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Books on development of collective identities (tribal, ethnic, national etc) and people's identification as part of the collective through time?

Books on development of collective identities (tribal, ethnic, national etc) and people's identification as part of the collective through time?

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What are some good books on how common people identified throughout history in the sense of them belonging to a collective, from tribal to ethnic and national collective, and generally how those concepts emerged and evolved through time?

The classic text that comes to mind is The Invention of Tradition (1983), edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. It is a collection of essays that explore how nationalism developed in various (primarily British) contexts. It argues that collective identity is not something natural, but rather is manufactured. It may, though, fall short of what you seek if you are looking for the history of how people, globally, have felt about collective identity over time. It focuses on case studies of how certain identities began, as a way to demonstrate their artifice.

Google Books summary:

Many of the traditions which we think of as very ancient in their origins were not in fact sanctioned by long usage over the centuries, but were invented comparatively recently. This book explores examples of this process of invention - the creation of Welsh and Scottish 'national culture'; the elaboration of British royal rituals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the origins of imperial rituals in British India and Africa; and the attempts by radical movements to develop counter-traditions of their own. It addresses the complex interaction of past and present, bringing together historians and anthropologists in a fascinating study of ritual and symbolism which poses new questions for the understanding of our history.

The other classic text, though I have not read it, is Benedict Anderson's field spurring Imagined Communities, written a year before:

Anderson examines the creation and global spread of the 'imagined communities' of nationality, and explores the processes that created these communities: the territorialization of religious faiths, the decline of antique kinship, the interaction between capitalism and print, the development of secular languages-of-state, and changing conceptions of time and space. He shows how an originary nationalism born in the Americas was adopted by popular movements in Europe, by imperialist powers, and by the movements of anti-imperialist resistance in Asia and Africa.

Racial and Ethnic Identity

When you are writing, you need to follow general principles to ensure that your language is free of bias. Here we provide guidelines for talking about racial and ethnic identity with inclusivity and respect.

Terms used to refer to racial and ethnic groups continue to change over time. One reason for this is simply personal preference preferred designations are as varied as the people they name. Another reason is that designations can become dated over time and may hold negative connotations. When describing racial and ethnic groups, be appropriately specific and sensitive to issues of labeling as described in general principles for reducing bias.

Racial and ethnic identity is covered in Section 5.7 of the APA Publication Manual, Seventh Edition

This guidance has been expanded from the 6th edition.

Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant. For example, people might identify their race as Aboriginal, African American or Black, Asian, European American or White, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Māori, or some other race. Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs. For example, people might identify as Latino or another ethnicity. Be clear about whether you are referring to a racial group or to an ethnic group. Race is a social construct that is not universal, so one must be careful not to impose racial labels on ethnic groups. Whenever possible, use the racial and/or ethnic terms that your participants themselves use. Be sure that the racial and ethnic categories you use are as clear and specific as possible. For example, instead of categorizing participants as Asian American or Hispanic American, you could use more specific labels that identify their nation or region of origin, such as Japanese American or Cuban American. Use commonly accepted designations (e.g., census categories) while being sensitive to participants’ preferred designation.

Why Our African Identity Matters

"We didn't want anybody telling us anything about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can't hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree. You can't hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can't hate Africa and not hate yourself."
-Malcolm X

One of the challenges that people of African descent continue to face from the days of slavery is the question of identity. Many of us still do not know who we truly are. This was largely done by design. The slave masters stripped Africans of their names, their languages, their culture and customs, and of their history. Not only this, but Africa has always been depicted as a negative place filled with savages and cannibals. Generations of African people living in the Americas only knew of Africa as the "Dark Continent." Pro-slavery propaganda insisted that it was actually a benefit for an African to be taken away from their African homeland and this was a view even some Africans came to accept. Jacobus Capitein, who was born in Ghana, felt that it was the will of God that made him a slave so that he could be brought to the "blessed" land of Holland. He later became a defender of slavery. Today most people of African descent would agree that slavery was no blessing to their ancestors, yet many of them still perpetrate one of the cornerstones of slavery that is the stripping of our cultural identity as African people.

It's not uncommon to meet African people who are born in the United States or in the Caribbean who would react negatively to being called Africans. Herman Cain, for example, insisted that he was a "Black American" not an African American. There was a situation a few years ago in which a student of Jamaican descent requested her teacher not to refer to her or any of the other students as African Americans since they are not from Africa. Although it may seem like a trivial issue to many people, including people of African descent, I think it's actually very important that people of African descent learn to see themselves as such for various reasons.

In the first place, we are the only group of people that came to the Americas by force. Unlike most other ethnic groups that came to the United States, we did not leave Africa in search of a better life or in search of the American Dream. If anything, we actually lost a better standard of living by being taken to America. A fact that many people are not aware of is that in many ways West African societies were more advanced than even European societies were. When the plague was devastating Europe, civilizations such as Mali and Songhai were thriving in Africa. Today we still view Africa as a "Dark Continent" which is filled with misery, poverty, and starvation, but this was not always the case. African people were in no hurry to leave their homeland and some of the slaves committed suicide in hopes that their spirits would return to Africa.

Secondly, we have the richest and most diverse background of any other ethnic group in the Americas. When we look at our historical roots we can trace them to various kingdoms such as Songhai, Mali, Asante, Dahomey, Kongo, Benin, Oyo, Futa Jallon and Kuba. Most African people in the Americas have a basic understanding of slavery and what that entailed, but our history is much more complex than that. Many of us trace the origins of our history to slavery, when slavery was actually a disruption of our history. When an African American, such as Herman Cain or Whoopie Goldberg for example, rejects the term "African" they are in effect rejecting thousands of years of African history and reducing their historical understanding of their own identity to 200 years of slavery in America.

Finally, the term African is a term that connects African Americans to a global community of people of African descent that are connected by a common history and a common experience. Whether you are Jamaican, Guyanese, Trinidadian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, or Kenyan you have felt the sting of British colonialism. Haitians, Martiniquans, Senegalese, and Guineans have all felt the sting of French colonialism. Brazilians, Angolans, and Mozambicans have all suffered through Portuguese colonialism. And just about every group of African people in the world has experienced American racism in one form or another. The experiences may differ, but all people of African descent have been victimized by racism and oppression in one form or another.

I think one of the reasons why so many African people living in the United States and the Caribbean do not like thinking of themselves as African is because of the collective ignorance that many of us still have about our African roots and why those roots are important. The many African kingdoms that I listed above are largely unknown to many people of African descent, yet those same people would have gone to schools that taught them much about European civilizations such as Greece, Rome, France, and Britain. When the education system is geared mostly towards European history and culture, and the media depictions of Africa are still largely negative and misinformed, it's easy to understand why many people of African descent would look at their own ancestral roots negatively.

Today many of us still struggle with what we perceive to be conflicting national and ethnic identities. This is especially true in America where our historical experiences create what W.E.B. Du Bois described as a "double consciousness." African Americans are a people that were ripped from the African continent and most still know very little about their African roots, so many African Americans simply do not see themselves as Africans. Yet, centuries of discrimination and being treated as second-class citizens has also taught African Americans that they still are not fully American either. In fact, the history of African Americans up until the present has largely been a history of struggling to be accepted by America and, as movements such as Black Lives Matter demonstrate, this fight for acceptance and recognition continues. The famed actor and activist Paul Robeson perhaps said it best when he said, "I am an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent."

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook.

