Terrence L. Johnson is an associate professor of religion and politics in the Department of Government. He is also a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, an affiliate member of the Department of African American Studies, and serves on the executive committee of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. Johnson’s research interests include African American political thought, ethics, American religions, and the role of religion in public life. He is the author of Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (2022, with Jacques Berlinerblau); We Testify with Our Lives: How Religion Transformed Radical Thought from Black Power to Black Lives Matter (2021); and Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (2012). He also serves as co-editor of the Duke University Press Series Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. Johnson holds a B.A. from Morehouse College, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Brown University.
The same can be said for the Black Church’s influence on popular culture. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Leela James’s A Change is Gonna Come hit albums are reminders of the Black Church’s role in shaping the cultural expressions of African-American life. Both artists draw upon African-American gospel music and the Black Church’s moral vocabulary of “somebodyness” in their lyrical and rhythmic narrations of hope, love, and despair. To be sure, the church’s presence in urban communities has been erased significantly over the last two decades as gentrification in places like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia pushed out the working-class families the church once faithfully served. In spite of the economic and political shifts within historically African-American urban neighborhoods, the Black Church remains a cultural site for remembering the trauma of slavery, engaging political grievances, and giving flesh to what Michael Eric Dyson calls “black love.”
My characterization of the Black Church stands in contrast to recent essays and articles highlighting the visible absence of African-American clergy and churches from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This interest in the Black Church’s role in the BLM movement stems from a curious assumption within our society: that the Black Church is dead. I disagree. The Black Church, which is not a monolithic tradition, is not dead for at least two reasons. First, the argument assumes the physical erasure of black churches from urban neighborhoods has wiped out the church’s lingering moral vocabulary and political influence within the memory of millennials. Second, the death of the Black Church argument ignores the role of non-Christian religious traditions among African Americans and even within the Black Church. In other words, the Black Church has always been a complicated religious institution within the context of American Protestantism. From its conception, clergy weaved together religion and politics to create thick and thin versions of liberation theology that many white clergy found objectionable or theologically unsound. It, too, was a place, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, where African-American Muslims, Quakers, Universalists, and Humanists found a public space, a religious refuge, to reflect on the religious and political concerns of ordinary black folk, Christian and non-Christian alike. Malcolm X and Minster Louis Farrakhan are two examples of non-Christians who were welcomed into many black churches and invited to deliver major speeches standing behind Christian pulpits.
The BLM movement emerges from this African-American religious context and the Black Church stands as a cultural site or epistemic resource for the movement. The BLM movement inherits its call to “(re)build the Black Liberation movement” from the Black Church’s historical role in developing a theology of liberation based on social justice. I am not suggesting the founders of BLM turned to the church for assistance as they imagined their movement. However, the vocabulary and hermeneutical moves they employ resonate with the political vocabulary and ambitions of many progressive black churches. For instance, BLM’s political shift away from a rights-based political project to a movement based on liberation reflects a core component of the church’s legacy: Liberation does not always translate into the immediate acquisition of political rights, but it must be pursued without fear or trembling. Liberation in many churches was interwoven in what Albert Raboteau in Down at the Cross: Afro-American Spirituality calls the “perennial mystery” of black suffering. In this context, liberation is not an event but what one pursues to make sense of an anti-black society.
It’s more than fair to suggest that the church has not lived up to its ideals in relationship to women, and the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community. But the BLM movement, similar to the Black Power movement, is challenging the Black Church as well as its real and imaged communities to reexamine sexuality, gender, and class as it pushes the nation to overhaul the criminal justice system. In fact, the BLM movement is exposing a religious transformation within African-American life: the decentering of the Black Church. The Black Church as a cultural site plays an important role in shaping the moral vocabulary and cultural signs and symbols many African Americans retrieve as they imagine and pursue social justice, but the Black Church as an institution is clearly waning. To that end, the absence of the African-American clergy from the BLM movement does not translate into the death of the Black Church. Instead, the Black Church remains a counterpublic, a reference point in and through which many people define justice and what it means to be human. The BLM movement is a natural extension of the Black Church’s historical commitment to social transformation, liberation, and justice.