April 2023 Church & State Magazine - April 2023

Unfamiliar Gods Meet Restrictive Laws: A Scholar Examines How A Legacy Of Institutionalized Racism Has Hindered Religious Freedom For African Americans

  Margaret Hamm

Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora by Danielle N. Boaz, Penn State University Press, 242 pp.

February was Black History Month, a time when the United States honors the contributions of Black Americans and renews the struggle for racial justice. 

However, just because February has ended doesn’t mean that we can or should stop asking questions about how racial inequality permeates every facet of American life, church-state separation included. In fact, it’s even more important that this education continues into the rest of the year. 

Cover of the book "Burning Black Gods"If you’re looking to learn more about how the separation of church and state is deeply impacted by racism and white supremacy, Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora by Danielle N. Boaz is the perfect read.

Broadly speaking, Banning Black Gods examines the phenomenon of religious racism and its effects on religious freedom litigation across the world, including in the United States. In the book’s introduction, Boaz, associate professor in the Department of African Studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, lays out the defining features of religious racism and provides some of the historical context necessary for understanding the cases discussed in the book. 

Coined in Brazil and now employed by Boaz for a variety of countries and regions, “religious racism” refers to the overlapping structures of racial discrimination and religious discrimination that adherents of African-diaspora religions face. 

“This terminology underscores that discrimination against African-based religions is more than mere prejudice against a faith or group of faiths,” Boaz writes; “it is the intersection of religious intolerance and racism.” Such intersections of prejudice may result in increased violence against, surveillance of and incarceration of people who belong to African-diaspora religions simply because their practices don’t fall in line with arbitrary racial and religious norms.

Each of the book’s four sections is centered around a specific grouping of African-diaspora religions, which include Santeria/Lucumi, Candomblé, Umbanda, Obeah, Rastafari, Palo Mayombe, Islam, Voodoo and Vodou. 

Within these sections, the chapters discuss a particular theme that links court cases from different countries. While some of these themes are ones that might be a little more familiar to American audiences, such as discrimination against religious dress in public schools and workplaces, others are less often covered in books and articles that focus solely on the United States, such as the racial double standard many anti-witchcraft laws in other countries promulgate in favor of white Wiccans against practitioners of African-diaspora religions.

Although the book deals with a large breadth of subject matter over the course of multiple centuries and continents, Boaz skillfully weaves all the topics into a powerful overarching argument. Specifically, she asserts that religious racism against people belonging to African-diaspora religions is a very real and extremely harmful phenomenon rooted in a long history of suppression and violence. Accordingly, it is incumbent on us as readers to learn about the realities of religious racism so that we can name and stop it as it continues into the future. This call to action in both the introduction and conclusion is echoed throughout the book in a subtle yet effective way via the stories of individual practitioners who have been affected by religious racism.

 While it is commendable even in theory to argue that more people should know about religious racism, one of the most compelling aspects of this book is that Boaz as an author actually contributes to this goal by making scholarship on religious racism more widely available and accessible. The book is written in a clear and convincing tone that avoids excessive academic jargon. In addition, she includes a section at the beginning of the book that briefly summarizes the histories of each tradition discussed so that readers who are unfamiliar with a specific tradition have a working knowledge of it before they get to the ensuing chapters.

On this topic, Boaz writes, “For too long, the only acknowledgment of these charges [against practitioners of African-diaspora religions] has been the loud voice of the media and government officials, skewing and sensationalizing these cases. The first step toward religious freedom in the African diaspora is ending the silence surrounding these abuses of rights and ensuring that the problem of religious racism can be acknowledged and discussed in scholarly and policy contexts.”

Ultimately, Banning Black Gods is a shining example of how academic scholarship and public advocacy have the potential to unite and influence each other.

However, this clarity of language definitely does not mean that the arguments made in the book are overly simplified or lacking in details. Boaz explores in depth the intricacies and complexities of the barriers religious racism poses to religious freedom for adherents of African-diaspora religions. This includes explaining the additional burdens of surveillance, scrutiny and brutality at the hands of law enforcement, government agencies like Child Protective Services and even fellow community members these practitioners face in addition to having their religious practices limited, censored or even banned outright. 

For example, Boaz writes, “The practice of overpolicing Afro-diasporic religious communities, like the racial profiling of any minority group, makes devotees even more vulnerable to arrest and incarceration than the rest of the population. Additionally, the process of being targeted and detained has undoubtedly left devotees feeling vulnerable and threatened, fearing that their religious freedom, and sometimes their very lives, were in jeopardy.”

The uniquely oppressive nature of religious racism subjects Afro-diasporic religious communities to multiple layers of punishment that often linger outside the courthouse even once litigation has ended. Overall, Boaz brings this hard truth to light and brings the stories of numerous affected practitioners to life. 

Combating white supremacy is an inextricable component of fighting for church-state separation, but while it is easy just to say that the fight for church-state separation is also a fight for racial justice, one cannot engage in it effectively without first understanding exactly why this statement is true. Banning Black Gods provides these answers through a far-reaching yet rhetorically compact narrative.

In the closing paragraphs of the book, Boaz warns, “As the groundswell of conservative, racist and nationalist sentiments sweeps across the globe, we can expect restrictions on African diaspora religions to increase. Religious racism appears in waves that coincide with more commonly recognized forms of discrimination, such as police brutality, overincarceration, housing discrimination, and voter suppression.” 

In the United States, these words are painfully relevant. Intolerant white Christian Nationalism continues to loom large in American public life, and without a good grasp of how white supremacy and anti-Black racism restrict the First Amendment rights of so many Americans, church-state separation is unachievable.

Margaret Hamm holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. in comparative religion and political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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