The Christian church plays a significant role in the lives of Black people across the United States. 97 percent of Black adults believe in God or a higher power and 60 percent of religious Black Americans attend predominantly Black congregations. Religion and Christianity are common themes in works by Black novelists like Toni Morrison and Jericho Brown, and Black gospel music has directly influenced other mainstream genres, including soul and R&B. As churches have fulfilled certain spiritual and cultural needs for Black people, mutual aid groups have worked to serve the community in similar ways, providing needed community support and resources. Networks providing access to community fridges, parental education, and other social services have sprung up in marginalized communities across the country and gained increased attention since the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these mutual aid networks additionally operate with socialist and/or Marxist ideology at the center of their work. Contrary to this truth, however, is a commonly held notion that leftist ideology cannot incorporate faith, with many citing a line where Marx writes that religion is “the opium of the people.” Though the church and leftist groups both serve as unifiers for the Black community, there are often questions surrounding the extent to which they can intersect, especially considering their sometimes conflicting views. Despite this, the Black Church and leftist movements need each other to serve the needs of Black people and fight against oppression.
Historically, churches have acted as safe havens and meeting spaces for political and social organizing within the Black community. During the antebellum period, enslaved Black people combined traditional African songs and practices with Christianity to spread messages of freedom and resistance without white slave owner understanding. The Free African Society, the first established Black mutual aid group, was founded in 1787 to help African-Americans gain access to social services. While the organization itself was secular, it subsequently inspired the creation of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which similarly promoted pro-abolition and anti-segregation beliefs.
The church continued to play a significant role in Black resistance and protest throughout the 20th century. During the Civil Rights Movement, African-American churches across the south worked with groups such as SNCC and CORE to help organize sit-ins and serve as meeting places for organizers and community members. In perhaps the most well-known example of the Black Church’s involvement in politics, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and used his sermons to discuss political issues pertaining to race and segregation. In these instances, the church helped to specifically promote values of non-violent protesting that are associated with the Civil Rights Movement. It should be noted, though, that the Black Power movement—a simultaneously occurring movement which did not shy away from using violence and more radical organizing tactics—was supported by the Black Church as well.
The Black Panther Party, a Black nationalist and socialist group founded in 1966 in response to the prevalence of police brutality in their communities, operated a series of “survival programs” meant to serve the Black community. One of their largest programs, the Free Breakfast for Children Program, first operated out of a room in St. Augustine’s Episcopal church in Oakland, California. Father Earl Neil served an essential role in arranging the logistics of the program and recognized the importance of this mutual aid work, not letting the Panther’s beliefs in armed resistance deter him or his church from working with them. Churches not only aided socialist groups in their initiatives, but also directly integrated leftist ideology into their sermons. Decades before the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, George Washington Woodbey, a prominent Black socialist, preached at Mount Zion Baptist Church in San Diego. In his sermons, he argued that Christianity and socialism could co-exist, and used the church as means to spread socialist messaging while critiquing Booker T. Washington’s “Capitalist Argument for the Negro.” Without the help of the church, these leftist initiatives could not have been carried out to such a large extent or reached the same amount of people they did.
Today, Black churches across the country continue to engage with mutual aid initiatives while increasing numbers of pastors are combining their faith with political ideologies to promote ideas of Black liberation and Black theology. Westbury United Methodist Church, a predominantly Black church in Houston, Texas, opened their doors to those displaced by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, despite their facilities sustaining damages from the storm. In 2020, Westbury United Methodist, along with fifteen other churches in the area, converted their buildings into “sanctuaries of learning,” providing free breakfast, WiFi, and computers for children of essential workers. Similarly, Ebenezer Baptist Church (EBC) in Atlanta says they “embody the mission of Jesus Christ through service-filled lives that work to feed the poor, liberate the oppressed, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick or imprisoned” as a key aspect of their philosophy. Senator Raphael Warnock, the current Senior Pastor of EBC, supports health care expansion, increased rights for Black and rural farmers, and ending voter suppression, all of which he integrates into his sermons.
While these churches and pastors recognize and provide for the social, physical, and spiritual needs of their communities, some still experience backlash for their practices. Jeremiah Wright, a Black theologian and former minister to Barack Obama, received national attention for radical comments made during some of his past sermons, specifically those pertaining to the United States’s acts of genocide, terrorism, and systemic oppression. Subject to attacks from the media and general public, Obama resigned from his church and publically distanced himself from Wright.
Despite the backlash that some radical churches and clergy members have received, the church remains essential not only to Black leftist movements, but the Black community more generally. With so many Black Americans having some form of engagement with the church, particularly older generations, combining political messaging with Christian practices allows for leftist engagement with a significant portion of the Black community while still preserving some familiar religious values. Moreover, mainstream conversations about Christianity’s relationship to politics often center around white, conservative narratives that critique the church for influencing legislation and hold it responsible for regressive social policies. With just one search of the phrase “Christian government” into Twitter, one is met with a sea of recent Tweets about white Christian nationalism and the Republican party. Only focusing on this aspect of Christianity and politics, however, ignores a centuries-long history of Black people using the church as means of resistance, empowerment, and a community resource when government authorities refused to help. The Black Church is inherently political and leftist ideologies can and should co-exist with religious spaces. Placing emphasis on churches’ mutual aid initiatives, radical pastors and sermons, and the general intersection of faith and Black political movements is a step towards better understanding the liberation of Black people and pushes back against a whitewashing of Christianity and politics.