A common point of scrutiny many have and continue to express on numerous occasions, whether Black or not, whether atheist or of another belief altogether, is the following: “How can Black people be Christians?”
It’s a fair question, no?
When I first began to reject the religious tradition I was conditioned to believe as The Truth, a feeling of embarrassment soon began to set in and fester. It was a humiliation I felt both for myself and the Black uber-religious majority. Aside from my growing knowledge of Biblical contradictions, the Bible’s flawed historicity, and the synthetic amalgamation of Christian doctrine over the span of centuries, what mortified me was my peoples’ continued self-duping reverence for the same ideology that was blatantly exploited to vindicate the institutional slavery of their own ancestors.
The question is somewhat akin to the more generalized query the skeptic poses to any adherent of dubious and unfalsifiable doctrine. However, this particular inquiry acknowledges a unique set of circumstances wherein, in addition to being a key component to chattel slavery’s justification, current widespread belief is the direct result of the ideology being foisted upon slaves only to be transmitted through the generations and become what it is today, a cornerstone for Black identity.
While this is true, perhaps many who see this as an open-and-shut case too easily dismiss historical factors that also account for why the Black Church functions as a complex vital organ for the Black community. Belief sometimes acts as a salve. Religion is no different, as it can act as both a balm and a kind of anesthetic that dulls elements of intellect to reality. I can think of no other community that was in more dire need of wishful thinking than my ancestors.
The foundation of what would become the Black Church began in the 17th century as a shadow institution hidden from the slave masters’ awareness. This budding, browbeaten assembly adopted the colonial spiritual belief system and syncretistically infused this rendition of orthodox Christianity with West African conceptions of religiosity. The precepts were necessarily adapted to a formidable context noticeably distinct from the elevated, gratified station of the White populace.
More emphasis needs to be made on this: Christianity was “offered” through coercion and not by validity. Not nearly enough individuals—chiefly, those who perpetuate this particular religious belief—want to acknowledge how capture-bonding (also referred to as “Stockholm syndrome”) was an ever-present factor during this adaptation process. Furthermore, we must appreciate how the remolding of Christianity to suit the thought processes of slaves took place.
For anyone reading this, truly contemplate the circumstances under which the Christian faith was reconciled with enslavement and a constant state of abject torment, terror, fatigue, sorrow, depression, aching, indignity, undertreated or untreated sickness and injury, gaslighting (which induces learned helplessness) and impending death by cruel punishment. Nevertheless, slaves, by Herculean feats of rationalization, found a way to achieve a resolve that yet stipulated, “But God loves me!” despite this imagined intentional agency providing no reprieve from the uncompromisingly evil act of slavery.
With liberation nowhere in sight, the only meaningful solace found was through religious escapism. The African slave’s interpretation of God was an all-powerful deity that imbued them with the inner fortitude to endure extreme hardship. Through song, prayer and sermonizing, Blacks found refuge and ascribed themselves their own heightened level of merit in a world that constantly reinforced the notion that they were nothing more than living tools. In his book “The Negro’s God, As Reflected in His Literature”, Benjamin Mays—educator, social activist and “Spiritual Mentor” of Martin Luther King Jr.—said of this mindboggling state: “Being socially proscribed, economically impotent, and politically brow-beaten, they sang, prayed, and shouted their troubles away.”
Something perhaps downplayed about this religious tradition is that, while it did prescribe a filtered lens inconsistent and unaccountable with real-world happenings, it did engender dissatisfaction with the morose predicament of servitude. There is much data suggesting the Black Church demanded active confrontation with their oppressors. It seems the slave religion encouraged both rebellion and a rejection of any teaching that cobbled together the rightness of slavery and the gospel. This struggle for a more worthwhile subsistence initiated a keen state of self-empowerment in an environment that attempted to deny any prospect of significant change. Religious conviction was a predominant equation to slave resistance, strikes and the Underground Railroad.
Post-Civil War America saw the Black Church extend its ameliorating guidance on a fractured people in an inhospitable land. An undeniable part of the human condition is to crave answers and meaning. The Black Church provided both, sewing together a narrative that harmonized former captivity and current ostracism midst social systems engineered by and for the benefit of Whites.You would think that the litany of egregious injustices perpetrated against Blacks would cause many to abandon commitment to their formulation of Christianity, similar to many Jews eschewing belief in a personal God post-Holocaust. However, the two groups and respective instances of persecution are profoundly distinct. The Reconstruction Era saw Blacks double down in faith and, more importantly, retreat into the Black Church, an institution that was committed to fighting for social change. Blacks really had no other tool to access and constructively engage White tyranny but by moral suasion dipped in religious appeal.
Relevant to this discussion is the fact that the Black Church was the sole institution governed by Blacks in a society wherein virtually everything else is under complete control of Whites. The Black Church was the only established and trusted form of community that provided solace. In a way, the Black Church consolidated its power by default. There was no other place Blacks could freely express themselves or be a part of something that had more united and organizing might to protest racialized disparities. In an environment hostile towards the advent of basic human rights and even the remote semblance of equality for these people still considered mere domesticated savages, the Black Church made sense of it all by identifying an alleged coherent and meaningful interrelationship between past and current hardships with purpose and destiny.
Entering the 20th century, the Black religious experience effectively combined spiritual hope and worldly action. Widespread disenfranchisement and segregation either severely diminished or altogether deprived Blacks of political, educational, legislative and economic participation. The Black Church served as an alternative and itself became a hub for civic activity, social activist instruction, lodging for Blacks migrating from the South to the North, the arts, and more.
The era referred to as the African-American Civil Rights Movement was undoubtedly buttressed in part by the influence of the Black Church, as well as aided by some of the thinkers and activists it produced. While nonreligious and other religious affiliations certainly made up the equation, the influence and concerted efforts of protest organized under this institution was substantial. Oratory inspiration from pulpits nationwide declared resistance and campaigns against oppression necessary for a moral and patriotic movement, which many ministers insisted were incumbent of Blacks to achieve a more democratic America.
Fast-forward to more modern times, and we see the Black Church still act in a very similar way as it always has: a failsafe sanctuary and comfort system in a racist society wherein racial inequity continues to be a pervasive dilemma on a multifaceted—albeit, more reduced, subdued and refined—level. It is still a reliable hearth for Blacks to “lay their burden down” by way of song, prayer, testimony, praise and fellowship. Even those who doubt or don’t sincerely believe find consolation in these cherished traditions and transcendental solidarity. Even I—one who considers the propositions of Christianity absolutely preposterous and unsubstantiated—can still be moved by certain music tipped in evangelical zeal.
I think I have laid out some reasons why the Black Church is an essential component to being for Blacks. Its crux exists beyond actual belief as it, among other things, fulfills a sense of belonging in a way seldom matched for Blacks elsewhere. Thus, even now in present times, a rejection of the institution is in some respects tantamount to a rejection of Black identity. I can attest to this fact from personal experience.
Just as the question of why humans are religious is a complicated one (something I delve into in “It’s Time We Paid More Heed to the Cognitive Science of Religion”), so too is the question of how can Black people be Christians. I think the current state of hyper-keen religious devotion within the Black community should be analyzed from a historical perspective before being ridiculed and dismissed as incomprehensible. Not only is it understandable, it’s to be expected given the circumstances.
 Vincent Harding, “Religion and Resistance Among Ante-bellum Negroes, 1800-1860,” in August Meier and E. Rudwick, eds., The Negro in the Making of America, vol. 1. Also see Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliott Wright, eds., Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism and Reparations; Earl Ofar, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance”: The Life and Thought of Henry Highland Garnet; Daniel A. Payne, “Protestation of American Slavery”.