Religion and young black America

Once, upon answering an unexpected knock at my apartment door, I was greeted with the pleasant surprise of the presence of two pretty, twenty-something black girls. I spoke with them and quickly discerned that they were proselytizing and despite not being religious myself, succumbed to their feminine charms and provided them with my contact information for a follow-up visit.

A few days passed and I had just as suddenly forgotten the encounter when a similar knock yielded a pair of older, white gentlemen brandishing pamphlets on Mormonism who told me they’d learned I was interested in learning more about their faith. Aside from the distinct sense that I’d been bamboozled, I was struck by the notion that black Mormons even existed, let alone were so wily.

In a time when the President reportedly invokes Jesus Christ more often than even his conservative predecessor, black youth’s relationship with spirituality is certainly worth a closer look.

The hot button social issues of the day, like abortion rights and gay marriage, are mired in rigidly dogmatic arguments, so the political implications of identifying with a particular faith are perhaps more apparent and far reaching than ever. That the black Christian church has long been a cornerstone of African-American social activist traditions not only further compounds my personal ambivalence toward organized religion, but also raises questions of just how adequately the church presently fulfills that role.

When a single institution within an ethnic culture wields influence in so many respects, our progress or lack thereof as a people can always be partially attributed to activity within the church. Whatever incredulity I may harbor for the theology of black Christianity, I am more hesitant to adopt the faith because I remain skeptical that conventional spirituality provides a sufficient buffer against the nihilism, materialism and anti-intellectualism that stagnates our political and economic growth.

Expectations of religious orthodoxy are so well entrenched for African-Americans, however, that making a break for the nearest synagogue, mosque, or even church of latter-day saints never seems like a socially acceptable option. Already (coincidentally) sporting an Arabic last name and a diet devoid of red meat, I’ve been on the wrong end of the disapproving frowns that accompany suspicion of the reverence of any deity not named Christ.

Throughout its history the U.S. has always been a Christian nation in all but name, and African-Americans continue to overwhelmingly represent that constituency while making up 92% of historically black protestant churches and less than a quarter of any other popular faiths.

Christianity’s popularity among black Americans appears likely to hold steady, as 76% of black Baptist Gen Y-ers and 69% of Protestants indicate that their faith is very important in shaping their daily lives. This emphasis on the church as an institution within the context of the black community is hard to interpret, however, because it may reflect the church’s importance as social utility and community tie rather than as a foundation for spiritual values.

I have a hard time reconciling my feminist views with the notion that Eve was molded from Adam’s rib, but if I want to spend time with my mother and grandmother – two strong women who have by example shaped my appreciation for feminist ideals – on the weekends, attendance at 9 am services is a sure thing.

It could be that the predominant influence of Christianity on each generation of black youth is perpetuated through this kind of inescapable, almost incidental involvement. Strategically employed young Mormon femme fatales notwithstanding, it remains far easier to assimilate into more traditionally black denominations if for no other reason than proximity to one’s community.

Even as the success of Barack Obama’s presidency is seen as having a trickle down effect characterized as a gradual but unmistakable racial détente, his religious identification reeks of calculation made in the interest of remaining non-threatening to some religiously intolerant but pivotal demographics that include African-Americans young and old.

This is, in effect, the protection of one prejudicial status quo for the sake of challenging another. If it falls to tomorrow’s leaders to destigmatize the many faiths regarded as outside the mainstream, perhaps that process begins with unbiased examinations of our spiritual impulses as young people. In some cases, it might not take much more than answering a fortuitous knock on the door.