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Religion and race: “Preserving a sense of the black community’s very identity”

In honor of Black History Month, we wrap up our series with a conversation with assistant professor Daniel Bare about the role of race and religion in the African American community.

By Alix Poth ’18

To wrap up Black History Month, Daniel Bare, assistant professor in Religious Studies, provides us with fresh insight on the interaction of religion and race in American society — and particularly in African American communities. From him, we learn of the irreplaceable role religion has played in preserving and shaping the collective identity of the black community. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

 


1. What is your specific area of research?

I am a scholar of American religious history, focusing on the interplay between religion and race in the United States. My research centers on the ways in which similar theological identities and affiliations have manifested across different racial contexts (especially between white and black Protestants). My research examines how both racial context and religious conviction helped shape individual and group identities. In particular, the topic I have focused on is Protestant fundamentalist religion and its expressions in the black community. I examine how the fundamentalism was expressed and manifested in black Protestant circles from the mid-1910s through the early 1940s. 

 

2. What made you interested in this research?

I was interested in the disjunciton between “conservative” and “liberal” Christian groups because, having grown up in the “Bible Belt,” I had observed these sorts of divisions firsthand. At the same time, however, my studies confronted me with the centrality of race and racial identity as a major factor in the unfolding story of American history and American religion over the centuries. So, as I began reading more and more historical literature about fundamentalism in the early 20th century, it struck me that there was rarely consideration of racial minority communities at all. While the fundamentalists claimed to be representing the age-old tradition of the universal church, analysis of the movement seemed to stop at the color line. 

Yet, I wondered, given that the black Protestant community also included plenty of theologically conservative people, wouldn’t at least some of them adopt fundamentalism within their own racially-specific context? As I began to explore this, I discovered that not only were there discussions about fundamentalism going on in the black community of the time, but there were numerous people preaching fundamentalist messages and, at times, identifying themselves explicitly as fundamentalists. And while many of the ideas central to fundamentalism remained consistent across racial lines, the way that these black fundamentalists functioned, and most especially the applications that they drew from their fundamentalist doctrines, were at times substantially different from their white counterparts. This topic piqued my interest enough to form the basis of my research.

 

3. How does your work relate to the promotion of diversity and inclusion on campus?

The study of history – whether we’re talking about research, writing, or teaching – is always about trying to understand people and groups who are different, in some significant way, than ourselves.

This is most obviously true because our subjects are typically from another time altogether. Even the one-century gap that separates us from the people I have researched for my book – a mere blink of the eye – represents such a radical difference in terms of cultural expectations, technology, social cues, standard of living, philosophical assumptions, and so on. The historical craft requires that we try, as much as possible, to bridge those gaps, to understand our subjects’ context, and to see through their eyes.

On a simply practical level, this is a disposition that we can and should be teaching our students to employ in their lives here-and-now – to try to listen to others in our community who offer different perspectives from our own, and to seek to understand why they see the world as they do. That is, in fact, a major goal not only in my research but also in my teaching.

With respect to my research more particularly, one of the themes that I address is how cultural context (specifically racial context, in this case) can shape religious expression, and vice-versa. In a cultural moment when political tensions seem to be ever rising, and many of the conflicts in that realm involve questions of race or religion, I hope my work can encourage students in our community from all sorts of different backgrounds to seriously consider how and why other members of the campus community may think differently than they do.

 

4. Your focus is “the intersections of religion and race as two of the most prominent cultural forces in American history.” Can you give a brief explanation of what this means?

This means that in American history, both racial identity and religious identity have deeply and profoundly shaped how people think about themselves, as well as how American society itself is structured.

The historical significance of race in structuring elements of American society is evident, with obvious examples like race-based slavery and decades of Jim Crow segregation; religious categories have likewise shaped American social and political expressions, from the widespread socio-political opposition to Mormonism in the 19th century to the American government’s “Civil Religion” that still infuses political discourse to this day. Given the significance of these categories in American history, I try to examine how they combine or interact with one another. For instance, how does a common religious perspective impact people’s interactions across racial lines (for instance, between a black Baptist and a white Baptist)? And conversely, how does a common racial background impact interactions across religious lines (say, between a black Baptist and a black Catholic)?

 

5. What implications do these intersections hold for African Americans today? For American society as a whole?

I think the implication for all of American society is that we need to recognize that individuals are exceedingly complex. There are a lot of factors that influence how and why people think of themselves the way that they do. I study two very important factors – religion and race – but these are by no means exhaustive. And even within my relatively narrow research focus, I have found plenty of historical figures within the black community, for instance, who conceived of the relationship between race and religion in different ways, and therefore arrived at radically different social and religious conclusions. Again, I think this points back to the importance of honestly listening to the diverse array of voices around us so that we can try to understand why others think the way they do.

 

6. Why is it important to remember African American religious history, especially today?

Religious history is an indispensible element of the American story. Without it we lose a great deal of the meaning of history, because religion is a persistent reality – not only in the United States, but in the human experience as a whole.

This applies to the history of African Americans as much as any other group; just think about the central role that religious expression and organizations have played in the black community’s struggles against oppression and injustice over the centuries. From the spiritual power of the hush harbors, to Richard Allen’s involvement in the first National Negro Convention meeting, to the divergent civil-rights approaches modeled by religious figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, any accounting of African American history that ignores or trivializes its religious contours is bound to be dizzyingly imbalanced.

 

7. What overarching role has religion played in the African American identity?

For more than two centuries, much of the African-American experience was inextricably bound up with firsthand experiences of enslavement and subjugation, and religion was a substantial way for African-American slaves to not only cope with their oppression but also to resist – to assert their own humanity in the face of a system designed to dehumanize them.

As African-American ecclesiastical bodies arose – both in the antebellum era, as with Richard Allen’s A.M.E. Church, and in the post-Civil War era – these churches represented opportunities for autonomy, for communal expression, and for organizing both religious and political activity within the community. For instance, the first A.M.E. church – Richard Allen’s “Mother Bethel” in Philadelphia – also housed the first National Negro Convention meeting in September 1830, which drew delegates from nine states to discuss issues facing the black community in America. Thus, black religion (and particularly black church tradition) has been a vehicle not only for transmitting religious and theological convictions, but also for shaping and preserving a sense of the black community’s very identity.

 

8. Why do you think it is important to study and celebrate Black History Month, especially now?

As an American historian, it is critical to study black history as an essential and indissoluble part of the history of America as a whole. Black History Month most certainly helps to raise the visibility of African Americans’ contributions throughout our nation’s history. At the same time, it is also important that we not circumscribe the study of black history to only a few weeks in February. The experiences and contributions of African Americans to the sweep of American history ought to figure into our classrooms all year long – a goal that I strive to achieve in teaching American history.

 


Daniel Bare’s current book project, Black Fundamentalists: Protestant Fundamentalism and Racial Identity in the African American Community, 1915-1940, is under contract with NYU Press. Learn more about Bare’s work here