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Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion
Barbara Dianne Savage
Belknap Press, 2008
368 pp., $29.50
Curtis J. Evans
What Black Church? What Black Politics?
Barbara Savage's book appears at an opportune moment. In the wake of the 2008 presidential election, most Americans will have only one thing in mind when they hear a reference to "the politics of black religion." It will be, of course, the relationship between a prominent black preacher, Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church in Chicago, and his most famous parishioner, Barack Obama. During the campaign a great deal of public talk emerged about the politics of black religion, though even a moment's thought should have raised questions about the unhelpful assumptions at play concerning a singular black religion or a singular politics practiced by black churches. The superficiality of those assumptions opens the door to what this book wants to say.
Although Savage devotes a chapter to the Obama/Wright controversy, her book is primarily about how the civil rights struggle distorted our understanding of the relationship between black churches and politics. She argues that we have come to see the past "through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness." By examining the dominant narrative of black churches and their political work, which in the decades before 1960 was viewed overwhelmingly as a failed project, Savage shows how better history might provide more modest expectations about what churches can contribute to the political sphere.
Savage makes three main points to demonstrate that the "nexus between black religion and politics" has necessarily been a strained one. First, she notes that the choices that people make about their religious lives are the most privately informed and freely made, thus making it very difficult for black churches to "provide the ideological cohesion needed for collective political mobilization." Second, black churches, as overwhelmingly Protestant institutions, are among the most local, decentralized, and idiosyncratic of social organizations. Therefore, Savage convincingly claims that there is no such thing as "the black church." The ...