Ethnic and Racial Identity and the Therapeutic Alliance

Ethnic identity is a multifaceted concept that describes how people develop and experience a sense of belonging to their culture. Traditions, customs, and feelings about one’s heritage are also important factors in ethnic identity development. Individuals progress through different stages as they learn to identify with their culture, whereby they come to understand the group customs and values, and ultimately identify with their ethnic group.

Different models have been studied, and it is widely agreed that in order to achieve a strong sense of ethnic identity, people first go through a thorough process of exploration of their culture (Phinney, 1992). This exploration process has different stages, and the strength of an individual’s ethnic identity will depend on the stage the person is in within the process.

Dr. Jean Phinney (1990) believed that the exploration process consists of three stages: an unexamined stage, a searching stage, and an achieved or integrated stage. People who have not explored or examined their culture remain in the unexamined stage. This stage may also be characterized by negative feelings toward their ethnicity due to the lack of direct connection to it.

The searching stage is when people become interested in joining their ethnic group and begin to develop their own ethnic identity this is characterized by a process where efforts are focused on the expression of their commitment to their identity.

After carefully building their place within their ethnicity, they become more acquainted with the existence of others’ identities and appreciate that they have an ethnic heritage to share. This is when they are said to be in an achieved or integrated stage.

The development of ethnic identity has been researched primarily in adolescents across different cultures. Studies have found that a stronger ethnic identity is correlated with better psychological well-being and higher self-esteem. Ethnic identity is thought to develop in early adolescence through young adulthood. As a result, relatively less is known about the ethnic identity processes in older populations, but it should not be assumed that one’s ethnic identity ceases to develop after adolescence.

Additionally, ethnic identity can vary based on demographic factors. For example, among African Americans, there are higher levels of ethnic identity present in the South compared to other regions (Williams, Duque, Chapman, Wetterneck, & DeLapp, 2018).

Early Models of Ethnic Identity Development

The concept of ethnic identity has been studied within several areas of psychology. In social psychology, Tajfel, and Turner (1986) developed the idea that ethnic identity is inherently a social event. Crucial to the development of ethnic identity are the social gatherings or groups to which people ascribe. They observed that several ethnoracial groups have had difficulties due to stereotyping and prejudice. Therefore, these groups have developed a process of self-affirmation to maintain their sense of commitment and self-esteem via their culture, and this sense of affirmation is particularly strong in members of African American communities. Subsequently, additional models have been developed to determine how identity development may differ across cultures.

Dr. William Cross developed his highly influential model of Nigrescence to explain the process of identity development in African Americans. The original model contained five stages of development: Pre-encounter, Encounter, Immersion, Emersion, and Internalization (Cross, 1978).

After a careful reassessment, the model went through a revision process to create the present expanded Nigrescence theory (Cross, 1991). Where the original model included five stages of development, the revised one presented three stages of group racial identity attitudes: Pre-encounter, Immersion-Emmersion, and Internalization.

The Pre-encounter stage is marked by opposition or low acceptance to the Black race and culture it is characterized by self-hatred and a desire for assimilation into White culture. After greater involvement with one’s ethnic group, the individual will enforce pro-Black attitudes. This is known as the Immersion-Emersion process as individuals increase their desire to represent their Black heritage and reject other cultures they later come to accept their role as a Black individual in a racially diverse community. Internalization determines a final stage of being reconciled with a multicultural society. Here the individual will demonstrate a mature state of ethnic identity where they show attitudes that are more accepting of other cultures.

Minority Identity Development

The Cross model was later expanded by others to include all people of color (e.g., Minority Identity Development Model Atkinson, Morten & Sue, 1998 Racial and Cultural Identity Development Model Sue & Sue, 2016). Minority development models may include the stages referred to as Conformity, Dissonance, Resistance, Introspection, and Integrative Awareness.

  • In the Conformity Stage, people of color accept the values of the majority culture without critical analysis. In this early stage, they may value White role models, White standards of beauty and success, and may believe it is better to be White. Thus, there may be underlying negative emotions toward the self as a person of color. As a result, they may reject a same-race therapist and view the White counselor as more desirable and competent.
  • In the Dissonance Stage, individuals begin to acknowledge the personal impact of racism when a triggering event causes the person to question and examine their own assumptions and beliefs. They become more aware of racism and experience confusion and conflict toward the dominant cultural system.
  • In the Resistance Stage, they actively reject the dominant culture and immerse themselves in their own culture. They may feel hostility toward White people in this stage and reject a White therapist.
  • In the Introspection Stage, the person of color starts to question the values of both his/her own ethnic group and the dominant group. The person becomes more open to connecting with White people to better learn and understand differences.
  • In the final stage, Integrative Awareness, the person develops a cultural identity based on both minority and dominant cultural values. They feel comfortable with themselves and their own identity as a person of color in a multicultural society. As minority clients reach more advanced racial identity statuses, they become more inclined to appreciate counselors of their same race. Although those with a strong positive ethnic identity will recognize they might be able to benefit from a competent therapist of any race, and the person of color has no fears about confronting racial issues with a White therapist when needed.

White Identity Development

The development of racial identities and racial consciousness was limited to the study of ethnic minorities for many decades, and it was not until the late 1980s that the idea of White racial identity become a topic of interest in psychological research.

One of the most significant researchers in the field of white racial identity theory is Dr. Janet Helms, a psychologist who initially defined a structure of white racial identity and its stages of development. Her theory includes six intertwining ego statuses (Helms, 1990), described as:

  1. Contact – where one denies racism/cultural differences/dominant group membership and may be colorblind or insensitive to racial differences
  2. Disintegration – where one experiences conflict over moral dilemmas between choosing one’s ethnic group and greater humanity goals
  3. Reintegration – where there is some resolution of dilemma, by becoming intolerant of other groups and taking a racial superiority bias
  4. Pseudo-independence – where one begins limited acceptance and efforts to connect with people of color that share similarities
  5. Immersion/Emersion – where one develops increased understanding and acceptance of White privilege but may still act based on guilt and
  6. Autonomy – where one has gained acceptance of one’s whiteness, understands the role one plays in the perpetuation of racism, values diversity, and feels less fearful and less guilty about the reality of racism.

To Match or Not to Match

Why match? Most clients feel more comfortable discussing psychological problems with someone of the same ethnic and racial background, and they may answer questions about symptoms more accurately when matched. Ethnic minority clients may perceive their counseling experience to be more effective when they are with someone who has a native understanding of their culture. Matching has been shown to strengthen the therapeutic alliance and improve retention.

Why not match? Cultural matching is not always possible due to a lack of availability of a clinician of the same ethnicity as the client. Also, it may not be desirable from the client’s perspective if the client feels the choice is being made for them due to race. Further, a client might not want a person of their own ethnicity for various reasons for example, they may not be adhering to their group’s cultural traditions and so may worry about judgment from someone from the same ethnic group. Furthermore, unmatched dyads provide an opportunity for expanded awareness and greater cross-cultural understanding in both the client and therapist.

Ethnic Identity in Therapy

The figure below illustrates how racial identity can impact the rapport and trust between the therapist and a client of color, based on the stage of identity development in the client.

