June 16, 1999
Examining the Effects of Black Theology
-- Martin E. Marty
Whoever monitors sightings of religion in American public life has no trouble finding examples in African American communities. Black churches are known to be agencies of service, activism, and voting, but not everyone knows what types of religion and what kinds of theology motivate what kinds and degrees of service, activism, and voting. Allison Calhoun-Brown wanted to find out. In "The Image of God: Black Theology and Racial Empowerment in the African American Community" (Review of Religious Research, March 1999), the George State University sociologist presents her findings.
The author claims that this is the first empirical study of the effects of black liberation theology or, simply, "black theology"--an almost thirty-year-old movement--on African American church life. Black theology has held that having black conceptions of God and images of Christ is crucial for empowerment. In a careful but necessarily limited study, Calhoun-Brown reports on responses of church members to questions such as, Are you aware of debates about the color of Christ? Is the issue of these images important? If you do think about the subject, is your Christ black or white?
The findings may surprise many, disappoint "separationist" black theologians, and cheer "integrationist" believers of all races. We note here five of these findings. First, black theology is designed "to politicize Christianity," offer "a theological context for empowerment," and increase "a desire for racial autonomy." This study finds "norelationship between the image of Christ and racial solidarity" and conflicting evidence on other claims and proposals.
Second, "the salience of black theology is significantly limited." Only two-thirds had ever heard of the debate concerning the color of Christ. Of these, only 30 percent imagined Christ as black. Sixty-three percent believe Christ was beyond color. The masses "either are not exposed to [black theology] or do not embrace its major tenets." Third, "the relationship between religion and politics among African Americans is complex"; there are variations wherever one looks.
Fourth, "religion is neither the opiate nor the inspiration for political activity in the African American community. Differing components of religion have different effects," for example, on racial separationist and racial integrationist conceptions, strategies, and outcomes. Yes, African Americans tend to be highly religious, but the observation is interesting only when one follows up with, What kind of religious ideas are important to each? Finally, "the conclusion that religious culture matters to political attitudes and behavior should not be overlooked," says Calhoun-Brown. To learn more, argues this sociologist, we need many more studies of these varieties. Agreed.