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Religious FreedomThe Contested History of an American Ideal$
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Tisa Wenger

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781469634623

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469634623.001.0001

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Defining a People

Defining a People

African Americans and the Racial Limits of Religious Freedom

Chapter:
(p.188) Chapter Five Defining a People
Source:
Religious Freedom
Author(s):

Tisa Wenger

Publisher:
University of North Carolina Press
DOI:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469634623.003.0006

This chapter examines the varieties of religious freedom talk in African American history. It argues that the racial assemblages of the dominant white society severely limited the utility of religious freedom as a way to (re)define African American identity. It begins by showing how often religious freedom worked in support of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy; and how black church leaders rearticulated this freedom as one way to assert the full humanity of black people and to reposition themselves as fully modern, rational and moral modern subjects. The chapter goes on to argue that many of the new religious movements of black urban life—including Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, the Moorish Science Temple, and the Nation of Islam—used religious freedom talk in their efforts to redefine their communal identity away from the negative valences of blackness, either replacing race with religion or infusing their blackness with a new cosmic significance. But however they defined themselves, the dominant society denied their claims and overwhelmingly dismissed them as fraudulent and overly political rather than legitimately religious. For the vast majority of African Americans, religious freedom provided little escape from the confines of a racialized oppression.

Keywords:   African Americans, black church, racism, white supremacy, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Father Divine, Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam

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