Extrait du livre d’Adolph L. Reed, Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986, p. 41-60
Mythology of the Church in Contemporary Afro-American Politics
Exceptionalist approaches to black politics typically are fed by the mystique of black churchliness and religiosity, which postulates a peculiarly racial basis of participation and representation. According to this view, which assumes the organic leadership model, the church is the elemental unit of political mobilization in the black community. Because its structures are decentralized and operate at the “grass roots,” the black church can be construed as an authentically popular institution. Moreover, because this view also assumes a pandemic black religiosity, the church can be understood to be prior and superior to electoral or otherwise procedural institutions as a source of popular legitimations.
The Mystique of the Black Church and the Jackson Campaign
The mystique of the black church suffused the Jackson campaign. Among its various entailments, Jackson’s candidacy was accompanied by—if not founded upon—reassertion of both ministerial claims to primary black leadership status and notions of the centrality of the church as a political linkage institution and agency for popular mobilization. Jackson’s early attempts to circumvent entrenched elites proceeded from his definition of the church as a terrain for effective mass validation. A religious metaphor dominated the campaign and gave credence to efforts by church spokesmen to project the image of their organic authority into electoral politics.
Not only did Jackson go to churches to legitimize his intention to run; his initiative consistently fused religion and politics. During his instructively labeled “Southern Crusade” the potential candidate entreated crowds to submit to a “voter registration character oath,” sworn on the Bible and enlisting God on his behalf. (1) Even in New Hampshire Jackson conducted campaign rallies like revival meetings—to the point of isolating groups of unregistered sinners before the gathering, signing up volunteers on the spot in a spirit of testimony and conversion, and calling forth public pledges in a descending series of specified dollar amounts. (2) Strong implications of divine mission underlay his claim to embody a “moral force” in the campaign, and his widely acclaimed oratorical performance at the Democratic convention abounded with references to God in general and Christ in particular. (3) Speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend a month before the 1984 presidential election, Jackson—in his campaign hero role—forthrightly lauded the fusion of politics and religion in the black community. (4)
Although church linkages have long been considered important mechanisms for turning out black voters, (5) the Jackson campaign seems to have encouraged ministerial inclinations toward direct involvement in politics in black communities. Arthur Jones, the Methodist pastor who contested in Rodino’s congressional district, had never before stood for political office. (6) In the District of Columbia and Maryland—as elsewhere—ministerial alliances constituted the most energetic organizational support base for the campaign and pledged to transfer that involvement to their local political arenas. (7) In Alabama, Jackson advocate C. T. Vivian, a minister and civil rights movement veteran, proclaimed that “the greatest communicator in America is the black preacher” and alleged ministerial authority to be the foundation of black political activism. (8)
The Context of the Black Church’s Political Involvement
Electoral involvement by black ministry is not a novel phenomenon; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., whose lengthy congressional career was supported by his pastorate of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, exemplifies the common nexus of church and politics. Philadelphia’s congressman William Gray III, Andrew Young, and Walter Fauntroy attest to the continuing significance of ministerial background among black elected officials. However, the development of a new context of political authority in the aftermath of the civil rights movement had deemphasized the church’s role in political spokesmanship. Kilson notes that profiles of elected officials since 1965 reveal typical occupational backgrounds in secular professions, for example, law, teaching, and engineering. (9) In Atlanta, the growth of a stratum of black elected officials eliminated the political functions of the largely church-based leadership of the 1950s and 1960s, and there is no reason to believe the process unique to that city. (10) By the 1980s, DuBois’s 1903 prediction of the supersession of a clerically grounded leadership appeared to have reached fruition. (11) The Jackson phenomenon in this respect represents a resurgence of the principle of clerical political spokesmanship.
This principle derives its legitimations directly from the mythology surrounding the black church. The functions that it has performed historically in the black community yield an impression of the church as the principal linkage institution in Afro-American life. Empirical evidence of the black community’s reliance on church networks in mobilizing for collective action corroborates this view and extends perception of the priority of religious institutions into the political domain. However, this interpretation does not account for several characteristics of the twentieth-century church’s functions that explicitly have impinged on politics in ways that suggest a far more ambiguous relation between the two.
