Of Impact, Of Influence: The Black Church in Contemporary American Politics

By: Leah Daughtry

April 8, 2021

The Black Church in American Public Life

Since its birth in the hush harbors of antebellum America, the Black Church has played an influential and pivotal role in the lives of its congregants and the communities that it serves. In recent months, the convergence of three major events has brought new attention to the role and workings of the Black Church, whose influence extends far beyond Sunday sermons, to impact the larger culture of the American body politic.

First, it is now well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted the Black community, raising in broad relief the economic and health care disparities long present among us. Many people faced the challenge of choosing between going to work and risking infection on frontline jobs or staying at home and risking eviction brought on by lost wages. The policy decisions and systemic barriers that birthed and nurtured these disparities were ripe for scrutiny, analysis, and reform. 

The policy decisions and systemic barriers that birthed and nurtured these disparities were ripe for scrutiny, analysis, and reform.

Second, the killing of Mr. George Floyd, captured on video by passers-by, arrested the attention of the nation. While Mr. Floyd’s murder was not the first, just the latest, in a long line of examples of police abuse of power, this killing, broadcast nearly in real-time, stopped us in our collective tracks and forced us to wrestle with what we witnessed. In cities and towns across our country, indeed, the world, anger and discontent erupted in demonstrations, rallies, and civic actions large and small.

Last, the cultural polarization fostered during and by the Trump administration exacerbated tensions between communities, moving them from merely simmering to full boil. White supremacy, and racist, sexist, and/or anti-immigrant commentary, found succor in the highest office in our land. 

To be clear, any one of these three issues might have, all on its own, sparked discontent. But the pandemic, combined with the administration’s callous response to both the health and justice crises, opened wounds wider. And the life disruption caused by COVID gave each crisis a captive audience and created the environment ripe for the particular skill set of the Black Church and its leaders.

The Black Church has long served as a central locus of education and engagement for the Black community, be that spiritual, social, or political. That role continues today, with the Black Church using its mandate as a moral authority to interpret and fulfill its role as priest, pastor, and prophet for the people it serves and for the larger American society. 

The Black Church has long served as a central locus of education and engagement for the Black community, be that spiritual, social, or political.

Certainly, as priest and pastor, the Black Church tends to the spiritual and personal needs of its congregants through traditional worship activities and by addressing social and community needs via a variety of mechanisms. Case in point: While churches may run food pantries and serve meals to the hungry, the Black Church also understands its responsibility to include advocating for policy and programs that, for example, eradicate food deserts, eliminate hunger, provide resources, and address disparities in consistent access to healthy food options. The same can be said about other issues that affect the people’s well-being: education, poverty, health care, climate change, etc. While ensuring equity and fairness on any of these issues is key to the achievement of the American dream, they are—for the Black Church—a theological mandate that speaks to the way in which God’s people are valued and treated. 

Besides priest and pastor, the Black Church also serves as prophet to the church and to the nation. In this role, it critiques society from a biblical perspective which places God on the side of the oppressed, exploited, and impoverished. For the Black Church, “speaking truth to power” often takes form in action that exceeds the verbal, making its faith concrete and tangible through “praying with our legs.”

Besides priest and pastor, the Black Church also serves as prophet to the church and to the nation.

In the arena of electoral politics, the Black Church is a conduit for information and education, ensuring community awareness of how government and civic institutions operate, the issues under discussion, and ways in which the community can participate in the electoral process, ultimately supporting community members in exercising their civic duties. This might include hosting issue or candidate forums; providing information on where people can register to vote; organizing “Souls to the Polls” initiatives, where congregations and community members go to the polls together; among other initiatives.

In keeping with its legacy as a training place for future leaders, the Black Church has seen many of its members elected to public office. First was U.S. Senator Hiram Revels elected in 1868. Many others followed in his footsteps, including those currently serving: U.S. Representatives Cori Bush and Emmanuel Cleaver, and U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.

As well, Black Church leaders have created non-church organizations to support issue advocacy, civic engagement, and, in some cases, specific candidates. Examples of this are Moral Mondays/The Poor Peoples’ Campaign, the Black Church Political Action Committee, and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, to name only a few.

These roles taken together, the Black Church has an outsized role in the American body politic. It spurs those in its realm of influence to be informed about the issues that impact their community, to petition their government, and to take seriously the responsibilities of faithful citizenship.

Public policy, government systems, and even election results are affected in ways that transcend the bounds of buildings and denominations and shape every part of our nation. 

When those whom it influences are spurred to action, public policy, government systems, and even election results are affected in ways that transcend the bounds of buildings and denominations and shape every part of our nation. The election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate is case in point. An engaged citizenry elected new representation for their state. A sea change for Georgia, to be sure, but this election also changed the composition of the Senate, whose decisions will impact Americans everywhere. 

The Black Church is uniquely positioned to do this, because it is the only institution totally owned and controlled by the Black community, giving it the freedom to act and to move and to speak in the best interests of its communities. But further, and more importantly, the Black Church pursues this path because its deeply held faith and values demand, indeed, require it. Because of this, the Black Church is and remains a potent force that must be recognized and engaged in every specter of American society, including the political.

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. ​

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