Here is a book that couldn't be more topical. Its author is a professor of history and
the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at Pennsylvania University. She examines in detail the history and implications of black church development as a political force in America. Her work is readable and thought-provoking, bringing us up to the minute with its brief but telling examination of the relationship between Barack Obama and his own church, and its by-now famous pastor Jeremiah Wright.
The salient question is, which man is more typical of that peculiar melding of social, political and religious themes in the American black churches - Obama or Wright? Who is the betrayer, who the betrayed? Obama, we learn, came to Wright's church with an open mind and found a sense of redemptive hope there. It was "one more stop in his search for community, for an anchoring place." In his own personal vision, people of all races "seemed to converge," and he longed for a taste of that "sense of wholeness." Initially he found that inspirational faith at Chicago's Trinity Untied Church of Christ and embodied in its pastor, the controversial Jeremiah Wright, a veteran and an activist whom the younger man took as a mentor. However, just as his political aspirations led to Wright's church, they forced him away when, during his early bid for the nomination of his party, Wright's seemingly racist rants revealed him as a divisive force, not a uniting one. Obama, espousing what is known as "the politics of civil rights," could not countenance the radical edge to Wright's activism. In Savage's opinion, in rejecting Wright's far-left approach to religion and socio-political issues, Obama was perpetuating "the false idea that one black church and one black minister reflected the enormous diversity of black believers and black churches and black ministers and black communities."
Savage writes about that diversity, looking both at mainstream black religion and at lesser-known religious leaders and sects. Not unlike Obama, Arthur Huff Fauset, profiled by Savage, was a mixed-race person who became a prominent political activist and commentator in the 1930s and 1940s. He was the fourth black American to earn a degree in anthropology and used his considerable knowledge to research and write about African American religious practices. In the course of that endeavor, he came across the projects of such fringe leaders as Daddy Grace, Noble Drew Ali, and Father Divine. Aware of the general discomfort that mainstream black religions felt toward such "street preachers," Fauset nonetheless wrote about them dispassionately. He felt, for example, and was not afraid to say, that most black ministers were "crying sour grapes" when they looked at Father Divine's considerable successes in attracting and retaining a large following. He praised Divine and his followers for "social usefulness, cooperation, sobriety, dignity and honesty."
Probably a logical outcome of the strictures and sufferings of slavery, black churches in American have always been one part religious, one part social, one part political. As the only safe and acceptable gathering place in times of racial strife and segregation, churches and their leaders became all things to all of their congregations. Piety and politics had to go hand in hand. Savage identifies the slave era, the migration era, and now, in the denouement of the Civil Rights struggle, the "movement memoir" era as being great benchmarks in the progression of black religion. Not only did Civil Rights call forth courage and spawn great accomplishments, it produced unparalleled natural leadership in the persons of Martin Luther King, Marian Wright Edelman, and others. Young African Americans of any religion today can pick and choose among many templates of greatness.
It remains to be seen if Barack Obama will become a new ideal for future generations. Jeremiah Wright stated that he does "what preachers do" and Obama "does what politicians do." It would be a break from the past if these functions began to separate off in the coming generation. Only time can tell. It will be interesting to see where President Obama and his family attend church while he is in office.