Aldon D. Morris, in a major sociological study of the institutional foundations of civil rights activism between the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott and the sit-ins, succumbs to the folly of confounding the church’s significance as a terrain for mobilization with the altogether different claim that it was the authorizing “chief institutional force behind” activism. In making that specious inference, Morris sidesteps the need to address two problematic issues concerning his assertion of the church’s political primacy: [I] the fact that the same church had existed in political quietude for two generations before the 1950s and  the fact that the church was by no means universally active in or supportive of civil rights protest, as I shall show later in this chapter. (12)
Regarding the notion of universality of the church’s support for civil rights activism, even in the Montgomery boycott King had denounced the “apathy of the Negro ministers,” as well as the quiescent model of religion propagated in the black church.” Later, King’s indictment of the black church would become more sweeping as he charged: “Two types of Negro churches have failed to provide bread. One burns with emotionalism, and the other freezes with classism… The so-called Negro church has also left men disappointed at midnight.” (14)
Any rigorous analysis of the link between politics and the black church must delineate the developmental context—and the trajectory of actions and choices dictated by this con-text—through which the twentieth-century black church evolved. First of all, the historical context was the regime of racial segregation which, by restricting the scope of black institutional articulation, left the church as a largely unrivalled repository for associational activity. The intrinsic link of the church’s institutional primacy and black exclusion from other channels for social action—including, most of all, politics—was clear to the generation of functionalist sociologists and social psychologists who studied the Afro-American community in the 1930s and 1940s. Even though they assigned great value to the church’s integrative and stabilizing effects on group life, E. Franklin Frazier, Charles S. Johnson, and others recognized that those functions fell to the church by default, as a result of the systemically (and juridically) decreed absence of competing institutions. Frazier indicated that the church accommodated the expulsion of blacks from participation in the polity by creating a substitute arena in which “the struggle for power and the thirst for power could be satisfied.” (15) Moreover, he argued, the church provided an alternative to political participation (in the form of election of church officers and convention delegates), and he observed that denominational loyalty substituted for political identity. (16) Although Johnson typically was loath to discuss the restraining context of the prevailing racial order, he nonetheless obliquely connected the primacy of the church in the rural black South of the 1930s with the restrictions imposed by segregation; the church’s importance was associated with its status as the “only institution which provides an effective organization of the group, an approved and tolerated place for social activities.” (17) He noted as well, adducing increasing education and literacy as contributing factors, that the church was less central in the lives of the youth, who were “both more mobile and less docile” than their elders. (18) While Frazier and, especially, Johnson were most concerned with the church’s sociologically adaptive functions, the political implications of their perspectives on its foundations in the South are clear. (19) Development of the church’s institutional prominence proceeded from acceptance of—as a given condition—the removal of blacks from the polity; to that extent, the avenues of expression that it opened should be seen as constituting not a parallel form of political institution or indirect means to political development, but rather a categorical alternative to politics as an appropriate activity in the black community.
Inasmuch as exclusion was the most salient political issue confronting Afro-Americans, the institutional force of the church must be included among the several factors that retarded political development. The church exerted anticonfrontational pressures both passively and actively. Dollard in the 1930s found that the church, in addition to cementing black social solidarity and providing individual consolation, also served as a “mechanism for the social control of Negroes,” as illustrated by the welcoming spirit with which planters generally greeted black church activity and its disparagements of this-worldly issues. (20) Frazier observed that organizational space existed for the black church’s unique autonomous institutional elaboration because black religion “offered no threat to the white man’s dominance in both economic and social relations.” (21) He added that because of its consistently otherworldly focus, “on the whole, the Negro’s church was not a threat to white domination and aided the Negro to be-come accommodated to an inferior status.” (22) Davis and his coauthors, however, implicated the church as a more active agency in securing the order of racial domination. They found evidence of collusion between planters and church and lodge organizations to guarantee steady incomes for the latter through the medium of ostensible cash advances to tenants. (23) Like Dollard, they noted the “general practice of landlords in encouraging tenants to build churches and in giving them financial aid for this purpose.” These authors took that observation a step further and reported that black church doctrines in the 1930s characteristically incorporated the “dogma that not the agricultural economy but [members’] own thriftlessness and sinfulness were responsible” for their poverty. (24) Their research in general disclosed “the operation of the dogma of the Negro rural church to strengthen… caste controls.” (25)
At the same time in northern cities a different situation prevailed. Frazier noted that the greater occupational differentiation experienced by blacks in cities diminished both the centrality of the church as an associational entity and the prominence of clerical leadership. (26) He observed also that the secularizing pressures of urbanization encouraged the church—at least in middle-class pastorates—toward engagement in political and social affairs. (27) Nevertheless Drake and Cayton found considerable secularly grounded disaffection with the church among Depression-era black Chicagoans. (28) In 1944, Myrdal, who continued to acknowledge its binding role, found the black church to have been “lagging ideologically.” He noted that in a context of growing political activism and protest the church “remained conservative and accommodating,” (29) despite the occasional appearance of activist ministers. (30) During the 1930s. Bunche found that the church in northern cities “occupie[d] a most important position in politics”; (31) at the same time, regarding the South, he held the black clergy largely responsible for the fact that “more progress has not been made in bettering the social, economic, and political life of the Negro,” noting even the urban church’s typical refusal to engage political or societal issues. (32)
These reports indicate that assertions of historical connection of the church and politics among Afro-Americans require substantial qualification. Throughout the period of segregation’s hegemony the church in the South functioned as a most frequently antagonistic alternative to political involvement. Outside the South, when the church ventured into politics, it followed “not a peculiarly Negro but a typical American pattern” of trading ministerial influence for primarily self-interested patronage gain. (33) In sum, the myth of the black church as the source of autonomous, popularly based political activity has scant factual basis in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Political Role of the Black Church Assessed
The myth of a politically active black church draws its immediate sustenance from more recent images associated with heroic engagement in the civil rights movement. For Walter Fauntroy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Joseph Lowery, Benjamin Hooks, Ralph David Abernathy, C. T. Vivian, and others whose claims to political leadership status somehow involve ministerial or church connections—most of all, Jesse Jackson—the authority that they invoke derives not merely from the cloth, but from their association with the clerical wing of civil rights activism. Jackson, for example, in his campaign constantly cited his earlier involvement in the civil rights movement to prove himself more worthy than his opponents. (34) The ministerial resurgence accompanying his candidacy evokes identification of the church with organic bonds of protest politics that predate electoral legitimations; its resonance with the styles of civil rights struggle gives this imagery the sense of moral priority. However, even in relation to the surge of civil rights protest in the 1950s and 1960s the church’s record is ambivalent.