This analysis does not take into account the more complex picture of what may occur between client and therapist when a therapist is also struggling with his or her own identity development. For example, a Black therapist in an early stage of racial identity development may feel hostility toward a Black client, resulting in distancing and an unsuccessful therapeutic alliance. A White therapist in an early stage may become upset and defensive when confronted with racially charged material from a client of color. Assumptions should not be made about the fit based on race in advance of an assessment of racial identity development in both the client and therapist. That being said, there is very little research on how these models of racial identity development impact the therapeutic relationship, but for an interesting theoretical model see Helms (1984).

The models presented here can help clinicians develop a more effective therapeutic alliance and contribute to a fuller understanding of the client’s presenting concerns and subsequent diagnoses. Conversations with a client about their many identities and the importance (or lack thereof) of these identities are encouraged early in the assessment process as part of an ongoing conversation that incorporates these contextual frames throughout psychotherapy.

Atkinson, D., Morten, G., Sue, D. (1998). Counseling American Minorities. McGraw Hill: New York, NY.

Cross, W. E. (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological nigrescence: A review. The Journal of Black Psychology, 5, 13-31.

Cross, W. (1991). Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Helms, J. (1984). Toward a theoretical explanation of the effects of race on counseling: A black and white model. The Counseling Psychologist, 12, 4.

Helms, J. E., & Carter, R. T. (1990). Toward a Model of the White Racial Identity Development. In J. E. Helms (Ed.), Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice, 49-66. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Marcia, J., Waterman, A., Matteson, D., Archer, S., & Orlofsky, J. (1993). Ego identity: A handbook of psychosocial research. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Parham, T. A., Ajamu, A., & White, J. L. (2011). Chapter 8: Mental Health. Psychology of Blacks: Centering Our Perspectives in the African Consciousness, 4/E. Pearson.

Phinney, J. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34–49.

Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2016). Racial/Cultural Identity Development in people of color: Therapeutic implications, Chapter 11. In Sue, D.W. & Sue, D. (Eds.), Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (7th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Tajfel. H., & Turner. J. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. Austin (Ed.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Williams, M. T., Duque, G., Chapman, L. K., Wetterneck, C. T., & DeLapp, R. C. T. (2018). Ethnic identity and regional differences in mental health in a national sample of African American young adults. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 5 (2), 312–321. doi: 10.1007/s40615-017-0372-y

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Religion in African American History

Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.



Enslavement and Religious Transformation

African American religious cultures were born in the crucible of American slavery, a system that not only ruptured direct connections to African history, culture, and religious community, but also set the context for the emergence of transformed and new religious systems. Africans brought forcibly to the Americas came from a variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious environments in West and West Central Africa. Most practiced ancient religious traditions focused on maintaining harmonious relationships with nature and supernatural beings, including gods, spirits, and ancestors. Some enslaved Africans in America, especially those from the Senegambia region, were Muslim while others, such as those from the West African kingdom of Kongo who had come into contact with the Portuguese, were Catholic. African traditional religions dominated among those pressed into New World slavery, however, and these worldviews would serve as the ground for the development of varied African diaspora religious cultures. The horrors of the Middle Passage in which more than 10 million Africans were transported to the Americas and consigned to chattel slavery made it impossible to perpetuate language, culture, and religion as they had existed in African contexts. The cultural and religious resources they brought with them proved resilient and adaptable, however, and would contribute to the worldviews and practices that emerged under American slavery. 1

While varied African connections are readily apparent in the practices and theological perspectives of such African diaspora religious traditions as Vodou in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil, for example, the precise nature of influence in the religious cultures of African Americans is often more difficult to discern. Change over time, regional differences, and religious context are important considerations for understanding how African American religious cultures took shape in antebellum America and why they differ in significant ways from other parts of the African diaspora. The large number of Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America and the longer duration of the trade in some regions meant that cultural and religious ties here were more vibrant than in the North American colonies, where only 5 percent of those transported from Africa arrived, primarily in the period from 1720 to 1780 . In addition, the predominance of Catholicism in the French and Spanish colonies created a context in which enslaved Africans were able to combine their ritual work to maintain connections to gods and spirits with veneration of the Catholic saints. Africans in the North American colonies were most likely to be enslaved by Protestant Europeans, who were more resistant to such blended religious practices. Although enslaved Africans in North America did not reproduce the varied religious systems of West and West Central Africa, these worldviews were among the many resources on which they drew to produce distinctive African American cultures, identity, and forms of resistance. 2

Despite the fact that Europeans routinely justified the enslavement of Africans in religious terms, arguing that they were bringing “heathens” under the influence of Christianity, British American slaveholders were often uncomfortable with missions, such as those sponsored by the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Invested economically in the institution of slavery and committed to the notion of the inferiority of Africans, many slaveholders worried that conversion would require manumission and disrupt racial hierarchy. Even with assurance from church and political leaders that conversion to Christianity did not mandate freedom for the enslaved, resistance among slaveholders remained strong, as white Anglican cleric Francis Le Jau found in his mission work in early-18th-century South Carolina, where the brutality of the slave system shocked him. Le Jau also faced discomfort in a range of forms by slaveholders to shared religious commitment with blacks, including the refusal of one man to take Communion when enslaved Africans were at the Holy Table and queries from a woman about whether she would be forced to see her slaves in heaven. Many European Americans could not imagine African Americans having the capacity to understand Christianity and also feared that extending baptism and Christian fellowship would convince the enslaved of their equality to whites. Consequently, the substance of Christian teaching that most missionaries and slaveholders conveyed focused not on liberation and equality but on divinely ordained racial hierarchy. Deploying the biblical story of Noah’s curse on Ham, which Europeans had long interpreted as one of blackness and servitude, many missionaries promoted a view that bondage was God’s will for people of African descent and that the Christian scriptures enjoined them to be obedient to their masters above all else. It is not surprising that this sort of theological framework did not appeal to the majority of enslaved African Americans in colonial America. 3

The evangelical revivals of the Great Awakening beginning in the 1740s set the context for the conversion of enslaved African Americans and provided theological resources for the development of African American Christianity. Responding to evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual spiritual transformation accessible to all as the key to conversion rather than memorization of doctrine mediated through clergy, many African Americans joined the enthusiastic worship of the revivals and embraced Christianity. The ranks of the evangelical Baptists and Methodists grew through the spread of the revivals and, motivated by a commitment to spiritual equality, some white Baptists and Methodists questioned the moral grounds of slavery. Ultimately, the opposition to abolition of most southern white Christian slaveholders motivated these denominations to step back from their antislavery positions. Despite the turn away from an explicitly antislavery Christian posture, Baptists and Methodists supported the development of black Christian leadership, licensing African American men to preach and helping to foster the beginnings of institutional life among black Christians. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries extended the geographic reach of evangelicalism as the nation expanded into new territory and also drew increasing numbers of African Americans to Christianity. 4

Antebellum African Americans developed independent arenas in which to interpret, experience, and express their religious commitments. Enslaved black Christians found refuge from the oppressive oversight of Christian slaveholders in the “invisible institution,” as some have termed the secret religious gatherings of “slave religion.” In their worship they listened to black preachers affirm their humanity, drawing on biblical narratives like that of the Exodus, which offered them the promise of God’s deliverance of his suffering people. In enthusiastic and embodied communal worship they also sang spirituals that spoke of sorrow, joy, justice, salvation, and liberation, and they danced the ring shout in a counterclockwise circular movement meant to make the Holy Spirit present. Slave religion, then, served as a source of individual and communal comfort and the means to endure the brutality of slavery. 5

