“the Religious” and (is?) “the Political,” or, why the Nation of Islam bamboozles my students

My latest on Religion in American History, a pedagogical rumination on failures to communicate and teaching the line between the “religious” and “political,” so-called.


What we usually call “the religious” and “the political” have been practically inseparable in my course on African American religions this semester. After all, how can students think about practices, communities, institutions, and experiences born in no small part of involuntary migration and servitude – born of Atlantic world empire and slavery – without thinking about power, governance, and resistance? I would venture to guess that this is true of many (maybe most) courses on American religions and it carries special weight in African American religious studies. One way I tried to impress this upon my students was through a discussion of Eddie Glaude’s “very short introduction” to African American Religion (Oxford, 2014). In it, Glaude argues that, if the category is to have any usefulness, the study of “African American religion” must be more than simply the study of the ways African Americans happen to be religious. Instead, Glaude draws on J.Z. Smith and others to insist that

“African American religion is the invention of scholars who, with particular aims and purposes, seek to describe, analyze, and theorize the religious practices of African Americans under a particular racial regime [white supremacy in the United States]” (8).

Glaude’s approach, as well as that of my course, thus “assumes that the political and social context in the United States is a necessary though not sufficient condition of any study of something called African American religion” (7). To this end, we have examined and entered into debates about the inseparability of Christianity, slavery, and slave revolt; imaginings of “Africa” and the construction of African American (religious) identity; and black churches as a counter-public sphere, among other topics. All this is to say that, for my students and myself, the realms of “the religious” and “the political” have never been far from each other.

Then we came to the Nation of Islam and these blurred boundaries were built back up in no time. What better example, I had thought, of the impossibility of separating the religious from the political than the Nation of Islam (NOI)? Yet our discussion of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, along with other “black gods of the Metropolis” as Arthur Huff Fauset termed them, revealed that students were not completely comfortable callinNOI Fruit of Islamg the Black Muslim movement “religious.” What they read about the NOI struck them as more “political” and “cultural” than “spiritual.” What they saw in the images I provided, such as this one of the Fruit of Islam, seemed to militate against (pun intended) their instinctive understanding of “the religious.” When I asked them to categorize “the religious” – to better articulate what they thought the NOI contained less of – the words brainstormed included morals, belief, worship, faith, and, again, spiritual. Once these words were on the board and out in the open, so to speak, students seemed to waver a bit in their initial assessments. The NOI did, of course, include all of these things. Their point had been made, however. The NOI challenged their working definitions of “religion,” particularly with regard to the boundaries between what constitutes “the religious” and what constitutes “the political.” It left them, in short, bamboozled. Continue reading

Free Associate with Me

Here’s my latest post on Religion in American History, where I take you into my first day of class in the History of African American Religious Experiences and we explore the most prevalent images and ideas about “African American religion.”


I currently have the pleasure to be teaching African American religious history for the first time and, as I do with most of my classes, I began the semester with an exercise in free association. Since my objective is always to press my students to think critically – with specificity, sophistication, self-reflection – about “religion,” the exercise serves at least two purposes. It makes all of us in the classroom aware of the working conceptions and definitions of religion (and religions and religious) we carry with us, though most of the time we don’t stop to name them. But it also – and this is what is the most fun for me as a scholar-teacher – provides a preliminary map of some of the most popular and pervasive images and ideas about a particular topic.

What first comes to mind when you hear “African American religion”? The map my students made included “awesome choirs,” Baptist, T.D. Jakes, “instrument of liberation,” music, Christianity, and Martin Luther King. As you can see, the words that sprang to mind tended to have one thing in common: they were, in varying degrees, associated with “the Black Church.” (Though, I’m happy to note that Nation of Islam and “voodoo” did make the list.)