Doug McAdam, in a recent study of the sources of black activism, acknowledges the church’s social quiescence in earlier periods but finds that “the southern urban black church evidenced increased involvement in social action after about 1940.” (35) From 1956—two years after the Brown decision—to 1959, McAdam’s research indicates, church-based leadership in fact was pivotal in originating direct action protest activity. (36) In general during those years he finds that “indigenous leaders were overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of black ministers, students, or local NAACP personnel.” (37) In the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott the ministerial leadership component was most visible. Yet both before and after that period the initiative lay elsewhere. Of all movement-led actions between 1955 and 1960, church-based groups were responsible for only 12 percent; student groups, by contrast, led in 31 percent of the total. (38) Between 1961 and 1965, campus and church-based groups together accounted for only 13 percent of movement events, steadily declining to a low of 6 percent in 1965. (39) Although, as McAdam suggests, this development reflects incorporation of early church (and student) leadership into increasingly consolidated specialized organizations, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the principal vehicle of clerical activism—initiated only 23 percent of movement events over the first half of the 1960s. (40)
Case study material substantiates the church’s actual relationship to political leadership in the civil rights era. Burgess found in the Durham, North Carolina, of 1960 that “the minister has never been the only, or even the main, source of leadership” and that the “business and professional world has from the first been of equal, if not mote, importance as a source of leadership.” (41) Clerical dispositions toward social activism were divided into two clearly discernible camps—one defining intervention into “race relations” as a proper concern of the church, the other eschewing such temporal activity. (42) William Chafe’s study of civil rights and black power activism in Greensboro, North Carolina, records a ministerial reluctance in the late 1950s to endorse the racial protest style associated with King, to the point that no church was willing to provide a forum for the Montgomery boycott leader’s 1958 visit. (43) He describes the typical posture of the city’s black clergy toward politics during the activist years as representing “the quintessence of caution.” (44) In Hunter’s classic 1953 study of Atlanta, of the thirty-four individuals scoring on a reputational scale as major black leaders, six were ministers, and they “were not considered top leaders in a policy-making sense by those within the leadership group itself who voted on them.” (45) Black informants, furthermore, stressed the temporally active clergy’s obstructionist proclivities toward reducing policy and projects to narrow self-interest. (46)
These cases do not approximate a comprehensive picture of the church’s relation to civil rights protest in southern cities, and the experience of each might be taken to reflect local idiosyncrasies. (47) Thompson, by contrast, found that in black New Orleans in the early 1960s, “ministers constitute the largest segment of the leadership class,” (48) and Ladd noted the significance of clerical political spokesmanship in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, in the mid-1960s.” On the other hand, because the urban church was more likely to be socially and politically engaged than its rural counterpart, these cities represent a sample culled from a universe that is already biased toward clerical involvement in politics. (50) Therefore, a minimal conclusion is that the view that projects the church as the authentic source of Afro-American political action is very much an overstatement. Moreover, if there is a case that is clearly unrepresentative of general patterns in the urban South, it is New Orleans. Not only is the city—including its black population—in general culturally marginal to the South; at the time of Thompson’s study at least a third of black New Orleanians and a majority of the city as a whole were Catholic. Black Protestant churches thus deployed temporal action as an “extension of their missionary functions,” (51) a unique situation in a broader context of Protestant hegemony in Afro-American religious organization. While Winston-Salem and Greenville are not similarly exceptional, Ladd’s assessment of the prominence of ministerial leadership derives partly from a comparison with political leadership patterns outside the black community; in Winston-Salem only 22 percent of those identified as top black leaders were ministers and in Greenville only 28 percent, and in neither case was the black clergy in general involved in temporal affairs. (52) Despite the circumstance that—for several reasons—these rates are substantially higher than those prevailing among whites, the fact of the matter is that in Greenville more than 70 percent and in Winston-Salem more than 75 percent of black political leadership was based in secular occupations and institutions.
