Arguments over church-state separation don’t often arise in this part of the body.

The weekend before Chicago’s April 12 mayoral election, a coalition of black clergymen sponsored a prayer breakfast and laid hands on Harold Washington. They prayed, “Gracious God our Father, we thank you for the special dispensation manifested in the candidacy of Harold Washington.”

When white fundamentalists entered the political arena in the late 1970s they were breaking new ground. But in the black church, religion and political struggle have long been fused. Distinguishing the two is inconceivable. Political rallies for Washington, often held in black churches, frequently turned into hand-clapping, gospel-singing worship services. Chicago is not unique. In Philadelphia, the black church was prominent in this month’s primary election campaign of Wilson Goode, a black Baptist deacon running against a white, Frank Rizzo. The pattern was evident in Andrew Young’s victory in Atlanta. In Los Angeles, it was Tom Bradley’s pastor who “discovered” him and became his campaign manager. At a time when many white churches across the land are nervously encountering political action through issues such as abortion and school prayer, a closer look at the experience of the black brethren is timely.

In Chicago, the Democratic candidate is an automatic winner—except when the Democratic candidate is black. An exceedingly ugly campaign made it clear that elements of the Chicago electorate are still virulently racist, even though Washington’s past tax problems also hobbled him as a candidate. He beat Republican Bernard Epton by just four percentage points, and parishioners of the 252 black ministers throughout the city who endorsed Washington believe his mayoral victory, the first for a black in Chicago, was an answer to prayer. The rallying of the black religious community around Washington was not a knee-jerk reaction. Washington ran for mayor once before, and church response was lukewarm. That was in 1977, before Reaganomics, and before incumbent Jane Byrne’s policies insulted black sensitivities.

Washington has publicly acknowledged that without the help of the black church, his victory would have been doubtful. Last fall the congressman declared that he would not run unless 50,000 new black voters were registered. That was all the black church needed to hear. “If you’re not registered, you’re not saved,” became the jocular slogan. It implied, according to Pastor Claude Wyatt of the Vernon Park Church of God, that registering to vote was a serious moral and Christian obligation, although the slogan was not meant literally. Preachers sermonized on the topic. Wyatt himself had a mobile registration van parked outside his church on Sunday mornings. Several ministers became official election registrars and registered congregants right in their churches.

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By the time Washington announced his candidacy in mid-December, nearly 140,000 new black voters had registered, almost three times the number Washington asked for. Washington asked Wyatt and Harry Gibson, pastor of the Saint Mark United Methodist Church, to join the campaign’s steering committee. Jesse Cotton, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor who convened the pre-election prayer breakfast, was named to Washington’s finance committee.

The goal of Washington’s election, said Cotton, became more than just a campaign. “It became a movement unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Chicago,” he said.

Choir members and ushers commonly sported “Washington for Mayor” buttons. Cotton’s church held all-night prayer vigils. Washington made personal appearances in more than 100 churches. Church members distributed leaflets describing proper voting procedures. Churches lent their buses to transport black voters on election day. The result: 97 percent of the black vote was cast for Washington. (Overall, 81 percent of the electorate turned out—a record in Chicago.)

Nationwide, there were more than 5,000 elected black politicians at all levels in 1982, up from 500 in 1964. If Goode goes on to become mayor in Philadelphia, four of the nation’s six largest cities will have black mayors. Practically everywhere, say students of black history, black churches have been an important part of the picture, a fact overlooked in the secular press reports of political campaigns.

Politics, meaning the ways by which people translate what they believe into public policy, is woven through black church history. When the first slaves were brought to America in the 1660s, they were considered fair game because they were not Christians. Ironically, it would be the black church that would become the nerve center of liberation.

The leaders of the early slave revolts were, in almost all cases, deeply religious men who found in the Bible justification for insurrection. Gabriel Prosser meditated on the Old Testament and led a slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia. He was caught and hanged. Denmark Vessey buttressed his abolitionist arguments with passages from Exodus. Nat Turner prayed fiercely at the plow.

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The African Methodist Episcopal Church, generally regarded as the oldest black denomination, was born out of protest. It sprang from the Free African Society Fellowship, which was formed by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones shortly after they were pulled from their knees while praying at a white church in Philadelphia in 1787. Black churches along the Mason-Dixon Line commonly provided sanctuary for slaves who escaped via Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad. Tubman herself was an extremely religious woman.

Black historian Gayraud Wilmore regards the independent church movement among blacks in the north as the first black freedom movement. Such a movement could thrive under the guise of the legitimate desire of blacks to have their own place of worship.

In the South of the early 1800s, according to historian Eugene Genovese, slavemasters began to use Christianity to quiet slaves. Slaves were prohibited legally from learning to read and write. But oral instruction in the Christian faith was permitted, even encouraged. The goal, Genovese suggests, was to pacify slaves and make their lot bearable for them.

Thus, the church became the only institution blacks owned and operated. Even the black family was not sacred, since spouses and children were often sold away from their families. Some preachers married blacks with the standard injunction, “until death or distance do you part.” Of course, the black church was harassed by slavemasters. Meetings were sometimes, by necessity, held secretly. But the church was a refuge, the only gathering where slaves could exercise their human dignity.

