strongest and, I think, the most free institution in the African-American communities. So, this is also, you know, a debate or a discussion about the dearth of other institutions or other community-controlled places where social and political work, you know, can be achieved and accomplished, and churches are enormously convenient organizing sites and communication sites, and there's not much to compete with them in that way. Still, I think that's been true historically and it remains the same today.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, thank you both so much for joining us.

Dr. SAVAGE: Thank you.

Rev. Dr. HENDRICKS: Thank you.

Dr. SAVAGE: Bye-bye.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking to Barbara Savage, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, author of "Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion," and Obery Hendricks, the author of the book, "The Politics of Jesus." He's also a professor of biblical interpretation at the New York Theological Seminary. And next on News & Notes, does the black community need its own Internet browser? We'll find out why one entrepreneur says absolutely.

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