Yet the connection of the church with the development of politics in the black community is not a complete invention, even though claims concerning its leadership role are vastly exaggerated. A more accurate representation locates the church’s role in protest politics mainly in provision of institutional support for activities initiated and led under other auspices. Chafe, for instance, notes that once civil rights activism took hold in Greensboro ministers gave vital assistance—under pressure from their activated congregations—by making church buildings and mimeograph facilities available to activists and “using their pulpits as vehicles for dispensing information about the boycott and protest activities.” (53) This view is consistent with the earlier observations of Bunche, Davis, Frazier, Johnson, and Myrdal, who found the church’s disposition toward political involvement to be governed by the existence of independent, secularly based initiatives to which clerical leadership was forced to respond. Their perceptions, moreover, were corroborated in the mid-1960s by Matthews and Prothro, whose study of a diverse sample of southern cities and counties indicated that the church became an arena for discussion of political issues only in direct relation to the existence and extent of black political organization outside the church. Where no extrinsic political organization existed, neither did the clergy engage political issues. They conclude: “When the Negro church gets into electoral politics… it is supplementing rather than substituting for more explicitly political organizations.” (54)
Although the church’s role in protest politics was a passive one, its function as a primary institution of community linkage constituted an important element in the contextual field within which mobilization strategies necessarily were elaborated. As the various case studies indicate, far from leading, the clergy all too frequently was led to support civil rights activity only through considerable pressure from popular community sentiment and specific demands from mobilized congregations. In this aspect, the church was less an agency of political action than another terrain for struggle by independently legitimated movement activists. Moreover, the object of that struggle may not have been so much the mantle of the clergy’s moral authority as it was access to the material resources the church controlled as a temporal institution.
Even though its primacy in this regard receded with the development of black newspapers and the articulation of other institutions, the church generally remained an important mechanism of communication in the Afro-American community. Even in Durham respondents listed the church as most effective among a variety of communicative linkages between leaders and constituents. (55) Burgess identified the churches them as “the most comprehensive communication avenue available in the (black) sub-community,” noting that they “serve as centers of organized social activity.” (56) In other, less well differentiated communities the church’s communicative functions were still more significant. Ladd, noting the contrast with nearby Durham and Raleigh, found the church paramount for dissemination of information in black Winston-Salem, Greenville, and similar locales. He also emphasized, like Chafe, the importance of church buildings as meeting sites for activist political groups. (57)
The church was a significant nexus for the movement in another sense that is distinct but not wholly separate from the communication function. McAdam observed that the church constituted, as did the schools and NAACP chapters, an “interactional [network] facilitating the ‘bloc recruitment’ of movement participants.” (58) These networks were strategically important in that they enabled activist leadership “to recruit en masse along existing lines of interaction, thereby sparing themselves the much more difficult task of developing a membership from scratch.” (59) In a reversal of Christ’s injunction to his apostles, political activists went to the churches as “fishers of men” and women for unambiguously secular objectives. In the process, activists often succeeded in redefining the church’s mission, at least temporarily. In church-based initiatives, for example, “it was not so much that movement participants were recruited from among the ranks of active churchgoers as it was a case of church membership itself being redefined to include movement participation as a primary requisite of the role.” (60) This finding affirms Myrdal’s contention that the black church simply expresses dispositions otherwise extant in the black community. Noting the rising protest in the 1940s, he averred that when “the Negro community changes, the church will also change” and predicted that in-creased political activism would bring demands on the church to engage itself in “the work for protest and betterment.” (61)
While assertions of the church’s centrality as a political institution among Afro-Americans are clearly questionable historically, demonstration to that effect does not exhaust the range of very problematic issues raised by the postulated linkage of church and politics. The faulty historical interpretation is a premise undergirding a relation posited in and for the present, and the two are separable inasmuch as the latter is advanced as an exhortation to action as well as an allegation of fact. Contemporary proclamation of the church’s role in black politics carries a strategic imperative whose justification may be weakened by exposure of the falsity of its historical premises, but such disconfirmation does not completely undermine the proposition’s hortatory component. Even a conclusive argument against the notion of a legacy of church-based politics leaves open questions concerning the efficacy and desirability of that kind of model in the here-and-now. These questions center theoretically on the appropriateness of the principles of representation and political authority which the church embodies in the black community.
Regarding the issue of representation, two fundamental problems confront assertions of an authenticating or primal leadership role for the church in Afro-American politics. In the first place, as I have argued earlier, the perception of the church as the ultimate source of authentic black political activity assumes as a precondition a pandemic black religiosity and church membership. However, while the church may be a more important institutional foundation of community life among Afro-Americans than among other groups, church affiliation hardly has been a universal characteristic of black American existence. Gosnell, in noting the significance of the churches as mobilization linkages in the 1930s, found that 50 percent of black voters in Chicago belonged to some church and that 25 percent attended Sunday services regularly. (62) Those rates of participation would make the church an attractive vehicle for political organization, but if it were thus to be seen as a mechanism for authenticating racial leadership, then what of the other half of the electorate, who—for whatever reasons—opted not to join a church? How are they represented? That question looms still greater in the contemporary period in which the church competes with a myriad of other bases of affiliation and identification in black communities, many of them electoral or otherwise directly political. To the extent that church-based networks are construed as sources for establishing authenticity of political spokesmanship, that segment of the race which chooses not to define itself through church or religious affiliation is in effect denied membership in the polity. Decline in black church membership since the 1930s only strengthens this observation. (63)
Reliance on church networks for validating claims to black leadership is strategically problematic in another sense as well. With regard to issues bearing on representation, the church is a politically redundant entity. Here it is important to distinguish acknowledgment of religious institutions’ tactical support of political mobilization from the broader assertion of the church’s centrality in black politics. The latter position interposes clerical authority between political spokesmanship aspirants and the racial constituency—in principle, a position that is incommensurate in a liberal, bourgeois society. However, in the context of systematic black exclusion from procedural channels of political participation, assignment of a surrogate role to the church might have been defensible on grounds of its relative institutional primacy and the elimination of more suitable alternatives. Even though the church typically did not exercise such political functions, exhortations that it should do so would be plausible and instrumentally reasonable in the absence of avenues for direct, systemic participation. However, with the removal of bathers blocking electoral participation, the notion of clerical or church-based political legitimation constitutes an unnecessary and dubious incursion into regular processes.
Strategic intervention by religious institutions into those processes is justifiable insofar as the church operates as one among an array of interest groups in the black community, pressing its specific agendas as such and not striving to enforce them as nonnegotiable collective racial interest. To that extent the politically engaged church subordinates itself to secular procedures. Assertions that organic, clerical legitimations preempt those procedures, on the contrary, remove churchly agendas from the arena of orderly public scrutiny and debate. The principle of religious superordination might adequately reflect the preferences of those who identify with the church, but it potentially sabotages democratic organization of the contemporary black polity. This is hardly to deny the possible limitations of electoral proceduralism; however, if commitment to the value of democracy is to be maintained, challenges to the adequacy of proceduralism must emanate from a more open and more extensively participatory standard of representation. Appeal to such a standard is conspicuously absent from notions alleging representative priority of church-based legitimation among Afro-Americans.
The rhetoric of organic or primalistic authenticity surrounding assertions of the church’s special political status covers a model of authority that is antithetical to participatory representation. As Frazier indicated, “the pattern of control and organization of the Negro church has been authoritarian, with a strong man in a dominant position.” (64) The basis of clerical authority lies outside the temporal world and is not susceptible to secular dispute. The community constituted in the church is not reproduced through open discourse but is bound by consensual acceptance of a relation that vests collective judgment in the charismatic authority of the minister. The status of superordinate ministerial authority can be acquired through vocation or being “called.” However, once attained, that status uncouples the minister from the body of the faithful and—because of the assumption of privileged clerical access to divine purposes mysterious to others—exonerates clerical leadership from susceptibility to secular criticism.
This model of authority is fundamentally antiparticipatory and antidemocratic; in fact, it is grounded on a denial of the rationality that democratic participation requires. Diane Johnson, in an essay that includes the distinctive style of black charismatic religion among several factors that led to the massacre at Jonestown, observes that this black religious style devalues “the powers of analysis and penetration that education supposedly confers.” Black ministers, she notes, “in particular sustain a traditional style of histrionic worship in which real and false prophets are… easily confused.” (65) Frazier argues, moreover, that because of its important role in the social organization of the black community, the church’s distinctive patterns of authority have exerted a powerful authoritarian force in the elaboration of Afro-American institutions in general, a consequence of which has been a chronic and extensive undervaluation of democratic processes in the black community. The church and religion, Frazier concludes, “have cast a shadow over the entire intellectual life of Negroes.” (66) This antiparticipatory and antiintellectual impetus deauthorizes the principle of individual autonomy, which is the basis of citizenship, and—when combined with the church’s intrinsically antitemporal eschatological orientation—mandates quietism, political and otherwise.
