The Black Church in American Public Life

April 8, 2021

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The PBS special on The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, released in February 2021, highlights the historical and contemporary significance of Black churches to American public life. Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and featuring a wide range of prominent voices, the documentary introduces a 400-year history of Black religion, politics, and culture in the United States. The special—also released around the same time as a Pew Research Center report on Black faith—comes as a timely contribution to public discourse on Black churches, especially with ongoing discussions on religion and racial justice, as well as the dangerous influence of white Christian nationalism. At the same time, however, the documentary has been critiqued for overlooking the contributions of some traditions within “the Black Church,” such as Black Catholicism, as well as the voices of women and members of the LGBTQ community.

The Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University recently convened a rich Twitter town hall, moderated by Ahmad Greene-Hayes, on the documentary with leading scholars of religion and faith leaders. The discussion used the documentary as a starting point for broader reflection on “the Black Church”—as a moniker for a wide-ranging conglomeration of largely Black Protestant institutions—with a particular focus on issues related to gender and sexuality, art and culture, and resistance in U.S. political life. As a complement to the discussion, the Berkley Forum is partnering with CARSS to curate a virtual roundtable on the Black Church in American public life. 

This week CARSS and the Berkley Forum ask: How do lessons from the history of Black churches resonate today, a moment marked by public discourse on racial justice, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a resurgence of white Christian nationalism? If resistance is a key theme in religious thought and practice in “the Black Church,” how does the tradition challenge us to reimagine American democracy? What roles do women play in Black churches, and how might these contributions change how we think about Black religious life? What are some of the challenges and possibilities related to gender and sexual identity in Black churches? How do popular conceptions of “the Black Church” differ from or relate to other forms of Black religious life in the United States? And what is the significance of the broader range of religious traditions that have animated Black cultures and communities since the arrival of Africans in the New World and especially across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

This series is co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. It is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University. ​

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