Quite naturally, the influence of the church spread beyond the spiritual. It spilled into social and political realms as well, and it never became the pacifier that slave owners hoped. Slaves used funerals and religious feasts to plan revolts. Sunday became the favorite day for insurrection.

Since the church was the sole institution blacks controlled, black leaders naturally became the preachers. Historian Genovese observes that “the natural leaders … felt the call to preach and knew that preaching was their road to prestige, power, and deepest service within the black community.” Such power made black preachers potentially dangerous to slave owners. Consequently, the preacher’s role demanded discretion. He had to walk a tightrope between obeying his master and maintaining the loyalty of his enslaved brethren.

Walking that tightrope kept black leaders, with exceptions such as Nat Turner, from politicizing their roles. After the Civil War, preachers began to develop political leadership. But that, writes Genovese, “had to be a long and painful process, which did not run its course until the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s.”

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The process began with the Emancipation, but for blacks, emancipation was only a proclamation, not a reality. They enjoyed mild political success, including substantial representation in the legislatures of several southern states during Reconstruction. But then the Ku Klux Klan arose, and the advances were strangled, if not always by violence then by poll taxes and devious pre-election literacy tests.

So the church remained, by necessity, the focal point of the black community. Their political leaders continued to be their preachers. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his message of peace in black pulpits throughout the nation long before the news media discovered him. As one black minister put it: “Had there been no black church, there would not have been a King.”

The furnace of slavery and prolonged degradation forged a theology inseparable from the history of the black church. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination, for example, was not easy for slaves to endorse. Genovese records an anecdote that poignantly illustrates why. An old slave gravedigger, accompanied by a young helper, asked a white stranger a question:

“Can you ‘splain how it happened in the fust place, that the white folks got the start of the black folks, so as to make dem slaves and do all de work?”

The young helper, fearing the white man’s wrath, broke in: “Uncle Pete, it’s no use talking. It’s fo’ordained. The Bible tells you that. The Lord fo’ordained the Nigger to work, and the white man to boss.”

“Dat’s so,” replied the old man.

“Dat’s so. But if dat’s so, then God’s no fair man!”

But black theology has worked from the opposite conviction, the conviction that God is an eminently “fair man” and is deeply distressed by racism and oppression. “Liberation theology” is a phrase of recent vintage. The actual theology of liberation, though, is at least as old as the pre-Civil War spiritual intoning, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, and why not every man?”

The Old Testament story of the Exodus figures prominently in the thought of the most famous black theologians, such as James Cone. Though not as radical as Cone, some black leaders also departed from a strictly orthodox stance. The most notable of these is Martin Luther King, Jr. In an interview with the now-defunct National Observer, King rejected the idea of original sin. Jesus was divine in the sense that “he was one with God in purpose.” King considered the Virgin Birth a mythological story. He did take Christ’s teachings on love literally, and his speeches were laden with biblical motifs.

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Black theologians and ministers insist that theology never be removed from the struggle of day-to-day living. It must be what black evangelical Clarence Hilliard calls a “theology of relevance. It’s not abstract. It’s the biblical model of theology, not the Greek.”

Most black laypersons, according to Hilliard, accept the classical elements of Christian faith. They deeply believe in a personal experience with Christ and that the “Bible is the Word of God from cover to cover.” Black evangelical theologian Ronald Potter confirms that most black Christians are evangelical if by that “one means adherence to orthodox Christian doctrine.”

Some black denominations publish thoroughly conservative statements of faith. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, for instance, forthrightly affirms the Trinity, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and an Augustinian view of free will. But black Christians tend to focus on the living of Christian doctrine more than its formulation. Thus one black minister reports that in his 33 years of ministry, he has never witnessed a dispute about “conservative” or “liberal” theology.

That does not mean, however, that black theologians are blind to the danger of subjectivism. “In fleeing from the lion we seek to make certain that we do not fall into the arms of the subjective bear,” writes William Bentley of the National Black Evangelical Association. Bentley and other black evangelicals are eager to construct a theology that takes into account the tragic experience of blacks in America. Is this the harbinger of an inevitable slide into liberalism or neo-orthodoxy? It is not, Bentley says. “The fact of the matter is, neo-orthodoxy is as white as is evangelical theology.”

Unlike white conservatives and liberals, blacks have not exercised significant power in key American institutions such as government and business. Their power has rested in their church alone. Their theology is more wholistic, embracing all of life, and less willing to break it into parts.

Most white preachers would recoil at endorsing a specific candidate from the pulpit. But in Chicago, hundreds of black ministers endorsed Harold Washington. The church was a necessary vehicle, in that city and others, for the election of a black candidate.

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The nation’s tragic history of black oppression prevents the simple answer of telling blacks to embrace larger society’s view of life in clearly separated compartments, with religion uninvolved in government. As Pastor Wyatt puts it, “There is a higher law; whether we serve the system or whether we serve the Savior. The system has not worked for people in general. The church deals with the needs of people. And anytime the needs are not met, we have to step across the system.” To the already boiling pot of controversy between church and state, add another ingredient: the black church.

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