Religion also provided resources for forceful public critique of the institution that enslaved and sought to dehumanize African Americans in the new republic. Black abolitionists, such as lecturer and journalist Maria W. Stewart ( 1803–1880 ), who grounded her claims for social justice in biblical exegesis, and David Walker ( 1796–1830 ), whose 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World warned of divine punishment on America for the sins of oppression, exemplified this approach. In other instances, religion fostered open rebellion against slavery, as with the planned revolt in 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, that participants organized in religious meetings led by Gabriel Prosser ( 1776–1880 ), the appeal to scripture and use of religious meetings to plan the aborted revolt of Denmark Vesey ( 1767–1822 ) in South Carolina in 1822 , and the 1831 rebellion in Northampton, Virginia, organized by religious visionary and preacher Nat Turner ( 1800–1831 ). Even as the influence of religion on the men who led these rebellions against slavery is clear, evidence also exists that Christianity served to accommodate some enslaved African Americans to their status, as demonstrated in the 1806 address of enslaved poet and preacher Jupiter Hammon ( 1711–1806 ) in which he enjoined enslaved blacks to be the obedient servants he felt Christ called them to be and await their reward in heaven. 6

Enslaved African Americans also turned to religious resources outside of Christianity. Conjure, derived from West Central African ritual work to harness the power of the natural and spiritual world to protect, heal, and sometimes harm, was a feature of African American culture, as were other folk healing practices using roots and herbs. Islam was also part of the religious world of enslaved Africans in the antebellum American South, with the relatively small number of Muslims struggling to maintain their religious practices, create community, and preserve the Arabic language across generations. Muslims such as Omar ibn Said (c. 1770–c. 1864 ), who was born in what is present-day Senegal, sold into slavery, and enslaved in North Carolina in the first decades of the 19th century, left a written record in Arabic and English of his life prior to enslavement, his experiences in slavery, and his religious life, which may have included conversion to Christianity. Taken together, this range of religious expressions provided resources for the development of culture in common, a sense of collective identity as African Americans, and affirmation of black humanity. 7

Black Churches and Institutional Religious Life

In addition to the often hidden and covert religious activities in the invisible institution of slave religion, antebellum African American Christians developed churches that provided arenas for independent interpretation of Christian teaching and practice as well as a platform for political organizing. Early independent black Baptist churches include the Silver Bluff, Georgia, church led in the 1770s by David George (c. 1743–1810 ) and the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, founded in 1788 by Andrew Bryan ( 1737–1812 ). The Baptist framework appealed to those in bondage because its structure of congregational autonomy supported local leadership and independence. Although these formerly enslaved men and their largely enslaved congregants faced monitoring and restrictions on religious practice, the institutions they founded became important sites promoting African American interpretations of Christianity that affirmed the humanity of black people. Free black Baptists in northern states, where slavery was abolished gradually following the American Revolution, also established important congregations. They included the African Meeting House in Boston, founded in 1805 and led by New Hampshire native Thomas Paul ( 1773–1831 ), and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, founded in 1809 by African American congregants of First Baptist Church, led by Thomas’s brother, Nathaniel Paul (c. 1793–1839 ), who left in protest of discrimination by white leaders. 8

Significant independent black church organizing during the early national period took place under the umbrella of Methodism and, by the early 19th century, individual congregations joined together to form denominations. In many cases, black Methodists founded independent congregations in response to the racism they experienced in the predominantly white congregations to which they belonged. In Philadelphia, Richard Allen ( 1760–1831 ), a former slave and licensed Methodist preacher, belonged to the predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Church. Allen, along with Absalom Jones ( 1746–1818 ), another former slave and lay preacher, and other black congregants objected to the increasing discrimination they suffered in their home church, marked most clearly by the new policy relegating black members to the church balcony. St. George’s black Methodists left the congregation and turned to the Free African Society, which Allen and Jones had founded in 1787 to support the growing free black community, as the basis for an independent religious organization. Two congregations emerged from this movement, reflecting the varied theological and institutional interests among the former members of St. George’s. One contingent founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792 with Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained an Episcopal priest, as its first rector, and the other formed Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794 with Allen as its pastor. In 1816 Allen called together the leaders of a number of other black Methodist congregations in the region and they formed the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first black denomination in America, with Allen as the first bishop. In a similar process in New York, African American Methodists, led by former slaves James Varick ( 1750–1827 ) and Peter Williams ( 1755–1823 ), left the John Street Methodist Church in 1796 and formally chartered the independent Zion Methodist Church in 1800 . Conflicts between leaders of various contingents of African Methodists led Varick and Zion Church to organize a small group of independent black Methodist congregations in 1821 under the denominational umbrella of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. 9

These new institutions became vitally important arenas for antebellum African American organizing and public discussion of a range of issues, including the abolition of slavery and the status of free blacks, as well as campaigns to create colonies for free blacks outside the United States. Clergy and members of the AME and AME Zion Churches often became public voices on pressing issues, a role that highlights the significance of churches in fostering black leadership throughout African American history. African American denominations also contributed to black public life and culture throughout the 19th century by creating and supporting a range of economic enterprises, including publishing houses that produced journals and newspapers, including the AME Church Review , the Christian Recorder , and the Star of Zion , that covered religious and secular issues. By the end of the 19th century, black denominations also established a range of educational institutions. The AME Church founded Payne Theological Seminary in Xenia, Ohio, in 1844 , the denomination’s first school dedicated to the training of ministers, and in 1856 it joined with the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish Wilberforce University, also in Xenia, as the first private college for African Americans. AME Zion institutions of higher education include Livingstone College, founded in 1879 in Salisbury, North Carolina, and Hood Theological Seminary, which emerged from Livingstone’s theological department in 1904 . From their founding moments, then, independent African American denominations served as more than spiritual homes for black Christians they also offered education, opportunity for economic development, a platform for political advocacy, and an environment that supported a collective sense of peoplehood. 10

Even as black Methodist churches played an important role in developing leaders who made powerful public claims of equality, internal debates and struggles over ordination highlighted the institutions’ gendered understanding of religious leadership. Black women preachers such as Jarena Lee (b. 1783 ) challenged Richard Allen and other male AME leaders who allowed them to pray and preach but not to be ordained or serve as church pastors. Grounding their insistence on a right to leadership in both biblical interpretation and the claim to have experienced a direct call from God, Lee and other 19th-century preaching women in the AME and AME Zion Churches called their denominations to live up to their stated missions of proclaiming the equality of all under God. Facing resistance from the male leadership of their churches and from many male and female members, these women persisted in their work as itinerant evangelists and some published spiritual narratives to recount their experiences and promote their claims. Zion became the first black denomination to ordain women when Julia Foote ( 1823–1900 ) was ordained a deacon in 1894 , a status women in the AME Church gained in 1948 . Despite the limited access to formal leadership roles, women within these independent black church denominations, who constituted the majority of members, were active contributors to the life of the church, serving as fundraisers, evangelists, and missionaries, for example. 11

The number of black churches grew rapidly following the Civil War as many of the millions of African Americans emerging from slavery established their own congregations. Baptist churches, which newly freed people could form of their own accord and govern independently, predominated among these, and Baptist worship culture proved appealing to those whose Christianity was shaped in the “invisible institution” of slave religion. The AME and AMEZ denominations also expanded beyond their largely northern bases through missionary work among former slaves. Culture and class differences sometimes led to conflict, however, as AME Church leaders sought to restrain the enthusiasm of southern black worship and impose their own standards of respectability. The Reconstruction period also saw the founding of the Colored (now Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870 in Jackson, Tennessee, by former enslaved members of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The CME established Lane College in Jackson in 1882 , expanding its presence, although it would always remain smaller than the AME Church, which claimed half a million members at the turn of the 20th century, and the AMEZ Church, which counted around 185,000 members to the CME’s 175,000. 12

