There are legitimate reasons for wanting to keep politics and religion separate. There are definitely ways of separating beliefs you have about the world into beliefs that are specifically religious. That being said, it is much more difficult and nuanced than it may seem for black communities to separate religion from political engagement. In some ways, and on some subjects, it may not even be reasonable to think we could get a separation between the two within black communities.
The most fundamental reason for this intricate intertwined relationship between religion and politics in the black communities is because of African cultures, and the way they didn’t have a formal divide between the secular and sacred like western cultures. For example, Richard Allen, an early 1800s black church pastor, was trying to teach his followers to stop seeing such a divide between secular and sacred and start seeing how their faith is to pervade all areas of life (Wilmore, pg. 105). So, the black community has a history in their culture of infusing their faith with all aspects of their life, which would include politics. Wilmore shows us in his book that religion was the main thing that motivated black people to get politically active. We see the motivation of religion in leaders like Denmark Vessey, Alex Crummel, Nat Turner; to those of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey; all the way to MLK, Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Not only are religious views coupled with all other aspects of black life, but religion itself has been the driving force for black leaders to get involved in politics to begin with. It doesn’t even seem conceivable that we could separate religion from political engagement when it is religion itself that is prompting black people to engage in politics.
There are plenty of black leaders we can look at to see the difficulty in separating religion from politics, but I want to focus specifically on MLK and Malcolm X. MLK has said how civil rights is meant to be a part of the church and how his commitment to integration came from a religious motivation (Cone, pg. 120). It was because of MLK’s religious beliefs and commitments that he got engaged in political efforts. This is not a unique story for MLK if we were to look at the history of black leaders, but it’s also a common characteristic of black people today. It is the religious beliefs of the black communities today that push them to get involved in politics and engage with political matters. This being the case, it would be extremely difficult to separate politics from religion in the ways people talk about it today. Besides just being a motivation for his political engagement, MLK embodied his beliefs (Cone, pg. 121). This means that in everything he did, his faith was being engaged in it, thus he couldn’t separate politics from religion. His religion was necessarily a part of his politics because his religion was a part of who he was. This goes back to the culture of blending together the sacred and the secular we see in African cultures. This is a culture common to many and most black communities and makes it unreasonable to think we can separate religion and politics in the black community.
Malcolm X professed that we can’t segregate religion from the whole of life, and must judge religion off the material benefits it brings to its followers (Cone, pg. 173). This is in line with the theme we have already seen in MLK and past black leaders of blending the sacred with the secular. Malcolm is definitely within that tradition and just continues to emphasize the reality that we can’t just simply separate religion and politics within the black community. Malcolm also considers what sort of political implications will come about from his commitment to the Nation of Islam (Cone, pg. 93). Malcolm didn’t just bracket his religious beliefs from his politics, but let his religious beliefs guide his political beliefs, as many black people do. Malcolm expresses this with his critical view of white people and how they are the root of all black people’s problems (Cone, pg. 89). This political view was partially motivated from Malcolm’s religious views about the evil of white people and their state of being devils.
When looking at black communities and leaders of the past we will see that religion played such a central role in their life that it would be ludicrous to think we could separate religion from politics. In present day, the influence of religion is just as pervasive now as in the past. The church is such a large part of black people’s lives and communities, that it makes it almost impossible for people to leave it (griffin, pg. 203). This is just a testament to how involved the church is in black people’s lives, and that religious beliefs are intimately engrained in the thought process of many blacks. Such an intimate connection between religious beliefs and the rest of the lives of black people makes it incredibly difficult to separate religion from political engagement. Now, we obviously don’t want people legislating religious views and beliefs on people, but it’s also naïve to think we could prevent religion from being involved in political action from the black communities.