When the term “faith-based” is used it is often in reference to the engagement of white evangelical churches in relation to public policy making or grassroots engagement. Seldom are the nation’s historic African-American denominations considered in the context of their institutional capacity to affect social change. At most, Black churches are seen as a mechanism for voter registration and votes but seldom considered relevant in policy debates around such issues as the environment, military spending, education, workers’ rights, and gun control and health care; despite the degree that political decisions in these areas disproportionately impact African-Americans. The low-profile of African-American denominations runs counter to the exceptional degree to which Blacks are affected by the politics of our nation’s capital, state governments, and corporate board rooms.
Collectively, the historic African-American “connectional” denominations – those networks of churches linked by a hierarchical administrative structure – represent a potential socio-political behemoth. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) , the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) , the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) , and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) , all share organizational and historical traits that could make them game-changers in the important political debates of the day. Though an argument could be made for the inclusion of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church; despite its diverse membership the denomination’s founding was not principally driven by the African-American experience. Also, unlike Black Baptist congregations that are linked by association but not management structure, Black Methodists and Pentecostals operate in a manner that lends itself to collective and unified action. What’s more, their engagement need not run afoul of the blurry church-state line since their advocacy can be consistent with the social justice ministry of Jesus Christ that was based upon challenging injustices, standing up for the poor and children, and battling economic inequality and the oppression of empires. The concern is not the personality of the office holder or the political ideology or party identification; it is the protection of the most vulnerable and the least capable of taking on institutional power in our country.
The return of these denominations to the nation’s policy debates would not be a departure from their historic roles in this country. They were borne out of America’s shameful past and the rejection of Black Christians from the worship regimen of white churches. The AME and AME Zion denominations are byproducts of the abolitionist movement and the courage of Blacks in Philadelphia and New York City to challenge the racism of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) movement. Notable figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were AME Zionites, as was Paul Robeson, the human rights champion from New Jersey. All of these denominations were engaged in the Reconstruction and civil rights movements; symbolically Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech was delivered in what is the mother church of the Church of God In Christ. Many Black Baptists were estranged from the civil rights movement because the powerful head of the National Baptist Convention, Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, took offense to Dr. King and the youthful civil rights leader’s cadre of upstart pastors; effectively splitting Black Baptists and preventing the movement from enjoying the full force of their congregations. The restoration of these denominations on a social justice agenda could sway the nation’s politics. Representing somewhere between 8 and 10 million people, these denominations have a reach far greater than their current political profile suggests.
Built for Social Change
The AME, AME Zion, CME and COGIC share similar traits that make these dominations the perfect vehicle for social change and the improvement of the quality of life of African-Americans.
These connectional denominations are structured in such a way, with a defined hierarchy of Bishops, Elders, local pastors and internal church officers (Deacons, Deaconess’ and Stewards), as well as youth auxiliaries that they are capable of executing a plan efficiently. While the hierarchy can lend itself to paralysis in decision-making, the upside of having such a structure outweighs the fears of red tape and inaction. As the only institutions in society with such deeply rooted and far flung connections in the Black community, Black churches have a network that can be activated and quickly advise, instruct and mobilize large numbers of people. The advent of technology, and the embrace of it by many churches, raises the capacity of the Black church to be a political force.
In a day and age when “content is King,” these denominations have communications capacity that has largely gone untapped. In addition to denominational newspapers and journals, their Internet presence allows them to keep their members informed of current issues, educate their membership, and use the power of the web to initiate collective action on issues. A much overlooked communications vehicle is the Sunday church bulletin. What if every Black church in these denominations carried the same public policy message in their bulletin each Sunday morning? Moreover, individual pastors in these denominations host radio and television programs, and have a captive audience to convey the relevancy of current issues with the Gospel. The potential is limitless considering the many communications tools that are at the disposal of these denominations.
The African-American church is the only other institution, other than private historically Black colleges, that own property and independently control assets. The Black church is an economic juggernaut that has yet to wield its weight and power. While a hard figure is difficult to ascertain, it is a safe estimate that the total value of Black church worship properties is in excess of $1 billion, and that is likely a conservative estimation. When the higher education institutions these denominations control are factored into the valuation that number balloons. For example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) owns and controls Allen University, Edward Waters College , Paul Quinn College , Wilberforce University and Morris Brown College . The AME denomination also controls several seminaries and junior colleges. The African-American Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) denomination owns and controls Livingstone College, Hood Theological Seminary , Clinton Junior College , and Lomax-Hannon Junior College as well as an institution in Liberia. The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) owns and controls the Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary. Taken together, these educational institutions are a source of intellectual capital and person-power that has largely been underutilized as a potent tool for political mobilization and public policy engagement.
These denominations also have cash. Their churches represent significant deposits in financial institutions and conceivable could make strategic investments through profit-making auxiliaries that could then funnel funds back to not-for-profit social programs targeting vulnerable populations. Of course, denominations need to be mindful of unscrupulous financial managers as the recent complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleges wrongdoing by a financial manager. Churches within these denominations also own secondary schools, and with the advent of the charter school movement could conceivably enhance their educational footprint, and transportation vehicles (vans, busses) that can move large numbers of people.
The human capital these denominations possess should not be overlooked. Within the churches of the Methodist and Pentecostal denominations are scores of individuals who represent professional services – law, accounting, engineering, medicine, and teaching – as well as trades and entrepreneurial ventures. Most, if not all, of the needs of the African-American community can be addressed from within Black congregations.
After Structure, What’s Next?
The second part of this series will examine issues that are tailor-made for the involvement of the connectional African-American Christian denominations.
This is the first part of a three-part series on the potential impact of African-American Christian connectional denominations on public policy.