The 1895 founding of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) was perhaps the most significant institutional development in post-Reconstruction black religious life. Drawing together independent black Baptist congregations and mission and educational societies, the NBC emerged at its founding moment in Atlanta under the leadership of former slave Elias C. Morris ( 1855–1922 ) as the nation’s largest African American denomination with almost 2 million members. As with the AME Church, the NBC developed economic enterprises, with its publishing board producing publications such as the National Baptist Union , hymnals, and Sunday School materials. Women within the National Baptist Convention, led by prominent figures, who included black women’s rights activists Nannie Helen Burroughs ( 1883–1961 ) and S. Willie Layten ( 1863–1950 ), created the Woman’s Convention (WC) auxiliary in 1900 to provide an arena for churchwomen’s work. The WC promoted women’s mission societies and supported the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C., under Burroughs’s leadership, offering industrial and moral education. In addition, black Baptist women in the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to the life of the church as individual evangelists or as licensed preachers. Although the women of the WC and the NBC at large did not organize to press for ordination, black Baptist women nevertheless initiated significant public discussions within their denomination about religion, gender, and equality. 13

Not all black Christians located their religious lives in black denominations. Some African Americans found spiritual homes in predominantly white churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal denominations, drawn by family ties, theological appeal, or style of worship. For many who had been enslaved in regions with large Roman Catholic populations, Catholicism was the dominant culture that shaped their religious lives. As with other predominantly white denominations, access to leadership in Roman Catholicism was often restricted and African American men found it difficult to gain admission to the priesthood. A few prominent black priests made their mark on 19th-century black Catholic life, however, including former Missouri slave August Tolton ( 1854–1897 ), who was ordained in Rome in 1886 , and Charles Randolph Uncles ( 1859–1933 ) of Baltimore, who became the first African American ordained in the United States. In a number of important instances, black women were successful in founding religious orders through which they could pursue their religious vocations. The Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in Baltimore in 1829 under the leadership of the Saint Domingue–born Elizabeth Lange (c. 1794–1882 ), brought together free women of color to provide support for Baltimore’s black Catholics and education for the city’s black children. In New Orleans, free women of color under the leadership of Henriette DeLille ( 1812–1862 ), founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1837 to care for the city’s poor, orphaned, and sick. Although the orders remained small, black Catholic sisters were visible figures in 19th-century African American Catholic life. African American lay Catholics organized at the end of the 19th century to represent their interests as a group to the church at large and, despite experiences of racism and exclusion, to promote Catholicism among black Protestants as a universal and inclusive tradition. Former slave and Ohio journalist Daniel A. Rudd ( 1854–1933 ) founded The American Catholic Tribune in 1885 to promote black Catholic interests, and he stood at the forefront of the Colored Catholic Congress movement that called black Catholics together from 1889 to 1894 to discuss their status within the church and to strategize to oppose racism in church and society. 14 In the years following the Civil War, African American denominations and black religious societies in predominantly white denominations contributed to the work of moving from slave to free, and they served as sites for the formation or extension of black Christian communities.

Christian Mission at Home and Abroad

In the late 19th century, African American denominations turned their attention to Africa as a mission site and, in some instances, as a place to settle and pursue black self-governance. While black missionaries had worked through white mission societies earlier in the century, the support of black-led denominational structures made additional connections to Africa possible and allowed African Americans to frame their work in ways that spoke directly to their concerns. Interest in conducting Christian missions in Africa in this period derived, in part, from black Christians’ theological wrestling with the religious meaning of American slavery and of their current status under segregation. Where the biblical story of the Exodus had provided a map of meaning and a ground for hope for many enslaved and free African Americans in the antebellum period, after the end of slavery African American Christians looked to the Bible for other sources of inspiration and knowledge about their future. Some interpreted Psalm 68:31 (“Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopian shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God”) as a chart of sacred destiny that made the evil of slavery comprehensible as part of a broader divine plan for people of African descent to represent true Christianity to the world. Some African American theologians and religious leaders who found this interpretation of the meaning of past suffering and the nature of future destiny compelling emphasized missions in Africa as central to God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. 15

Early-19th-century AME mission work took place in the context of debates among free blacks about the colonization movement. The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1817 by northern and southern whites concerned about growing numbers of free people of color in the United States, advocated transporting free blacks to Africa and, to achieve that goal, established a settlement that would eventually become part of Liberia. The ACS encouraged free blacks to emigrate and secured funds to purchase the freedom of enslaved people on the condition that they agree to be transported to Africa. Shortly after the ACS’s founding, members of the AME Church met to debate colonization. Some individuals, such as founding member Daniel Coker ( 1780–1846 ), argued that prospects for free blacks would be better in Africa given restricted opportunities in the United States. Most AME leaders opposed colonization, however, holding that as Americans they should not have to leave the country of their birth to secure liberty and rights. Moreover, many argued, it would be devastating to the cause of abolition for free blacks, who could serve as advocates for the enslaved to leave. The denomination formally condemned the colonization scheme nevertheless, some members continued to find the idea appealing. In 1820 Coker joined with the ACS to embark on missionary work in Sierra Leone, traveling aboard the Elizabeth with eighty-five other colonists in a largely unsuccessful venture. In the 1870s AME clergy and church members constituted part of the Liberian Exodus movement in which a number of groups, most famously the company of 206 people aboard the Azor that sailed from Charleston to Monrovia in 1878 , gave up on the possibility of safety and prosperity in America and sought to build lives and communities elsewhere. 16

As part of renewed African American interest in Africa in the last decades of the 19th century, the AME Church established formal missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Black Methodists, such as internationally recognized traveling evangelist Amanda Berry Smith ( 1837–1915 ), also engaged in independent missionary work, largely without institutional support. In 1891 AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner ( 1843–1915 ) traveled to West Africa and southern Africa to incorporate into the denomination the churches that earlier missionaries had established. In 1900 Levi J. Coppin ( 1848–1924 ), former editor of the AME Church Review , was elected to the bishopric and appointed the first bishop of South Africa, formally extending the denomination’s scope. The AME Zion Church focused its mission work in Liberia and the Gold Coast under the leadership of Barbadian immigrant John Bryan Small ( 1845–1905 ), who was elected bishop in 1896 and appointed to a jurisdiction that included Africa, and his wife, Mary J. Small (c. 1850–1945), the first woman ordained an elder in the AME Zion Church. African American Baptists counted among their early missionaries Lott Carey ( 1780–1828 ), a former slave and pastor of the African Baptist Church in Richmond, who in 1815 helped to found the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. In 1821 Carey traveled to Sierra Leone as a missionary, accompanied by his wife, two children, and twenty members of his congregation. The group settled in Liberia the following year and Carey founded Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, which he pastored until his death in 1828 . Later black Baptists saw Carey as a model for their work, establishing the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in 1897 , which, along with state mission boards, supported Baptist missions. African American members of predominantly white denominations also engaged in missionary work in Africa, including Virginia native and ordained Presbyterian minister William H. Sheppard ( 1865–1927 ), who served as a Presbyterian missionary in the Congo from 1890 to 1910 , and former slave Maria Fearing (1838–1937), who, inspired by Sheppard’s preaching on a visit to the United States in 1894 , became a missionary and established a home for orphan girls. 17

African American missionaries and emigrationists generally framed their projects in terms of their own history, present concerns, and hopes for the future. Incorporating Africans into their biblical interpretations of the divine plan for black Christianity to lead the way to human redemption, missionaries and colonists rejected African traditional religions and worked to transform African societies according to the standards of Western Christian civilization. Even many of those who learned indigenous languages and attended to the social, economic, and medical needs of Africans in the regions of their missionary work still viewed indigenous religious and cultural systems as heathen and in need of reform. Episcopal priest Alexander Crummell ( 1819–1898 ) and Presbyterian minister Edward Wilmot Blyden ( 1832–1912 ) represent the complex religious perspectives of African diaspora blacks in this era with respect to their relationship to Africa. A New York native, Crummell was ordained to the priesthood in 1844 and became a vocal anti-slavery activist before embarking on missionary work in Liberia in 1853 . Initially opposed to colonization, Crummell became an advocate of African American emigration and an influential black nationalist, even as he remained committed to the superiority of Christian civilization and encouraged African Americans to take up the work of “redeeming” Africa. Blyden, an immigrant to the United States from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, also devoted himself to missionary work in Liberia, where he settled in 1851 and began a career in ministry, education, and politics. In his writings, Blyden advocated the preservation of African cultural traditions, which he argued had contributed to world cultures, and he also contended that Islam offered greater dignity to people of African descent than did Christianity, a perspective that led him to sever his connection with the Presbyterian Church. An ardent advocate of immigration of diaspora blacks to West Africa, Blyden lived out the remainder of his life there, dying in Sierra Leone in 1912 . Although the number of missionaries and colonists remained small over the course of the 19th century, their work was located in larger discussions about religious interpretations of black racial identity, history, and future destiny. 18

African American Christianity diversified in branching out in new directions in the late 19th century, reflecting and contributing to broader theological developments in American Christianity. The Holiness movement promoted the doctrine of sanctification, with advocates preaching that believers must experience an additional work of God’s grace beyond the central spiritual event of conversion. Although this theological position emerged from within evangelical churches it proved controversial and, in some cases, proponents of the doctrine formed new Holiness churches organized around belief in sanctification. Charles P. Jones ( 1865–1949 ) and Charles H. Mason ( 1864–1961 ), both Baptist preachers, began to advocate the controversial Holiness doctrine at revivals and churches in Mississippi, which led to their expulsion from their local Baptist association and the 1897 founding of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1906 Mason traveled to Azusa Street in Los Angeles to investigate a multiracial revival underway there, led by African American preacher William J. Seymour ( 1870–1922 ), a Louisiana native who preached the importance of another spiritual experience beyond sanctification. Seymour and advocates of what would become Pentecostalism strove for baptism in the Holy Spirit, which, they believed, would result in the manifestation of the gifts of speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, and interpretation. Mason reported experiencing this baptism and speaking in tongues at Azusa Street and became persuaded that all true Christians must also do so. Mason and Jones split the following year as a result of disagreement about Pentecostal theology. Jones continued to focus on sanctification and renamed his church the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A., and Jones took the name Church of God in Christ (COGIC) for his Pentecostal church. Although early Pentecostalism was characterized by multiracial interactions, the movement became segregated over the first decades of the 20th century. COCIG would become the largest African American Pentecostal denomination in the United States and one of the major sources for the spread of Pentecostalism around the world. 19

Migration, Urbanization, and the Culture of African American Christianity

At the start of the 20th century most African Americans lived in the South, primarily in rural settings. Over the next decades a number of factors combined to motivate African Americans to relocate to southern and northern cities in search of greater opportunity. By the end of World War I, some 2.5 million southern blacks had become part of this Great Migration, producing a dramatic increase in the black populations of northern cities. In the cities of the Northeast, southern migrants, who continued to arrive in large numbers in this first wave until the early 1930s, encountered immigrants from the British West Indies, also on the move in search of greater opportunity. More than 100,000 Caribbean immigrants arrived in the United States in the first three decades of the century, and they contributed to the religious, political, and cultural life of the growing black urban neighborhoods. While most African Americans still remained in the South and the reality of life for those who migrated to the North did not always meet the promise of expanded opportunity, the Great Migration nevertheless set the context for important developments in African American religious life.

Some established African American religious institutions in northern cities responded by working to incorporate the newcomers, and congregations such as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago saw a significant increase in membership. Interdenominational organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association, which had separate branches for and led by African Americans, also provided practical assistance and spiritual comfort to the migrants. Encounters between established northern black religious leaders and southern migrants were often fraught, however, as northern leaders frequently counseled migrants to conform to their middle-class religious and social standards. As a result, many migrants reconstituted their home churches in the North or founded new ones, sometimes in rented storefronts in the absence of funds to purchase property or build edifices. The growth in the number of Christian congregations in black neighborhoods in northern cities largely reflected the religious sensibilities and practices that had formed under slavery and that had become institutionalized in Baptist, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. Some of the most prominent of these storefront churches were founded and led by women, who appealed directly to the power of God and the Holy Spirit rather than to denominational hierarchies to authorize their leadership. The experience of South Carolina native Rosa A. Horn ( 1880–1976 ), who migrated spiritually from her Methodist upbringing to Pentecostalism and geographically to Illinois and then New York, exemplifies the influence of black southern Pentecostalism on the religious culture of the urban North. Horn, who began her religious ministry in Illinois, founded the Pentecostal Faith Church of All Nations in Harlem in 1926 , which not only featured emotional worship and faith healing, but also provided material aid for struggling residents of Harlem during the Great Depression. Horn became a well-known figure on the East Coast through her “Radio Church of God of the Air” broadcasts on WHN radio beginning in 1934 . 20

Horn was not alone in making use of popular and commercial culture as a vehicle for religious expression in this period. As radio broadcasts became popular in the 1930s, African American religious leaders took to the airwaves, and figures such as Holiness preacher Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux ( 1885–1968 ) in Washington, D.C., known as the Happy Am I Evangelist, and Elder Lucy Smith ( 1905–2010 ) in Chicago, who broadcast from her All Nations Pentecostal Church, achieved extraordinary popularity. African American musicians also used radio to broadcast black religious music in the 1930s. They included choir directors Eve Jessye ( 1895–1992 ), whose Dixie Jubilee Singers appeared on NBC and WOR radio in the 1930s, and Hall Johnson ( 1888–1970 ), whose Hall Johnson Choir offered listeners a range of black folk music, including work songs, blues, and spirituals. Radio broadcasts, either from black churches or from studios, reached beyond African American listeners and provided a glimpse of aspects of black religious culture to a national audience. The representation of African American preaching, worship, and religious music in such early-20th-century media forms as “race records,” aimed specifically at black audiences, also contributed to the process of religious and cultural formation in the era of the Great Migration. Kansas City–based Rev. J. C. Burnett, who recorded such sermons as “The Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar” (Columbia, 1926), Chicago-based Baptist minister A. W. Nix, who recorded “Black Diamond Express to Hell” (Vocalion,1927), and Chicago Pentecostal minister Leora Ross, who recorded “Dry Bones in the Valley” (Okeh, 1927), achieved tremendous popularity through the circulation of their records. The most successful of the race records preachers was James M. Gates ( 1884–1945 ), pastor of Atlanta’s Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, whose recorded sermons, including “Death’s Black Train Is Coming,” “You Must Be Born Again,” and “Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus” on Columbia Records in 1926 , launched him as a preaching celebrity. 21

African American religious music served as a central part of black religious culture and an important element in the success of religious race records. The recorded sermons generally presented popular sermonic subject matter in the classic chanted sermon style characteristic of many black preachers with call and response from congregants, and they also sometimes incorporated music. Congregational choirs often provided the music on many sermon recordings, but popular religious musicians sometimes teamed up with preachers to great success. Well-known blind Pentecostal pianist and missionary Arizona Dranes ( 1894–1963 ) teamed with Church of God in Christ (COGIC) minister F. W. McGee ( 1890–1971 ) on “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (Okeh, 1927), which helped to launch his career. Dranes, whose percussive piano style contributed to the emergence of gospel music, was a recording star in her own right, and she used the popularity of her recordings, such as “My Soul Is Witness for My Lord” (Okeh, 1926), to enhance her work as a traveling missionary for COGIC. 22

The spread of early gospel music, a genre that combined traditional hymnody and southern blues, reflects musicians’ work both in African American churches and in the broader media culture of records and radio. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where in 1932 pastor Junius C. Austin ( 1887–1968 ) hired Thomas A. Dorsey ( 1899–1993 ) as music director, served as a critical site for the development of gospel. Through his compelling preaching and strong leadership, Virginia-native Austin built Pilgrim into one of the largest churches in the nation. A Georgia native who had been a successful blues pianist before taking his position at Pilgrim, Dorsey popularized gospel’s combination of sacred lyrics and blues music, penning the enduring gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Dorsey and Holiness singer Sallie Martin ( 1895–1988 ), with whom he recorded such classic gospel songs as “I’ll Tell It Wherever I Go,” mentored many emerging gospel artists through the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which they helped to found in 1933 . Gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson ( 1911–1972 ), whose musical style was formed in the Baptist, sanctified, and jazz cultures of her native New Orleans, benefited from Dorsey’s mentorship after migrating to Chicago, and she made “Precious Lord” a signature song in her repertoire. Jackson rose to prominence in the 1940s through radio appearances and records, including the million-selling “Move On Up a Little Higher” (Apollo, 1947), and she resisted appeals to sing secular music, insisting as in the lyrics of a Dorsey song she recorded in 1957 , “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.” 23

Pentecostal gospel star Rosetta Tharpe ( 1915–1973 ), who grew up in the Church of God in Christ in Arkansas, was much more at ease moving between what most African Americans at the time would have understood as separate and competing realms of sacred and secular music and performance venues. Tharpe began her career as a gospel performer in the 1920s as she and her mother, a COGIC evangelist, traveled doing revival work. Tharpe’s blues-inflected guitar playing was influenced by Arizona Dranes’s percussive piano style, which stemmed from Dranes working with her in Rev. F. W. McGee’s traveling revival group in the late 1920s.Through these revivals and radio appearances, Tharpe came to the attention of jazz musicians and record companies, and she made her first recordings, “Rock Me” and “This Train” (Decca Records, 1938 ), accompanied by a jazz orchestra. Tharpe’s incorporation of secular themes into sacred music and her performances of gospel music in secular venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club made her a controversial figure for many black Christians, who shunned the world of popular entertainments. Her success extended the cultural reach of gospel music, however, and her popularity in varied arenas of American life reveals important connections between secular and sacred culture in black life. 24 Similarly, groups such as the Infantry Chorus of Leonard de Paur (1914–1998) helped to promote African American spirituals beyond black religious circles. New Jersey native de Paur began his career with the famed Hall Johnson Choir and founded his own all-male chorus, for which he served as conductor and arranger, while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Following the war, the Infantry Chorus’s recordings on Columbia records were best sellers, helping to popularize black religious music in the world of secular concert performance.

Movies served as another arena for religious expression in the era of the Great Migration, and one that also highlights complex interactions between African American church traditions and popular culture. While directors of early “race films,” such as influential writer and director Oscar Micheaux ( 1885–1951 ), often featured black churches and leaders in their stories, their films were not meant to provide moral education or cultivate religious experience. Rather, with films such as Body and Soul (1925), in which Paul Robeson ( 1898–1976 ) made his film debut, Micheaux raised questions about the political utility of churches and clergy and offered a critique of what he saw as the emotionality of southern black religious culture. In the era of sound films, veteran race movie actor and Louisiana native Spencer Williams Jr. ( 1893–1969 ) valorized the religious world of black Baptists in his films, including the highly successful The Blood of Jesus ( 1941 ) and Go Down Death ( 1944 ), and he incorporated striking special effects to simulate the presence of supernatural beings and mark extraordinary religious experiences. Like a number of other films from the 1940s, such as the Royal Gospel Productions Going to Glory, Come to Jesus ( 1946 ), Williams’s films preached temperance and the evils of commercial entertainments to black audiences, reflecting Christian responses to the cultural changes that urbanization and migration had produced in African American life. 25

The Rise of New Religious Movements

In addition to developments within black Christianity, the movement of people and the exchange of cultures in the Great Migration generated new groups that offered people of African descent in the United States a range of religious options outside of the dominant Protestant Christianity. The stage for these changes was set, in part, by the 1918 establishment of Harlem as the headquarters for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey ( 1887–1940 ) to foster global black unity and self-determination in Africa. Garvey and his organization promoted black nationalism through the Negro World newspaper, in conventions, public rallies, and parades, and with the establishment of the Black Star Line of steamships. Although the latter endeavor ultimately failed and poor management and corruption led to Garvey’s conviction for mail fraud and to his deportation from the United States in 1927 , the movement had a powerful cultural and social impact. With the motto of “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” Garvey emphasized the centrality of religion to the project of black pride, unity, and self-determination, and, through the UNIA’s chaplains, he incorporated hymns, prayers, and rituals into the organization’s activities. The religion of the UNIA was decidedly Christian—Garvey was Roman Catholic—and encouraged people of African descent to embrace a black Madonna and a black Christ. But Garvey did not insist upon Catholic or even Christian commitment for membership, which made the organization accessible to a range of people of African descent, including African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean, in the United States as well as in other countries. 26

Two individuals who were influenced by Garvey’s black nationalist sentiment opened up new religious possibilities for people of African descent beginning in the 1920s. Arnold Josiah Ford ( 1877–1935 ), an immigrant from Barbados to Harlem, was an active member of the UNIA for a number of years, working as the organization’s musical director and co-authoring its Universal Ethiopian Anthem. Raised a Methodist in Barbados, Ford studied the Bible and apocryphal texts avidly and became persuaded that black people were Israelites descended from King Solomon and the Ethiopian queen of Sheba. Gathering a group of mostly immigrants from the Caribbean, some who were also active in the UNIA, Ford promoted this understanding of black identity as Ethiopian Hebrew and, in 1924 , he founded Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham in Harlem, serving as its rabbi. Ford moved to Ethiopia in 1930 to begin the work of establishing a community and forging connections to the indigenous Ethiopian Jewish community, but he became ill and died before he was able to do so. Ford’s teaching influenced Wentworth Arthur Matthew ( 1892–1973 ), an immigrant to Harlem from St. Kitts, who founded the Commandments Keepers Church of the Living God, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth in 1919 . Beginning as a Christian church that emphasized the commandments of the Hebrew scriptures as the religion of Jesus, Matthew’s group transformed over time to become the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a group whose members understood themselves to be descendants of the Israelites and rejected Jesus as the Messiah. By the mid-1930s, Matthew had become the most prominent advocate in the United States of Ethiopian Hebrew identity as the true identity of people of African descent, and his congregation served as the nucleus of a group of other congregations in the Northeast served by rabbis whom Matthew had ordained. 27