I’m sure this revelation surprises few, if any, of you – those words may be akin to what first came to your mind, or, they may be what you would have expected to hear from most students. They certainly corresponded with the results of a quick Google search (because yes, of course I Googled “African American religion”). My students and I catalogued the images Google produced for this search and quickly noticed the preponderance of Christian churches, choirs in exuberant son, preachers exhorting crowds, and bodies (especially women’s bodies) in motion. Wikipedia ostensibly has two entries on “African American religion.” The entry on “Afro-American religion” will introduce readers to a chart of African diasporic religious traditions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans. If you want to learn about the religious life of African-descended peoples in the United States (beyond New Orleans), you’ll have to see “Religion in Black America” instead. There, aside from one use of the word “Catholic” and an odd sentence noting how the Nation of Islam eventually “added a Muslim factor,” what you will find is a history of Black evangelical Christianity.

Now, apart from illustrating why we admonish students not to rely on Wikipedia as their sole source of information, and apart from suggesting a fun digital class assignment to edit the pages themselves, what I found most fascinating about our exercise is that it confirmed what many African American religious studies scholars have been arguing for the past decade or so – what is meant by “African American religion” is usually “African American Christianity” and, more specifically, the collective institution of “the Black Church,” and that this concept is burdened and overdetermined in a number of ways. Continue reading

Both Black and Catholic (?)

Here’s my most recent post on Religion in American History, where I offer some musings around my lecture at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies (Xavier University of Louisiana) coming up on Monday, November 10th.


My post today falls in the “shameless plug” category.  I am due to lecture at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana on Monday, November 10th.  The title of my talk is “Black Catholics from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” something I have thought quite a bit about for the past few years.  Nevertheless (or, perhaps precisely for this reason), I’ve been struggling to capture the full significance of this story in just 45 minutes.  So my post today offers some of the musings that have been running on repeat in the back of my mind as I prepare to share this story.

What has it meant to be both Black and Catholic in the United States?  The tension between – or, better yet, the inseparability of racial and religious identities in the U.S. was felt acutely by Black Catholics in the middle years of the twentieth century.  The period I have referenced in shorthand as “the Great Migrations to Black Power,” roughly 1940 through 1970, was an era of unprecedented growth and transformation among Black Catholics across the United States – especially in the urban industrial centers in the North and West.  The Black Catholic population grew by 208% nationwide in these three decades and in the Midwest growth surpassed 400%.  Chicago is perhaps the best example of this, rising from a few hundred people meeting in a single church at the turn of the twentieth century into a population of 80,000 people – the Archdiocese of Chicago boasted more Black Catholics than either New Orleans or Washington, D.C. by 1970, an astounding feat when one considers the long history of Black Catholic Maryland and Louisiana!

Even more remarkable than mere numbers was the dramatic – and often traumatic – transformation of Black Catholic practice and identity in this very same period.  What did it mean to be both Black and Catholic?   Continue reading

Ground Zero and the “S-Word”

As I’ve been teaching a seminar on theory in the study of religion this semester, I’ve been thinking back to a reflection I wrote a few years ago for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about the ways a key category in Religious Studies – “the sacred” – was deployed in debates about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”  So here’s my theoretical throwback for today:


The vitriol around the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan demonstrates our society’s inability to communicate about critical issues. The proposed Cordoba House was a local issue defended passionately by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that quickly transformed into a cause célèbre, soliciting the national commentary of those as far removed from New York real estate as President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich. But as the conversation shifted from local debate to national furor, possibilities for dialogue disappeared. The media simplified the debate into a polemic choice—is it “right” or “wrong” to build a mosque at Ground Zero? Interviews and essays have tended to follow suit. Support for the Cordoba House is often curt and dismissive, casting aside opponents as intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant. Opposition to the misleadingly termed “Ground Zero Mosque” similarly lacks any intention to dialogue. Those opposed often insist that the memory of September 11 is “sensitive,” the situation “exceptional,” and the rules “special”—effectively extinguishing any productive debate on a topic pronounced, almost a priori, nonnegotiable.

