Q&A: How the relationship between African-American churches and social justice activism is evolving
Marla Frederick once wanted to be a lawyer. But in college, she fell in love with discussing religion, reveling in opportunities to debate with her closest friends about how Christianity applied to their lives and whether Islam was the true religion.
“By the time I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to study anthropology. And based on all these conversations I had been having with my friends, I knew I wanted to study African-American religion,” she said.
More than 20 years later, Frederick is still studying, writing and reflecting on how faith affects the African-American community. She’s a professor of African and African-American studies and religion at Harvard University and the author of Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith.
Her latest book, which was released in January, explores how African-American and white women televangelists have become international celebrities. She also investigates the relationship between the media, race and religion in an upcoming project, Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment, which she coauthored with two other religion scholars.
Frederick discussed social justice activism in African-American churches and the core concerns guiding the lives of her students.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What issues are on the minds of the young people you’re teaching and meeting with? What are they concerned about?
Marla Frederick: I think students are really interested in questions around race and religion. And even questions around activism. For example, the ways in which religion is increasingly seen as infused with racial undertones and how race influences how religious communities think about politics.
Students are also interested in issues of gender. These are great conversations to have, especially about women’s roles in religious communities.
I think they’re emphasizing cross-cultural and interreligious dialogue. Our world is so diverse now, and the U.S. in particular. Students are trying to figure out how to have meaningful religious dialogues.
June 17 marks the first anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, which affected one of America’s oldest black congregations. How do violence and religion interact in the African-American community?
African-Americans in the church have historically resisted violence. The nonviolent movement during the civil rights era was really an attempt to hold a mirror up to white Christians and white Christianity and call them to a higher moral ground. (The Rev. Martin Luther) King’s message and the work of the men and women who followed him emphasized nonviolence.
But people can also look back in history and find people like Nat Turner who were willing to use violence in an attempt to assert their personhood and right to life.
During the civil rights era, there was a link between social justice activism in the streets and worship in African-American churches. Is that same dynamic at play today?
Yes and no. The long answer is yes. There are still churches that are heavily involved in social justice work and issues like mass incarceration, economic inequality and how women and men are going to feed their children from day to day.
But I think what has happened — and I write about this in “Colored Television” — is that the church has moved away from using the media to highlight inequity and toward using televangelism to focus on individual redemption.
Today, one’s social and economic security is seen as responsibility of the individual. Collective action is not necessarily a focus of that work.
There’s a sense that if you as an individual believe that you can achieve X, Y and Z, then you as an individual can achieve it. But the focus used to be on a collective organizing effort that ensured the entire community received opportunity.
Some have argued that young people today view social justice activism as their religion and avoid membership in a faith community. Have you observed that trend among your students?
The church as a whole is having a problem retaining young people. This is happening across denominations and communities of faith. People are becoming more spiritual than religious.
At the same time, I think faith still has a role to play in social organizing and activism.
I have been most impressed with the Moral Mondays campaign of the NAACP in North Carolina. The pastor who has been leading it, Willie Barber, has challenged communities to become more involved and vocal about legislation that is passed.
I think that kind of work has resonated with young people. You do see young people participating in that kind of movement.
How are African-American congregations getting involved in the presidential election?
I think churches at large are paying attention to election season. I don’t know if African-American churches are unique.
Even churches that presume they aren’t political signal to their congregations about the issues that are on God’s heart. Sermons on particular topics like abortion, economics or mass incarceration help the congregation decide which issues are the moral issues they should be voting on.
So many people are well-attuned to this election cycle and committed to participating in it. They see the stakes as very high.
You’ve recently wrapped up two book projects. What do you hope to study next?
There are a couple of issues that I’m interested in working on, such as women and gender issues in religion.
I also want to focus on historically black colleges and universities, and the religious histories and foundations of these institutions.
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