Barbara D. Savage is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor Emerita of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published two award-winning books: Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (2008) and Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948 (1999). Her co-edited works are: Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015) and Women and Religion in the African Diaspora (2004).
When the religious history of the twenty-first century is written, let us hope that some astute historian will mark the progressive religious revival we are witnessing and credit it to the diversity within Black religion and politics. That is what I now see manifested in several ways. The first is the work of Rev. William Barber, a politically apt successor to the ethos of the Civil Rights Movement, and the second is the Black Lives Matter movement. Both came to national visibility during Obama’s second term and both rest on grassroots organizing, but aided and brought to greater prominence by the technological innovations of the twenty-first century.
First to Barber. Raised in the Disciples of Christ by his parents, including his father who was a pastor too, Barber still works from that denominational home, although his ministry has included stints as head of the North Carolina NAACP. His work on political issues there had begun in 2007, but he rose to national attention with his Moral Mondays campaign. For Barber, the moral measure of politics rests with how we treat the poor and those at the margins.
Let us hope that some astute historian will mark the progressive religious revival we are witnessing and credit it to the diversity within Black religion and politics.
He launched a harsh critique of the religious right, accusing them of focusing on issues never addressed by Jesus—abortion, homosexuality—while ignoring ideas Barber most associates with Jesus: poverty, empathy, injustice. For him, religion and politics made for a simple list of demands: “Pay people what they deserve. Share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach,” quoting from Isaiah. Barber worked to build an interracial coalition united not by race, but by shared support for a pro-labor, anti-poverty campaign for jobs, housing, educational equality, health care, criminal justice, and voting rights. From that was born his current work on a Poor People’s Campaign, which is a latter-day successor to King’s unrealized final work. His call for a Third Reconstruction rejects the politics of division and embraces one of justice and service, especially to the poor.
Like Barber, local grassroots organizing also undergirds the Black Lives Matter movement. Created in 2013 in reaction to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, it brought together a new national network of a much younger generation already hard at work in their communities. More typical than unusual, the three Black queer women—Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza—who launched the Twitter hashtag were seasoned and successful political activists and organizers, as were many of those who joined them in a movement of radical inclusion.
The sad recurring spectre of police killings of unarmed Black men and women catapulted the hashtag and an online community into something much bigger. The power of their message and of what they have been trying to build became hyper-visible when George Floyd was killed by police last summer for all to see. Attention to the killing catapulted Black Lives Matter into an international movement, marked by protests and marches of unprecedented scale. This was truly a mass movement. Under the urgency of the moment, the diversity of those marching, especially the numbers of young white people, expanded exponentially.
The power of their message and of what they have been trying to build became hyper-visible when George Floyd was killed by police last summer for all to see.
Many of the founders’ ideas about politics were formed in reaction against organized religion’s failures and rejections of who they are and what they believe. Yet their rhetoric is filled with talk of healing and wholeness, and spiritual work. Patrise Cullors has explained that the group welcomes people of all faith traditions or none, but believes in a shared spirituality that is “deeply radical in its ability to heal people." Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and now a Yoruba practitioner, she and other members have adapted rituals to help heal the trauma of the violence visited on Black people. Rev. James Lawson, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, calls BLM a “modern religious movement” and a ministry of healing.
Black religious people from various traditions also drove the change we witnessed in the 2020 elections. Stacey Abrams, the daughter of not one but two United Methodist preachers, places her religious upbringing and her faith at the heart of the work she has done as a state legislator and organizer to expand the franchise. She has said: “The reason I consider myself a progressive is that my reading of the Bible says that Jesus was a progressive.” She embraced her faith as part of her campaigns, and has relied on church and other local networks, aided by technology to organize around voter registration over the last 15 years. Abrams turns to Isaiah’s concept of faithful endurance to describe her work. Her biblical fluency is rivaled only by her grassroots organizing and fundraising skills around the vote.
That sense of mission and spiritual endurance helped turned Georgia purple not only in November, but in January too when two new senators also won. Raphael Warnock, a Baptist preacher, withstood the copycat attempts to paint him with Black religious radicalism. This time, the prophetic preacher and the progressive politician embraced and merged, as Warnock ran as “Reverend Warnock,” as if “Reverend” were his given first name. With the co-election of Jon Ossof, who also places his Jewish faith at the center of his sense of call and public service, their election is a reminder of the multi-faith, multi-racial, Black-Jewish coalitions of the Civil Rights Movement.
The prophetic preacher and the progressive politician embraced and merged, as Warnock ran as 'Reverend Warnock,' as if 'Reverend' were his given first name.
These are signals to me of a moment of progressive religious revival led by the example of politically engaged Black religious people. That resurgence stands at the heart of the American religious diversity now on full display at the White House, where President Biden, only our second Catholic president, weaves his faith into his life of service. Vice President Harris, married to a Jewish husband, was raised both Baptist and Hindu.
Our nation’s variegated religious landscape was certainly on full display in the digital artistry of the virtual Inaugural Prayer Service, a very moving montage of prayers and prayer traditions from men and women; straight, gay and trans; and across many faith traditions. The inauguration also dramatically highlighted Black religious diversity. We witnessed it from Yolanda Adams to the new Black cardinal of DC to the Black Episcopal dean at the National Cathedral to the AME pastor who closed the inauguration, and to the young Black Catholic poet who lifted our metaphysical tiredness. Her words released our spirits to soar beneath a bright January sun on Inaugural Day, reclaiming the symbolic space defiled two weeks earlier by white racist rioters espousing their gospel of hate and destruction.
This essay is part of a series 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. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University.