Gary Marx’s study of the relationship of religious and political attitudes in the black community discloses the church’s empirical impact on black political culture. Marx found an inverse relation prevailing between intensity of religious be- lief and practice and intensity Of support for political activism among a national metropolitan sample of black attitudes at the height of the civil rights movement. Specifically, disposition toward militance in support of civil rights agendas increased steadily with decreasing subjective importance to religion. (67) The more orthodox were respondents’ religious beliefs, the less likely were they to be politically militant. (68) The more frequently respondents attended church, the weaker was their support for activism. (69) When responses were combined into a cumulative index of religiosity, the results were most striking. The inverse relation persisted, and the variance was definitive. Only 26 percent of those scoring “very religious” favored political militancy, but 70 percent of the “not at all religious” were so inclined. (70) Moreover, the basic inverse relation held across all levels of education, age groups, regions, both sexes, and all denominational affiliations. (71) Among denominations, Methodists and Baptists—by far the largest groupings in the black population—scored lowest on the militancy scale; a residual category, “Sects and cults”—including Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other flotsam and jetsam of the religious universe—scored lowest of all. (72) This finding challenges the arguments of those such as Cornel West who identify the “evangelical and pietistic” tendency in black religion as the source of emancipatory theory and politics in the black community. (73) Regarding the Baptists—the largest single black denomination—J. H. Jackson, longtime president of the National Baptist Convention, not only endorsed Reagan in 1980 but resisted the surge of black political activism throughout the civil rights movement and beyond. (74)
Marx’s findings are made all the more salient by the fact that his research was conducted in 1964, during the most active phase of black protest politics. The church’s claim to preemptive political authenticity rests largely on evocative images of clerical or church-based activation of popular resistance during that period. Jesse Jackson, as we have seen, from beginning to end deployed that imagery—along with the general principle of clerical authority—to legitimize his candidacy. However, not only does examination reveal the church at most to have been led from a characteristic stance of accommodating and rationalizing the status quo of racial subordination to association with a movement that was a fait accompli, but, even When activism was greatest in the black community, church identification clearly remained an alternative to political action. Nevertheless, the mythology of church-based politics lingers, and the Jackson initiative seems to have rekindled its fires. Still, given the models of authority and participation for which the church stands, its projection as a major black political force insinuates between black citizens and their political representation a mediation that is justifiable neither in relation to need or utility nor in the name of a larger vision of social emancipation. (75)
The fundamental tension between the church and politics in the black community—both historically and in the present—resonates with the critique of religion developed by Karl Marx in the 1840s:
This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world… its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification… Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people… Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve round himself. (76)
The domain of the black church has been the spiritual and institutional adaptation of Afro-Americans to an apparently inexorable context of subordination and dispossession. It has been at various points in this century a central conduit for the reproduction of community life under severely restricted conditions. Whether the church’s acquiescence to the unpalatable secular order has been equally central in legitimizing those conditions or whether another course was even possible are issues open to debate. However, it is clear that the church’s functionality as an integrative institution, as well as its vaunted success as a source of hope in a temporal situation apparently hopeless, has been predicated on acceptance of the essential structure of the world of material social and political relations as given. To that extent, the black church has developed as an inherently noninterventionist, and thus conservative quasi-secular institution.
The realm of politics by definition is temporal intervention. Its object is action within and therefore practical “criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.” (77) The ambivalent historical role of the church in Afro-American politics is in this sense an expression not only of practical organizational tensions but Of an essential incompatibility, if not antagonism, of institutional logics and functions. The problem at the core of the political mythology of the black church is not simply its historical inaccuracy or even its disturbing implications for the development and maintenance of rational, democratic discourse in the black community. A matter for equal concern is that the projection of the church as the source of leadership authenticity assigns responsibility for political legitimation to an intrinsically antipolitical agency.
l. Wilkie, “Jackson Preaches Voting Power.”
2. James M. Perry, “Banner Day for Jesse: One-Man Band Excites Crowds,” Wall Street Journal (February 21, 1984).
3. The pervasiveness of religious imagery in Jackson’s performance is captured in Dudley Clendinen, “Nation Is a Cathedral with Jackson at Pulpit,” New York Times (July 19, 1984).
4. Betty Anne Williams, “Jesse Jackson: President Reagan Fails ‘Character Test,’ ” Baton Rouge Morning Advocate (September 30, 1984). At a Memphis rally with Geraldine Ferraro, Jackson summoned the authority of “Jesus Himself” to inveigh against Reagan (Maureen Dowd, “Ferraro-Jackson Team Rouses Memphis Rally,” New York Times [October 4, 1984]).
5. However, clerical leadership may be more proficent at collecting funds for mobilization than in actually turning out voters. In the 1976 presidential campaign Jimmy Carter, who—as a fellow Baptist—was not awed by their homilies, insisted that a group of West Coast ministers return campaign money for which they had done no work. See Grayson Mitchell, “Carter Street Money a Problem?’ and “Black Religious Groups Return Carter Cash,” Atlanta Constitution (August 11, 1976). Also see Robert Sam Anson, “The New Hustlers,” New Times (1977).
6. Norman, “Behind the Challenge. ”
7. “New Voters, Ministers among Jackson Backers,” and “The Rev. Willie Wilson: Gaining Self-Sufficiency,” Washington Post (April 29, 1984). Also see Cavanagh and Foster, 13.
