By Dr. Sabrina E. Dent
Most Americans — including religious and civic leaders, as well as religious liberty advocates — fail to critically reflect on the implications of religious freedom for African Americans between the 1600s and now. Last week changed the course of history when 35 students from five Historically Black Theological Institutions (Hood Theological Seminary, Howard University School of Divinity, Interdenominational Theological Seminary, Payne Theological Seminary and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University) enrolled in the Religious Freedom Center’s African Americans and Religious Freedom course. This intensive course was designed for graduate seminary students to critically engage the contentious politics of race and religious freedom in American public life. Particular attention was given to how and in what ways power, violence, identity and pluralism form and frame the discourse of religious freedom across time and space.
When most people hear the words religious freedom, there is often an association with the first 16 words of the First Amendment. They read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Very seldom is religious freedom associated with the history, plight or experiences of African Americans or people of the Diaspora. The founding framers of the Constitution are often heralded as heroes of the American story despite their complicit and non-existent efforts to extend to religious freedom to enslaved people. As Dr. Corey Walker stated in his lecture, “The Politics of Religious Freedom in the American Moral Empire,” “We must fundamentally rethink what it means to be human. It was easy to exclude Black folks because they were not considered human.”
In today’s context, where African Americans are considered fully human and contributing citizens to the American democracy, it is imperative that the fundamental tenets of religious freedom as an inalienable and human right be affirmed and recognized.
Through every presentation and ritual, these expectations were met as the lecturers empowered and equipped students with counternarratives to what has been adopted into the larger American story.
“We were enslaved not slaves. There’s a difference,” proclaimed Angelique Walker-Smith, Ph.D., in her lecture to the audience of students gathered at the Newseum. This statement of human dignity was also affirmed by Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D., dean at Howard University School of Divinity, when she said, “the only way to understand religious freedom in America is by understanding the rich religious diversity of the early American context. Enslaved persons did not meet God on these shores. They carried their own concepts of the divine across the Atlantic Ocean, even while enduring the Middle Passage.”
During the four-day intensive, students heard from a team of scholars, practitioners and professional experts actively engaged in addressing these issues in multiple contexts. An emphasis on highlighting silenced and unheard voices was raised by Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the historic Metropolitan AME Church, in his lecture “Who Speaks for God in Public?” Lamar passionately spoke about the role of activist, community organizer and sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer in the civil rights and freedom movement. When reflecting on the question posed in his lecture on the power dynamics of religious freedom, Lamar stated, “Those authorized by the religious establishment and the body politic to speak for God often buttress and expand the myths by which America lives. Those who refuse the myths of an innocent America, an exceptional America, and a divinely chosen America, are silenced and marginalized in religious and secular spaces. Those who extend these myths trample religious freedom and often further imperialism and oppression. I contend that like Mrs. Hamer, those who trouble America’s myths speak for God, truth and justice. We must raise up more Mrs. Hamers.”
Overall, this three-year project “Religious Freedom: African American Perspectives,” funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, reminds some and informs others that conversations centering on African Americans of any religious group should no longer overlook racially-motivated infractions in our places of worship without consideration of our rights to religious freedom. The colonization and enslavement of Africans is more than a blemish on America’s complicated history; it is thread that quilted the fabric of exclusion and dehumanization.
The course, supported by the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, serves as catalyst to promoting understanding and dialogue on this very important topic through the lens of oppressed communities. Read more about students’ experiences in the article written by Adelle Banks with the Religion News Service.
This program was made possible by generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Dr. Sabrina Dent is director of programs and partnerships at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.