R. Drew Smith, editor. New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8223-3131-4. x +304 pages. Reviewed by Anthony B. Pinn, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
After a general overview of black church political engagement in the decades since the civil rights movement, the book is divided into three parts with the first providing introductory commentary on the historical shape and logic behind black church involvement in civic life. Although the authors make use of recent studies, readers will not find new explanations offered here. Findings are highly compatible with the historical sensibilities and theological rationales noted by Lincoln and Mamiya more than a decade ago.
|". . . Baldwin suggests that black churches, because of their cultural environment had no choice but to involve themselves in activities typically considered secular.."|
The first piece, Lewis Baldwin's “Revisiting the ‘All-Comprehending Institution': Historical Reflections on the Public Roles of Black Churches” makes use of the popular “this-worldly vs. other worldly” paradigm to frame his discussion of black church activism. He holds that it is important to recognize a creative tension between these two positions as the impetus for the civic engagement of black churches. As is commonly argued, Baldwin suggests that black churches, because of their cultural environment had no choice but to involve themselves in activities typically considered secular. Could the only institution for and by black Americans be expected to only address theological centered questions and concerns? Baldwin argues for a wholistic approach to ministry as being representative of the best of black church history, while recognizing the slide of contemporary black churches into a conservatism or form of fundamentalism that challenges explicit political engagements, favoring instead a strong spiritual rhetoric.
Allison Calhoun-Brown's essay, “What a Fellowship: Civil Society, African American Churches, and Public Life,” mirror's Baldwin's appreciation for the historically significant engagement of black churches with sociopolitical and economic questions. Yet, while Baldwin's approach involves historical survey, Calhoun-Brown is concerned with black church activism viewed from the perspective of civic society theory. There is a central question guiding much of her discussion: Does involvement in churches reinforce the social order, as civic society theories would suggest, or do black churches raise other possibilities, influencing social capital, for example? The author concludes that churches will most likely remain involved in issues of civil rights, yet the conservative teachings of most black churches will continue to make involvement in issues related to civil liberties and human rights less likely.
The final chapter in the first section, “System Confidence, Congregational Characteristics, and Black Church Civic Engagement,” by R. Drew Smith and Corwin Smidt gives attention to trends with respect to black churches' public life, noting a duality - this worldly vs. other-worldly concerns - as the primary conceptual framework. They argue that church activism, heavily tied to electoral politics, is strongly influenced not by a general critique of American political practices and positions, but rather by the resources of a particular congregation.
The findings in these three chapters are not particularly surprising. However, what is a bit more unexpected is the rather flat depiction of black church identity formation. That is to say, these essays, while offering intriguing ideas, do not provide a thick or complex sense of the collective consciousness that frames black church thought (theology) and activity that a reader familiar with black church studies might anticipate. Little mention is made of the more negative dimension of black church identity and self-perception such as sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, as well as a general reluctance to address the erotic (in a Tillichian sense) that give some shape to the nature and scope of black churches, public personae and activism. Furthermore, one might expect some mention of the changing context of black churches through the process of globalization. From the early missionary efforts to more recent political developments, does not globalization factor into the manner in which black churches not only understand themselves and their function? In other words, readers who seek a thick depiction of black Christian identity as the underpinning for such a book will not find a sustained effort to problematize the nature and formation of black church identity. More specifically, the type of attention to recent developments in black theological discourse might have fostered.
The second section of the book also contains four chapters that are collectively concerned with black churches, civic identity and civic positionality. David Howard-Pitney's essay addresses this topic by posing a question: In what ways do black churches participate in American civil religion, and in what sense has their participation served to shape American civil religion? The author argues that African American religion's (in this case Christian) connection to civil religion involves an embrace of its theist sensibilities and critical engagement with social developments that are both prophetic and progressive, idealistic and pragmatic. In short, the black church tradition engages civil religion to the extent that it enables hope for the future in general and in terms of the needs of black America in particular, using Alan Keyes and Jesse Jackson as models. One might think that the author's recognition of engagement at the level of theist sensibilities (i.e., God's involvement in history) and the prophetic would raise prime theological questions such as theodicy. Yet readers will discover that the pressing nature of theodicy in light of this concern for hope (framed in terms of the “African-American Jeremiad”) does not elicit any sustained attention to the theodical question that undoubtedly also serves to shape black churches engagement of civil religion.
