Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

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9780674031777: Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion
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Even before the emergence of the civil rights movement with black churches at its center, African American religion and progressive politics were assumed to be inextricably intertwined. In her revelatory book, Barbara Savage counters this assumption with the story of a highly diversified religious community whose debates over engagement in the struggle for racial equality were as vigorous as they were persistent. Rather than inevitable allies, black churches and political activists have been uneasy and contentious partners.From the 1920s on, some of the best African American minds - W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles S. Johnson, and others - argued tirelessly about the churches' responsibility in the quest for racial justice. Could they be a liberal force, or would they be a constraint on progress? There was no single, unified black church but rather many churches marked by enormous intellectual, theological, and political differences and independence. Yet, confronted by racial discrimination and poverty, churches were called upon again and again to come together as savior institutions for black communities.The tension between faith and political activism in black churches testifies to the difficult and unpredictable project of coupling religion and politics in the twentieth century. By retrieving the people, the polemics, and the power of the spiritual that animated African American political life, Savage has dramatically demonstrated the challenge to all religious institutions seeking political change in our time.

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With the recent controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, much attention has been recently paid to the topic of the black church in America. Yet historian Savage shows in her book that "there is no such thing as the black church." Countering the image of a monolithic institution, Savage instead portrays the theological, economic and social diversity within black churches. Through biographical vignettes, Savage spans the 20th-century black religious experience, focusing on the ever-present question African-Americans asked about the role their churches should play in the politics for racial justice. Savage's greatest contribution is her restoration of black women to a central place in black religious experience. Though women formed the vast majority of those in the pews, most historians have focused on the male ministers who led the congregations. Savage argues for the importance of Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among others. A concluding chapter on Barack Obama and Wright smartly observes how Wright himself downplayed black religious diversity to make his defense of the black church.

Here is a book that couldn't be more topical...[Savage] 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.--Barbara Bamberger Scott"Curled Up with a Good Book" (01/01/2009)

Savage recounts the circuitous journey along which black religious sentiment and political ideology have conflicted, converged, and sometimes melded throughout the 20th century. She presents this sociohistorical study chiefly through an engaging series of portraits of individuals who combined African American religious and political sensibilities in innovative ways, including W.E.B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, Benjamin Mays, E. Franklin Frazier, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Nannie Helen Burroughs.--Dann Wigner"Library Journal" (11/01/2008)

The debate about the role and relevance of religion in the social and political lives of African Americans has raged since the days of slavery. Historian Savage focuses on the period from the turn of the twentieth century, a time of tension between science and faith as more and more black Americans sought education and as racial inequalities and exploitation left black Americans as much in need of spiritual succor as ever. As black Americans adjusted to life in urban areas, and to the attendant racial discrimination and segregation, the black church became the only indigenous institution with the stability and influence to effect change within and outside the community, giving rise to the notion of "the black church" despite what was actually a great diversity of religious institutions. Savage focuses on diverse figures from the early 1900s through the current day, including Marcus Garvey, sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, and activist Marian Wright Edelman. She explores changes in how religion has been viewed and how it has been used as a political and social engine as much as for spiritual uplift.--Vanessa Bush"Booklist" (10/01/2008)

Today when black religious leadership and ideas have been thrust into the race for the American presidency, Barbara Savage helps to sift through the myriad and longstanding debates over black religion and politics. In this powerfully written and compelling book, Savage brings profound clarity to the institution that remains at the center of black spiritual and community life.--Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, author of Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church

"Your Spirits Walk Beside Us" marks the beginning of a new history of African American religion, not as a sacred narrative, but as the exciting story of a powerful but ambivalent Christian legacy in African American life. Savage has brilliantly rethought a matter of broad and urgent contemporary significance -- the enduring dilemmas and ambiguities of the African American religious experience amid the demands of modern American political life.--Robert A. Orsi, author of "Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes"

Savage challenges our thinking about a monolithic 'black church' and encourages us to engage with the full diversity and complexity of black religious institutions. A beautifully written, brilliant, and important book, it is both a profound work of history as well as a timely intervention into contemporary politics.--Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of "Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative"

With this brilliant explication of the relationship between African American religious and political life, Barbara Savage dramatically deepens our understanding of the twentieth-century freedom struggle. Hers is a moving and provocative exploration of faith, doubt, and profound commitment.--Kevin Boyle, author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age"

This passionate and incisive analysis of the relationship between twentieth-century black religion and politics reveals the paradoxes as well as the dynamism intrinsic to black church culture. It is a major accomplishment.--Wallace Best, author of "Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago"

About the Author:

Barbara Dianne Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania.

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