8. Frontline, “Struggle for Birmingham,” 8.
9. Kilson, “New Black Political Class,” 87.
10. Floyd Hunter discusses this case in Community Power Succession: Atlanta’s Policy-Makers Revisited (Chapel Hill, 1980), 71-72. Also see Mack H. Jones, “Black Political Powerment in Atlanta: Myth and Reality,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (September 1978): 90—117; Peter Ross Range, “Making It in Atlanta: Capital of Black- is-Bountiful,” New York Times Magazine (April 7, 1974); and Frederick Allen, “The ‘Black Ticket’ Has Been Erased,” Atlanta Constitution (September 25, 1978).
11. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, 1969), 113- 14.
12. See Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, 1984). Morris’s desire to read the development of the civil rights movement as a church- sponsored saga is unfortunate, moreover, because it leads him to overlook other important constitutive dynamics, certain of which he even mentions in passing. He notes, for example, that in the early boycotts on which he focuses—Baton Rouge, Montgomery. Birmingham, Tallahassee. Shreveport—the ministers who assumed leadership of the local movements all were simultaneously prominent in their NAACP chapters and that in nearly all cases church-based organizations were created to serve as “movement centers” only because the NAACP had been declared subversive and outlawed by segregationist state legislatures. Despite the fact that his own findings thus suggest that NAACP membership was probably more reliable than churchliness as a predictor of activism (there were, after all, many ministers and church members in each case who were not active), Morris persists in arguing that the clerical tail wagged the dog. Similarly, in nearly every city in which protests occurred during the period Morris considers, the institutional configuration of the black community included at least one black college. Although he lists the cities, Morris is so intent on establishing the church’s role that he fails to attend to the possible significance of the presence of subcommunities clustered around institutions of higher learning as sources of activism. After all, it appears—by his own evidence—that protest movements were generated within a substantially greater proportion of the cities with black colleges than within the cities with developed church-based social infrastructures.
13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom (New York, 1958), 34-36.
14. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Glasgow, 1969), 62-63.
15. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York, 1964), 48.
16. Ibid., 49.
17. Charles S. Johnson, Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South (New York, 1941), 135. In locating the church within the “system of separate social institutions [that] retarded the development of the Negro,” Johnson observed that often “religious doctrines appropriated [from whites] were in conflict with pragmatic social values” (136).
18. Ibid., 169.
19. Johnson suggests that the “indifference of the Negro church to Current social issues… lent indirect but vital support to the race patterns of the early post-slavery period” (Growing Up, 136).
20. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (rpt., Garden City, 1957), 248. Schools, he noted, were not similarly welcomed.
21. Frazier, Negro Church, 51.
23. Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South, abridged edition (Chicago, 1941), 246. Predictably, the planters also benefited financially from this arrangement.
24. Ibid., 247.
25. Ibid., 246.
26. Frazier, Negro Church, 54—57.
27. Ibid., 56.
28. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, 2 vols. (New York. 1945), 2: 418-20, 640-53.
29. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 2 vols. (New York, 1944), 2: 876.
30. Ibid., 877.
31. Ralph J. Bunche, The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR (Chicago, 1973), 576. Gosnell, however, found in Chicago that black churchgoers “do not ordinarily look to their ministers for the leadership that unites all the elements of a party organization” and that the “political importance of the Negro clergy is not as great in Chicago today as it was in the South during [Reconstruction]” (Harold Gosnell, Negro Politicans: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago [Chicago, 19351, 100).
32. Bunche, Political Status, 490. Bunche’s specific reference here is to Atlanta; however, his study found similar circumstances in Memphis and other areas of the South.
33. Ibid., 93.
34. On the eve of the Alabama primary he expatiated, ‘ ‘Some people said they voted for the Voting Rights Act of ’65, I marched for it. They voted for the public accommodation bill of ’64, I was jailed for it. They voted for open housing, I marched and talked about it. I didn’t just show up to get you the right to vote” (Frontline, “Struggle for Birmingham,” 15).
35. Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930—1970 (Chicago 1982), 99.
36. Ibid., 134.
37. Ibid., 133.
38. Ibid., 126. McAdam notes that the student thrust intentionally rejected church-based strategies (138).
39. Ibid., 147.
40. Ibid., 154. By comparison, the NAACP and the Congress on Racial Equality were responsible for 24 and 22 percent, respectively.
41. M. Elaine Burgess, Negro Leadership in a Southern City (Chapel Hill, 1960), 41.
42. Ibid., 41—42. Burgess observed, however, that the former group appeared to be growing.
43. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York, 1980), 80.
44. Ibid., 20.
45. Floyd Hunter, Community Power Structure (Chapel Hill, 1953), 116— 17. Hunter noted that this finding contraindicated “a belief abroad in the larger community that if anything is to be done through leadership in the Negro community, the ministers, the educators, and possibly the undertakers should be contacted in about that order.”
