THE OPENING DECADES of the twentieth century also were marked by an intellectual clash between education and belief, modernity and religion, science and faith, the intellectual and the spiritual. Some of the conflict that emerged among African Americans about religious institutions reflected unanticipated tensions between the quest for religious freedom and the pursuit of education, two missions otherwise presumed to be closely allied in strategies for black uplift. Throughout the twentieth century, educated black elites were often at odds with the masses of black people they sought to speak for or to represent, including on important topics such as religion and politics. These controversies sometimes turned on differences between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated and those of the uneducated, manifested in attempts to control the religious freedom and religious choices of less privileged black people.

This, of course, was impossible. The first half of the century witnessed an ever-increasing African American religious diversification right alongside an exponential growth in the numbers of Baptist and Methodist churches, which served most black religious people. The practice of clearly identifiable African-derived religions persisted in the urban North and the rural South. Marcus Garvey’s attack on white Christian hypocrisy, itself a persistent strand in black political thought, was coupled with his embrace of a black God and a black Jesus. At the same time, storefront churches established by Pentecostal and Holiness believers continued to reshape the religious landscape of black communities as did the emergence in the 1930s of smaller sects led by Father Divine, Daddy Grace, and, perhaps most significantly, Elijah Mohammed.

These shifting demographic, social, and theological conditions made even more urgent the task of creating political unity among a racialized but religiously diverse minority. For all these reasons, the relationship between African American religion and political activism grew even more vexed and contentious—at once complementary and contradictory, full of promise but also damned by exalted expectations.

Three reinforcing paradoxes strain the nexus between black religion and black politics. First, the choices that individuals make about their religious lives—where and why they worship, whether and why they believe—are among our most privately informed and freely made decisions. The rich diversity of African American religious beliefs is itself evidence of this, as are the lives of the many who choose not to affiliate with or practice in any faith tradition. It is true, however, that in the twentieth century most religious African Americans remained Christians and that strands of black Christian thought were fueled by a liberationist legacy. Yet this did not make it easy or natural for “black religion” to provide the ideological cohesion needed for effective collective political mobilization. Ultimately, religious freedom also means the freedom to define not only one’s religious beliefs, but also the balance between the personal and the political, between individual salvation and communal purpose. Black religious belief and black religious life, by their very nature, are resistant to external reach and control, including from those who seek to harness their powers for a collective political purpose on behalf of the race as a whole.

Second, black churches, like their other American Protestant counterparts, are among the most local, the most decentralized, and the most idiosyncratic of all social organizations. Despite common usage, there is no such thing as the “black church.” It is an illusion and a metaphor that has taken on a life of its own, implying the existence of a powerful entity with organized power, but the promise of that also leaves it vulnerable to unrealistic expectations. The term is a political, intellectual, and theological construction that symbolizes unity and homogeneity while masking the enormous diversity and independence among African American religious institutions and believers. The concept imposes the notion of a unified command, a national entity, a papal-like authority that does not and has never existed. Yet the “black church” lives on precisely because it is political and cultural shorthand and an all-purpose stand-in for the dearth of other black institutions, especially in the twentieth century when large institutional responses to racial inequality were required. In reality, black churches elude schemes for national unification or uniformity in programmatic or political approaches, making them ill-suited for coordinated efforts, often even within particular local settings.

In all this, both now and in the past, the underlying unresolved African American dilemma is that discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality culminate materially in a denial of access to jobs, education, and opportunity. An insufficiency of secular financial resources thwarted the evolution of a black business and philanthropic class and of independent political institutions. As a consequence, black churches, by default, were expected to assume the responsibility of addressing many urgent unmet community needs-something they were ill-equipped and financially unable to do. This is emblematic of the much larger problem of the dearth of indigenous black institutions, a quandary made even more complex in the age of desegregation.

Third and finally, to call black churches into public duty as a primary vehicle for empowering the race is to rely on an institution that was and remains largely male-led but female-dominated, not only in memberships but in fundraising and organizing activities. While the predominance of women is a feature of most religious systems, there are specific political consequences in this case precisely because of the centrality of religious institutions to black community and political life. Moreover, this reality aggravates persisting sensitivities about the strength and substantiality of black women and about black male authority and masculinity. Because the typical black church member was a working-class black woman, debates about the role that black religious institutions should or should not play in black politics were also implicitly, but rarely explicitly, arguments about the place of black women in American political life and about the unstated “problem” of their largely absent male counterparts.

The recurring social, political, and theological tensions which drove these debates involving African American religious life remain as real and as pertinent today as they were a century ago. At a time when African American religion and politics are still viewed as inextricably linked, it is crucial that scholars and activists work to highlight rather than submerge the inherent and often incurable tensions that mark the connections between black religion and black political activism. It remains a delicate and daunting task to examine both the possibilities and the restraints that religion brought to the long struggle to end racial inequalities. If we ignore that duality, we will only perpetuate deep misunderstandings about the place of religion in African American political struggle—not just in the civil rights movement, but in the history of American social movements more broadly. And for those who remain committed to the idea that black churches remain central to the political prospects of black communities, bluntly acknowledging these difficulties may be the first step to overcoming them.

The small rural Virginia church in which I was raised still sits on hallowed ground and is yet alive, although its membership rolls have been devastated by the passing of older generations and the migrations and wanderings of the younger ones. It was founded during Reconstruction in 1874 near a town then called Jerusalem, where four decades earlier Nat Turner had been hanged for enacting his vision for liberating the captives. Established in a different moment and witness to more than a century of births, deaths, weddings, funerals, and revivals, that church lives on through a caring community of believers for whom history, memory, and religion coincide. A remnant of ages past, they have lost neither hope nor faith. Inside, they hold steady to a sanctuary and an institution that, as the poet Hayden so aptly put it, nourishes “the roots of all our dreams of freedom’s wide and legendary spring.”

Barbara Dianne Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book (from which this piece is excerpted), Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, was recently awarded the 2012 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. Professor Savage also serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.