Challenging assumptions

Barbara Savage, professor of historyPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo


After years of research and another few years of writing, Barbara Savage was pretty sure by last fall that she was finally close to finishing up her second book—a probing history of the delicate, often contentious relationship between African-American religion and African-American politics.
Then current events intervened.

Just as Savage was ready to put the project to bed, there came news out of Chicago about some fairly controversial comments made by a little-known preacher by the name of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And Wright just happened to be pastor of the church attended by Sen. Barack Obama.

Savage quickly realized her work was not over.
“I was just finishing the tail end of this book when that debate emerged, and I kind of felt like they were walking into a story that I was already telling,” says Savage, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in Penn’s Department of History. “So I do have a chapter in the book about Obama and Wright because I felt I had to write about it.”

The Obama-Wright episode serves as the concluding chapter in “Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion,” and fittingly so: In some ways, says Savage, the controversy over Wright’s comments and his relationship to Obama clearly illustrates the long-simmering debate within the African-American community about what role, if any, religious leaders and religion should play in mainstream politics.

The Current recently sat down with Savage to discuss the book, the Wright affair and the long history leading up to it.

Q. You began your career as a lawyer. What drew you back to academia, and history?
A.
I’ve always had an interest in history and I’ve always had an interest in politics. When you work in Washington, you can often be in a position where you do a lot of writing, but you’re always writing for somebody else. You’re ghosting or editing what other people have written. I sort of got to the point where I thought I had something I wanted to say. I was particularly interested in African-American history and African-American political history. Both of my books … have a common thread of being interested in the empowerment of African-American people and the ways in which they and their allies have gone about that struggle, but in different realms and different ways. That’s still the driving motivation in my teaching and in my research and writing.

Q. Your new book is about the relationship between African-American religion and politics. Where did the idea for the book come from?
A.
The idea actually came about as I was finishing my first book, which often happens. That first book was about the 1940s, and right at the end of that project, I discovered that there was quite a bit of criticism toward African-American preachers and churches just before the Civil Rights Movement begins, and that a great deal of criticism of the churches and preachers was about them being passive, for not being actively engaged in politics. This was criticism that was coming from other religious leaders, and it caught me unawares. When you study the Civil Rights Movement, you get into this notion that religion and politics are intertwined for African Americans—that it’s kind of been an easy and reinforcing relationship. So the book began, really, as an attempt to figure out where this criticism was coming from, how prevalent it was, and what that would tell us about the larger questions in African-American history.

Q. And what did you find?
A.
What I found, almost immediately, was that this was not at all an unusual critique. If anything, it was a fairly consistent one. There had been a raging debate among African Americans for years about whether religion was politically helpful or a political impediment—whether churches ought to be involved in politics or preachers ought to be involved in politics. The book is really an attempt to trace those debates and argue for their continued importance. Because I think we’ve seen in the just-concluded election, the same kind of debate emerge as it did between President-elect Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Wright.

Q. Was anything about the Obama-Wright controversy surprising to you?
A.
It didn’t surprise me very much at all. This is one of those things that is a product of the post-Civil Rights era, which is an emergence of so many elected black officials, like Obama and many, many others, who unlike politicians in prior periods were not themselves preachers or religious leaders. That is really a fairly dramatic change post-1968. Once you have that division between black elected officials and religious leaders in terms of the embodiment of that [leadership] role, it really sort of plants a seed for the kind of conflict we saw. ... When the debate between Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright emerged, what was clear was that Wright took very seriously his sense of call as somebody who was serving a church that is very active in the community, and very much engaged in political issues, but also saw himself as a critic of the state, and a critic of what he saw as the shortcomings of the federal government. But if you’re running to be President of the United States, if you want to take over the reigns of the government, you’re in a very different position than someone like Rev. Wright.

Q. How did you feel about the media coverage?
A.
The way it was covered was really unfortunate. ... What I talk about in the book is the National Press Club interview that Rev. Wright did. Now, his speech [at the Club] was actually an extraordinary speech—a really excellent recapitulation of African-American history, African-American religion and politics. But nobody remembers the speech, because immediately afterward, the reporters there basically went right to their notebooks and asked the questions that they had walked into the room with. It infuriated him. He didn’t handle that very well, and that’s where all the coverage was. But he had made very strong arguments, I think trying to counter the notion that Sen. Obama had used—that Wright was a relic of the black power era, a time gone, and that it was time to move on. Wright was very effective at linking himself to a much longer trajectory.

Q. There seems to be a widespread assumption that the so-called “black church” is not only by rule politically active, but also by rule politically progressive.
A.
I think we have to move away from the assumption that there is anything we should even refer to as a monolithic black church, simply because of the enormous diversity among black Christians—the enormous diversity that exists in believers and theology and institutions, and part of that diversity is a difference of opinion on this question: Whether churches ought to be involved in politics. There are people who believe that being involved in electoral politics and patronage politics is innately corrupting, that is part of the world and that no good can come from it. Then there are others, and Wright would place himself in that position, who see that it’s the responsibility of churches to reach out and help the poor and to make sure there are policies in place that benefit the poor. And then there’s everything in between.

Q. Did you discover anything particularly surprising in your work?
A.
I think the thing that did surprise me was ... how decentralized and out of anybody’s control African-American religious institutions are. So the idea that the black church could be expected to do anything in concert or in coalition is just a very difficult project. The other thing that I think is now creeping into our popular knowledge but is a surprise to me was … how few African-American churches and how few African-American leaders were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. They represented a minority and were seen as a very radical minority, and that includes Martin Luther King himself. I think we have to give credit to those who were involved, but in fact, at the time, we’re talking about a very small minority of churches and leaders who were willing to take that stand.

Q. For the majority who did not want to be involved in the movement, what was their reasoning?
A.
Primarily, they did not want to be involved in politics at all. The thinking was that it was not the business of the church to be involved in national politics. If you go back and read the press coverage of, say, the Montgomery bus boycott, you look at The New York Times and there is kind of surprise that a Southern black minister would be identified with anything as rebellious as leading a boycott. The prevailing stereotypes are the ones I write about—in terms of black preachers being apolitical, or passive, or being the most conservative voices in the community.

Q. So after King’s death, what happened? How was that vacuum filled?
A.
What you see is the emergence of black theology, which we heard a lot about in the Wright incident. You find a number of black theologians who are trying to reposition Christianity to compete at a time when Black Nationalism and black power is on the rise, and so again, they try to recast black Christianity as being aggressive, and powerful, and not being a weakening force. But you also have the emergence of black elected officials, and African Americans having access to the vote in the South and the North for the first time, so you get a whole new class of black leadership at the state, local and national level, and that changes African-American politics. The preacher-politician still exists in this period, but you have alternatives. You get many black elected officials who have strong relationships with the church, but are not themselves coming out of the church in the same way as we saw during the Civil Rights Movement. And Obama, to me, is the end of that story—a state legislator, worked his way up to the Senate, and then the Presidency. That’s the dream, right?

Q. What is the relationship between African-American religion and politics today?
A.
I’d say it’s probably a relationship of great mutual respect. African-American churches remain the prime places to reach and organize voters. African-American churches are still the strongest and most present black institution, the most ubiquitous black institution. It’s difficult to imagine a black politician, or at least any politician representing a black community, not having some kind of interaction with the African-American church leadership. They have to. … What I argue in the book is that this really speaks to the dearth of other black institutions, and as long as that’s the case, these churches will hold on to that kind of central place in politics.

Originally published Jan. 8, 2009

Originally published on January 8, 2009