46. Ibid., 118, 135.
47. Atlanta and, especially, Durham long have been understood to have unusually well-articulated black middle classes from which variegated leadership structures could develop. See, for example, E. Franklin Frazier, “Durham: Capital of the Black Middle Class,” in Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Intrepretation (New York, 1925), 333—40, and DuBois’s essay, “On the Wings of Atalanta,” in The Souls of Black Folk. In addition, a generation of political scientists and sociologists have bickered over the realiability of Hunter’s reputational method.
48. Daniel C. Thompson, The Negro Leadership Class (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963), 34.
49. Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., Negro Political Leadership in the South (Ithaca, 1966), 238-39.
50. Bunche, it should be recalled, adduced Atlanta as an example of the urban church’s increasing concern with social affairs in the 1940s.
51. Thompson, Negro Leadership Class, 35. In addition, the city’s black population features a bizarre mosaic of crosscutting intraracial, ethnic differentiation and cleavage.
52. Ladd, Negro Political Leadership, 238—39.
53. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights, 96.
54. Donald R. Matthews and James W. Prothro, Negroes and the New Southern Politics (New York, 1966), 233—34.
55. Burgess, Negro Leadership, 155.
56. Ibid., 45.
57. Ladd, Negro Political Leadership, 239.
58. McAdam, Political Process, 129.
61. Myrdal, American Dilemma, 877.
62. Gosnell, Negro Politicians, 94—95.
63. By 1984 the proportion of black respondents reporting church attendance was 42 percent (Religion in America: 1984, Gallup Report No. 22 [March 1984], 57). Even this estimate is probably high.
64. Frazier, Negro Church, 90.
65. Diane Johnson, “Heart of Darkness,” New York Review of Books (April 19, 1979), 3.
66. Frazier, 90. Recently, endorsing the mythology of clerical political leadership, Rev. Clay Evans—a Chicago Baptist pastor and former Operation PUSH board chairman—cited precisely this authoritarianism as a justification. He alleged, “The White church is not as independent as the Black church because the power of the Black church comes from the pulpit. The power of the White church comes from the pews. The Black preacher is freer to do what has to be done. ” Rev. William A. Jones, president of the National Black Pastors’ Conference, in expressing the Jackson phenomenon’s connection with this mythology, was still more direct. In his view, “The Black preacher enjoys the kind of freedom that the White preacher has never known. Hardly any White preacher can go to the pulpit and say vote for this person or that person.” Evans’s and Jones’s comments are quoted in Thad Martin. “The Black Church: Precinct of the Black Soul,” Ebony (August 1984): 158. This article is a paean to the church mythology.
67. Gary T. Marx, “Religion: Opiate or Inspiration of Civil Rights Militancy among Negroes?” American Sociological Review 32 (February 1967): 68.
70. Ibid. , 69. The “not at all religious” respondents were the only cat- egory of whom a majority favored militancy.
72. Ibid., 67.
73. See West’s volume, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia, 1982).
74. For an illustration of Jackson’s politico-religious counsel, see his “Annual Address to the National Baptist Convention. 1964,” in Herbert Storing, ed.. What Country Have I? (New York, 1970), 134—43. Even at that late date Jackson declaimed against direct action. His successor as head of the seven-million-member organization, T. J. Jemison, kept the faith by warmly embracing Reagan less than two months before the 1984 election. See Francis X. Clines, “President Talks to Black Leader,” New York Times (September 11, 1984).
75. It is noteworthy that in its response to persisting economic and political difficulties among black Americans, the Ford Foundation recently has proposed “expanding the capacity of black religious organizations and leadership to engage in new civil rights and community improvement activities,” including community development demonstration projects, “rights education and documentation,” and leadership development. The proposal extends also to incorporating religious institutions into ongoing Ford pro- grams. Although the foundation’s working paper floridly recycles the myth of church-based black leadership, its proposals seem designed to institutionalize a niche for the black clergy in policy processes affecting the Afro- American population. One can only wonder why Ford—which had been so instrumental in defining similar niches for the black administrative and political elite that has become entrenched since the 1960s—should now turn its attention to projecting and shoring up a different, less popularly accountable and programmatically redundant stratum in the black community. See Civil Rights. Social Justice, and Black America: A Working Paper from the Ford Foundation (January 1984), esp. 42—47. On Ford’s role in the development of post—civil rights era black leadership infrastructure, see, for example, Geoffrey Faux and Arthur Blaustein, The Star-Spangled Hustle (Garden City, 1972); Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Garden City, 1969); and David Horowitz and David Kolodney, “The Foundations: Charity Begins at Home,” in Pamela Roby, ed., The Poverty Establishment (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974), 43—59.
76. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Collected Works (New York, 1975), 3: 175-76.
77. Ibid., 176.