On January 7, 2013, the New York Times carried a story about the race to fill the Congressional seat in Chicago vacated by the resignation (apparently for both health and legal reasons) of Jesse Jackson, Jr. The district is still strongly African-American, though less so than it used to be because of recent remapping. The story described the candidates eagerly seeking the endorsement of black clergy in the area. The candidates are black as well, with one exception: a white woman who had previously run and lost against Jackson. She too is actively seeking the same clerical endorsements.
Jackson had been endorsed by a considerable number of pastors. This political involvement of clergy is by no means limited to Chicago, but is common elsewhere if African-Americans are a significant factor in the electorate. Candidates are not only openly endorsed by pastors, but often are invited to speak from the pulpit. There is some dispute on how important these endorsements are, given the decline of the church as an institution in many black communities. Apparently it is still worth the effort. One candidate observed: “You can go to a church and talk to a few thousand people. That’s a huge audience to capture at one particular time. You can walk blocks and knock on doors and not reach a thousand people”. And this is how one of the pastors put it: “We want it stay an African-American seat. We want a voice for us in this area. There’s access that comes with culture.”
An interesting question here is the legality of such endorsements by tax-exempt institutions. But this is not my interest here. Rather it is the linkage between religion and ethnicity. Through much of history this linkage has been very close indeed. Even in our time ethnically defined religion has been an important social and political reality—for example the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, Buddhism in Tibet.
The American case has been distinctive. Of course churches and synagogues played an important part in easing the transition to a new country during the earlier period of mass immigration, but this did not generally lead to separate religious bodies. Rome decided early on not to organize American Catholicism along ethnic lines (though of course individual parishes could accommodate the linguistic and cultural needs of different immigrant groups). American Lutheranism was organized in ethnically defined synods—German, Swedish, Norwegian, and so on—many of them using the original European languages in worship. The Germans gave up first, during World War I, in response to widespread anti-German feelings. The Scandinavians followed suit a little later. In America today two religions continue to be strongly identified with ethnicity, because they had been so identified for centuries—Judaism and Hinduism (Buddhism in this country is a somewhat different story). But in American Christianity two religious traditions stand out in this respect: African-American Protestantism and Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. Both their differences and their similarities are noteworthy.
The black church has been a central—for long periods the central—institution for African-Americans. Victims of slavery, segregation and racism found in their religion a source of dignity and comfort, and at times an inspiration for rebellion. While the specifically black churches were almost all broadly Protestant, they developed their own very distinctive forms of Christian piety and worship. Black Gospel music and the Spirituals eloquently expressed this distinctiveness. This same tradition was at the core of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the late 1950s, when I had my first full-time teaching job in North Carolina, I heard Martin Luther King speak at an NAACP rally. What impressed me at the time was the thoroughly religious atmosphere of the event—religious in a decidedly black version. Much later, when I had my first contacts with Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, it occurred to me that people from that tradition could easily recognize the role played by King—in their terminology, he was an ethnarch, a religious leader representing his people in a struggle for their rights, as did Orthodox clergy for many centuries during which their people had to live under capricious Muslim rulers. In the last fifty years or so, for a variety of reasons, the black church is no longer the central institution it once was for African-Americans. But the story about the Chicago election shows that the institution has not lost its influence altogether.
Eastern Christian Orthodoxy in America was from the beginning, and still is today, almost entirely organized along ethnic lines. The one exception is the rather small Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which used to be a Russian diaspora church but, as its name indicates, re-invented itself as an American church of Orthodox Christians, with its liturgy in English and a large segment of its members consisting of converts to Orthodoxy. The bulk of the Orthodox in America worship in churches that are extensions of their home countries, sometimes directly under the latters’ jurisdiction. The big boy on the Orthodox block in America is Greek. The Moscow Patriarchate has been working to re-assert its authority over Russian diaspora churches. And then there are ecclesial bodies representing the ethnicities of the Balkans (Serbian, Romanian, and so on) and the Middle East (including the so-called Oriental churches—Orthodox in most ways but theologically deviant from Constantinople—with the largest being the Armenian Church). Many Orthodox Americans, especially lay people, have found this ethnic mosaic irrational and counter-productive, but so far efforts to create a unified Orthodoxy in America have not gotten very far.
There is one big difference between these two ethnic religions: While whites have generally been welcome in African-American churches—they have attended black services as visitors—whites have rarely if ever been converted to black Christianity. By contrast, there has been a steady stream of converts joining Orthodox churches in America. Some years ago a sizable group of Evangelicals converted en masse and affiliated with the American branch of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch (whose traditional liturgy is in Syriac and which was brought to America by Christian Arab immigrants). I am told that so-called “cradle Orthodox” have been uneasy about the zealous religiosity of the conversos (who, like so many converts, tend to be more Papist than the Pope). Converts to Orthodoxy (unless they live in proximity to the sparsely diffused OCA) have a problem: Just which of the several ethnic bodies are they to join?
This first came home to me when I was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York, which had large and very heterogeneous classes. A young man came to speak with me after class. He had a pronouncedly Anglo-Saxon name and spoke impeccable American English. When I asked him what he did besides attending New School classes (which met in the evening and had many students with full-time jobs), he smiled and said “I am an Albanian priest”. He had no relation whatever with Albanian ethnicity. He told me that, after he had converted and decided to become an Orthodox priest, he went to some sort of counseling service, which advised individuals in his position where there was a need for Orthodox priests and where converts would be accepted as candidates (whether reluctantly or not). I had very few contacts with this individual after our initial conversation, so I don’t know how he fared as an “Albanian priest”. At the time he had not learned any Albanian and officiated in English (which some of his parishioners did not understand).
Christian churches divided by ethnicity have a (usually dormant) theological problem: Almost all Protestants and all Orthodox regularly recite the historic creeds, which affirm faith in the “holy catholic church”—“catholic” with a lower-case “c”, meaning “universal”. How does a church that only contains blacks or only Greeks represent the universality of the faith? Originally, if this question was posed at all, the answer was not difficult: Blacks were forced into their separate churches by whites who excluded them. And Greek immigrants naturally gravitated to churches speaking their language and where they felt at home. This theological rationale has become less plausible, as racial and ethnic barriers have increasingly collapsed, and as individuals move ever more freely and even intermarry across the old divisions. Whatever their theological rationales, both black and Orthodox churches in America face a common sociological problem: How to explain their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America?
I think that this problem will be felt more urgently by middle-class people—as against, say, inner-city African-Americans and working-class immigrants from Albania. Ethnic and religious prejudices decline most sharply as individuals go up the educational and class ladder. If they are African-Americans, they find white institutions, including formerly all-white churches, more welcoming and they are more comfortable in these milieus that were formerly closed to them. If they are Greek-Americans, their ties to their ancestral homeland have become weaker and they must find better reasons for attending the divine liturgy than a waning ethnicity. As Reinhold Niebuhr long ago showed, the denomination is the prototypically American religious institution—that is, a religious institution which is based on voluntary association and which recognizes the right of other such institutions to exist in the society. Inevitably, this institution, coupled with the strong legal support of religious freedom, encourages inter-denominational migrations. Children will ask: Why should I go to this church, and not to the one on the next block where my best friend goes? In a curious way, this leads to a new question: What does my tradition have to offer to people not raised in it? How these two closely related questions are answered, will determine the future in America of the black church and of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy.