SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. John Lewis, who passed away on July 17, spent much of his childhood in church and even preached to his chickens for fun. His faith was a core part of who he was then, and it shaped the kind of political leader he became.
Religion also played a central role in the protest movement that made Lewis famous. The fight for racial equality in the ’50s and ’60s began in Black churches, and religious leaders remained prominent voices throughout, said the Rev. Watson Jones III, pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago.
“The civil rights movement was birthed out of the church,” he said. “Prayers and preaching led to protests and picket lines.”
The same can’t be said of the current battle against racial inequality, the Rev. Jones added. Religious leaders are generally welcome to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, but they don’t call the shots.
“We’re in there, but we’re not at the forefront of it,” he said.
That’s partly faith leaders’ fault, according to the Rev. Jones. Although many pastors continue to fight injustice in their communities, some act as if every pressing problem was solved during the civil rights movement.
“The church has lost some of its prophetic voice. It’s lost some of its fervor,” he said.
It’s also lost some of its cultural status, said Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. Activists no longer feel like they need the power of religious institutions behind them in order to change the world.
“The role that religion played in the civil rights movement cannot be replicated in the movements of today,” he said.
Religion and the civil rights movement
In the 1950s and 1960s, Black churches were both the best place to start a movement for racial justice and the only viable option, Morris said. Members of the white community controlled other centers of power.
“Because of the Jim Crow system, Black people in the South had few outlets where they could express themselves and where they could exercise power other than the Black church,” he said.
At church, Black Americans were free to envision a better world and discuss what it would take to build it. They could draw strength from prophetic teachings and commiserate with others who understood and shared their struggles, Morris said.
“The Black church gave people a sense of hope, a sense that God was on the side of justice and that God opposed oppression,” he said.
In a more practical sense, churches were also uniquely positioned to provide the resources needed to sustain a growing movement. There were volunteers to create and distribute flyers, leaders trained in speaking to large crowds and donation plates to pass when organizers were running low on funds.
“The organizing, the getting the word out, happened through networks embedded in the church,” Morris said.
Black churches could even offer a place for out-of-town protesters to sleep, said Lex Scott, who founded Black Lives Matter Utah.
“When Black people were traveling on long trips, they had to stay at the Black churches because hotels often would not allow Black people,” she said.
Churches today have similar organizing and mobilizing capabilities, but they no longer corner the market on these resources in the Black community, Morris said.
“Now, you can mobilize a thousand people to show up somewhere in a few hours just by being on social media and clicking a few buttons,” he said.
Additionally, thanks to the civil rights movement, Black Americans now have influence in more than just religious spaces.
“There are Black politicians, a Black caucus and Black leaders in academia. Nothing like that existed in the 1950s and 60s,” Morris said.
The growing gap between protesters and pastors
Although significant, these developments don’t fully explain why churches and faith leaders are not a prominent part of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to religion scholars and community organizers. There are plenty of other factors that also play a role.
For one, many Black churches have shifted their focus away from protest movements in general. They now spend more time worrying about individual souls, rather than the soul of the nation, said Clayborne Carson, a professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
“Religion has retreated from being a force for social change,” he said.
Faith communities that do continue to lead protests and call for other forms of activism tend to do it on a smaller scale, the Rev. Jones said. They try to improve the local school or prison systems, rather than reform the entire country at once.
“In the ’60s, there was a massive push for integration and a massive push for voting rights,” he said.
Today, there are thousands of smaller pushes on issues like housing discrimination and gun violence.
“The death of Dr. King killed any kind of centralized push,” the Rev. Jones said.