Walter Fluker's article, “Recognition, Respectability, and Loyalty: Black Churches and the Quest for Civility,” takes the more general approach to civil religion offered by Howard Pitney by giving attention to the nature of civility within the context of conflict between the claims of faith and the “entrapments of race and ideology” that often mark the nation. He argues that black churches have worked to bridge the tension between these two - faith and nation - particularly as it relates to the notion of blacks as the American dilemma, in and through political organizing and participation. It is only when one combines Calhoun-Brown's first essay with Fluker's that one gets an adequate sense of the deficiencies that mark black church thought and practice. Without this sense of internal deficiencies, it becomes easy to believe that the only battles black churches need to fight are externally oriented and motivated. Still, readers might wonder why there is not more sustained attention given to the issues that effect the “influence” of black churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly as they relate to technology, globalization, and the new forms by which black bodies are commodified.
Even Calhoun-Brown's second essay in the book, “'No Respect of Persons': Religion, Churches, and Gender Issues in the African American Community,” fails to break new ground with respect to issues of sexism and black churches. True, the connections between gender equality and conservative Christianity should be noted, but what about the warped notions of relationship (the erotic in a certain sense) that dominate black churches and make the embrace of the more troubling social norms possible? This essay seems to leave heterosexism in place, and more solidly places the critique of gender discrimination at the feet of black theology (which does not play a major role in the development of black church thought and ritual and is discussed absent its complexities) as opposed to black churches in more general terms. The critique is rather limited. Further, it does not raise questions concerning the very construction of gender and how black churches continue the process of regulation that run contrary to black church involvement in public life and civic transformation. Calhoun-Brown offers an important thickness and complexity to the public life and activities of black churches. Yet, it remains unclear how black churches, as James Cone notes, actually serve to save “souls” and “bodies.”
Such considerations would have also been interesting to entertain in David Daniel's essay addressing the personalist orientation of holiness and Pentecostal churches. That is to say, the hard questions related to the relevance of black churches are left unasked. For example, are there not ways in which this attention to the public sphere raises questions concerning the nature of black theology (and its connection to black churches) that is often mentioned during the book in passing? Why no attention by the authors to black theology as a public discourse, a public theology, in keeping with the civic engagement and public positioning of black churches? C. R. D. Halisi, I believe, points in this direction in subtle ways when discussing the nature of the African American nationalist tradition - the black republicanism of Edward Blyden - in the last chapter of the book's second section, particularly with respect to the case studies dealing with several ministers. Yet, it might have been interesting to bring this discussion of nationalism and its major thematics and aesthetic in conversation within the work recently done by Eddie Glaude in order to give more visibility to the complexities and sensibilities marking Christian nationalism.
The final section addresses the heated issues of community development corporations and faith-based initiatives. The book does not take a stand, but rather presents both sides of the argument - noting the ways in which CDC's and the faith-based initiatives allow churches of various sizes to more productively work within their communities. Yet as Samuel Roberts notes, churches that receive federal government support run the risk of compromising their mission based on governmental sensibilities and requirements.
Having read the book, it remains somewhat unclear what it means to speak of post-civil rights black churches within the context of the public beyond the frameworks and assumptions articulated during the civil rights movement. That is to say, what does it mean for black churches to exist as viable, public institutions within the twenty-first century? What does it mean theologically and ritually black churches to “go” public? Attention to the survey materials that undergird this book is important. Still, these questions stem from the manner in which the book, while thoughtful, does not give consideration to the impact that civic culture engagement has in terms not only of programmatic consequences, but also on aesthetics, theology, and rituals. While the book promises attention to such areas, and should have provided based on the interdisciplinary nature of the text, the discussion of these factors will not extend beyond what most careful readers already know through an engagement of recent works in black and womanist theologies and cultural studies.
Even in light of the questions I raise, this is a useful extension of the project presented by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya. Advanced students of the study of African American religion will find it an important addition to their libraries.
Anthony B. Pinn, Rice University
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