It is important to understand the underlying dynamics and consequences of this debate. One line of inquiry worth pursuing is a critical analysis of the argument that Ground Zero is a special place requiring exceptional rules. When stated most passionately, it is not uncommon for commentators to invoke the “S-word”: “Ground Zero is sacred space.” This “sacredness” has been heralded in a variety of ways, occasionally even in support of the Cordoba House.1 In this case, however, the sacred has been wielded as a self-evident defense against any permanent Muslim presence near Ground Zero. The most provocative version of this argument I have encountered is Charles Krauthammer’s “Sacrilege at Ground Zero.”2 Krauthammer’s piece illuminates ideas that rarely rise to the surface in public discussions of religion, religious freedom, and American nationalism: the explicit entanglement of the sacred with the nation. At the same time, he renders complicated processes that are sometimes quite dangerous, deceptively simple and innocent. Contrary to some of his more crass counterparts, Krauthammer does not portray the Cordoba initiative as representative of some quintessentially violent Muslim “Other.” He acknowledges that the Muslims who perpetuated unspeakable violence on September 11, 2001, were not representative of Muslims as a whole. At the same time, he argues that the Cordoba House should not be built near Ground Zero because the space is “sacred”; it is “hallowed ground.” What is more, Krauthammer boldly defines what transforms an ordinary place into sacred space. He declares that “a place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).”

In other words, Krauthammer characterizes the creation of sacred space as a de facto happening. Something miraculous, remarkable, or unspeakable occurs, which transforms an otherwise ordinary place into a sacred space. This space, because it has been made sacred, now stands inviolable. He then offers examples to defend this logic. Gettysburg was sanctified by the sacrifice of American soldiers; hence, the U.S. National Park Service took down a (presumably “profane”) commercial viewing tower on the premises. An example that has circulated in most “Ground Zero is sacred space” arguments is that the incomprehensible horror of Auschwitz made that space sacred. This prompted Pope John Paul II to order the removal of a Carmelite convent because, in Krauthammer’s words, “this is not your place, it belongs to others.” As with Auschwitz, so too with Ground Zero: it is sacred in the sense that the space now “belongs to those who suffered and died there.” Once a space becomes sacred, the living are obliged “to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.”

Though he provides a sleek, straightforward equation (remarkable happening + place = sacred space), its simplicity hides the dimensions of power that define sacred spaces and enforce their boundaries. Beyond the fact that Krauthammer implies that the sheer presence of Muslims at Ground Zero forgets, trivializes, or misappropriates the tragedy on September 11—suffering and death shared by Muslim Americans—his meditation on sacredness also obscures the processes by which a space is marked as sacred and the consequences of such a marking. To understand adequately what this controversy reveals about religion in America, it is necessary to unpack the “sacred” in “Ground Zero is sacred space.” What is meant by “sacred” in this sense? How did Ground Zero become a “sacred space”? How are the boundaries of that sanctity enforced, and what are its consequences for American citizens? Continue reading

On Violence, “the Religious,” and Black Power

I am a regular contributor to Religion in American History.  Here is my most recent post:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.”  Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (1968)

I want to return to a question I raised to my last post. Why is Black Power usually imagined to be essentially secular (in juxtaposition to the religiousness of southern civil rights struggles)?  I’d argue that one of the reasons many people at the time (and most historians since) characterized Black Power as such had to do with deep-seated assumptions about the nature of “religion” itself.  What marked Black Power as symbolically different than civil rights was violence, both rhetorical and actual.  The prevailing images of civil rights were tired women and tireless youth marching peacefully – and stoically enduring suffering – for freedom.  Meanwhile, the prevailing image of Black Power was black men donning black leather and brandishing guns.  (This is, of course, not a fair characterization of either.) The problem with this second image, at least for some scholars, is that “religion” – one might say real religion, proper religion, or good religion – has long been presumed to be peaceful by its very nature.  To put this another way, “the religious” (people, institutions, ideas) is legitimate only to the extent that it does not threaten the stability of civil society.  When the religious enters the public sphere through violent means, it is immediately suspect insofar as its relative religiousness is concerned.  This suspicion was behind typologies of “good” and “bad” Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001 and it underwrote (still underwrites) categorizations of the Nation of Islam (NOI) as a political sect masquerading as religious – this despite the fact that Black Muslims were largely forbidden from overt political action or violent confrontation with the U.S. state in the first half of the twentieth century. Continue reading