“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