A number of groups founded in the first decades of the 20th century promoted versions of Islam as the original religion of black people. The Moorish Science Temple, founded in Chicago in 1925 by southern migrant Thomas (a.k.a. Timothy) Drew ( 1886–1929 ), taught that blacks in America are the descendants of the ancient Moabites. Drew, who took the name Noble Drew Ali in his role as the group’s prophet, lauded Marcus Garvey’s work to promote black unity, but he offered a different version of black racial identity, insisting that “the Negro” was an imposed identity fabricated in slavery. Drew told his followers that they should consider themselves Moorish Americans, return to their true religion, and take back their true “tribal names” of Bey and El in order to achieve racial unity and spiritual fulfillment. Drew Ali offered his followers a composite scripture in The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple, combining material from published texts in the Western esoteric tradition and text he wrote himself outlining the origins of Moorish Americans. By the time of Drew Ali’s death in 1929 , the Moorish Science Temple counted thousands of followers in temples in major cities, including Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Cleveland. After his death the movement fractured under the leadership of different followers contending for succession, but it continued to promote this view of Moorish Muslim identity.

In Detroit in the early 1930s, a group of African American migrants from the South gathered around W. D. Fard’s (b. 1877 ?), teaching that they were not Negroes or Africans, but rather Asiatic Muslims whose true home was Mecca. Fard, who may have been a member of the MST in Chicago, preached that black people were the earth’s original people and whites were the later creations of a malicious black scientist and possessed of an inherently evil nature. Fard said that he had come from Mecca to prepare blacks for Allah’s destruction of the devilish whites by restoring their true religion of Islam and their original Islamic names, thus making them a Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Little is known about Fard except that he was successful in attracting thousands of followers to the Nation of Islam (NOI) before the Detroit police forced him to leave the city in 1934 and he disappeared. Elijah Poole ( 1897–1975 ), a Georgia Baptist migrant, succeeded Fard. Poole was an early convert to the NOI to whom Fard gave the name Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad took on the role of Messenger of Allah and began to teach that Fard was not simply a prophet but was, in fact, Allah in the flesh. While the Moorish Science Temple embraced Americanness as part of Moorish American identity, the NOI rejected the United States as evil and doomed to destruction and set economic and territorial independence as a goal. Muhammad, who served time in prison as a draft resister during World War II, moved the group’s headquarters to Chicago and the movement continued to grow, gaining a broader audience through Muhammad’s column in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper in the 1950s. 28

Whereas members of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews rejected Negro and Christian identity in favor of alternative understandings of race and religion, Father Divine’s interracial Peace Mission Movement offered yet another approach in rejecting race altogether as a creation of the devil. Born George Baker ( 1879–1965 ) in Maryland, Father Divine taught that he was God in a body and had come to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. He promised his followers health, agelessness, and eternal life if they would renounce the things of mortal life. Divine’s followers, who took names like Wonderful Joy and Peaceful John that reflected their new spiritual status as raceless children of God, created their kingdom in sex-segregated celibate residences. Divine enjoined his followers to vote in aid of transforming the world according to his vision and, in 1936 , the movement drafted a Righteous Government platform that included political, economic, and educational programs. At its height of popularity in the late 1930s, the Peace Mission Movement, which drew blacks and whites, counted as many as fifty thousand members in 160 missions in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and the British West Indies. The number of adherents in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration was small in comparison to the large numbers of blacks affiliated with Christian churches. However, their cultural impact extended beyond membership figures as they offered people of African descent in the United States new ways of thinking about their religious and racial identities, varied understandings of the relationship between the two, and approaches to politics that derived from these collective identities. 29

Religion and the Black Freedom Movement

Religious beliefs, practices, institutions, and leaders contributed to post–World War II campaigns for civil rights in a variety of ways. Religious understandings of the power of nonviolence to effect change were important for many activists, such as James M. Lawson (b. 1928 ) for whom social justice protest was essentially religious work to foster a “beloved community” and make the Kingdom of God a reality in the present. The son of an AME Zion minister who grew up in Ohio, Lawson became a pacifist through his mother’s influence and later honed his commitments working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an international ecumenical pacifist organization. Increasingly committed to nonviolence, Lawson served time in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and later served as a Methodist missionary in India, where he studied Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent resistance. Returning to the United States to study theology, Lawson met Baptist minister and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. ( 1929–1968 ), who encouraged him to join the movement in the South. In 1957 Lawson moved to Nashville as the southern field secretary for the FOR and began to conduct workshops on nonviolent resistance as Christian practice. Many of the young students Lawson introduced to nonviolence as an activist strategy, including John Lewis ( b. 1940 ), Marion Barry (b. 1936 ), and Diane Nash (b. 1938 ), would become major figures in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized in 1960 on what its founders argued was the Judeo-Christian tradition’s core commitment to nonviolence. 30

Other local civil rights campaigns emerged among southern blacks and many of the participants grounded their work in Christian commitment and religious community. In Montgomery, Alabama, in the winter of 1955 , black residents engaged in an organized boycott of the city’s bus lines following the arrest of Rosa Parks ( 1913–2005 ), secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for violating the city’s laws requiring segregated seating on buses. The boycott was originally planned by the Women’s Political Council as a one-day event however, thousands of members of the African American community met at Holt Street Baptist Church and decided to extend the boycott until the buses were desegregated. The action continued for more than a year under the direction of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, whose members pressed Martin Luther King Jr., the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, into service as its president. In the course of the year, community members gathered in mass meetings at churches to support one another in their commitment to nonviolence and to gain courage in the face of increasing violence against them. The action came to an end in 1956 following a Supreme Court decision declaring segregated buses unconstitutional. King became a national figure in the course of the year as a result of his captivating preaching and public advocacy of nonviolent resistance. In 1957 King and others involved in the boycott, including Montgomery Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy ( 1926–1990 ) and Quaker adviser to the boycott movement Bayard Rustin ( 1910–1987 ), founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the motto “To Redeem the Soul of America,” this organization, led primarily by King and other black male clergy, served as an umbrella group for helping to coordinate local civil rights actions. 31

King and SCLC became the public face of the Civil Rights movement on the national and international stages, but a variety of grassroots organizations and local groups served as the engines of the activism. Ella Baker ( 1903–986 ), a former NAACP fieldworker who had been involved in the founding of SCLC, left the organization to focus on assisting the younger generation of activists, and she served as adviser to the organizers of SNCC. Baker brought her Baptist background to the work, inspiring the young activists with her commitment to nonviolence and her faith in the ultimate triumph of a movement emerging from the people’s concerns and needs. Throughout the 1960s, SNCC’s young leaders organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, Freedom Rides of integrated groups of passengers on interstate buses, and voter education projects. SNCC’s most significant action was the 1964 Freedom Summer that brought an interracial group of college students from around the country to Mississippi to register black voters and establish “freedom schools” for children. The volunteers also worked with local activists to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the state’s all-white delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention. Among the long-time local activists on the MFDP’s slate of delegates was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), a sharecropper who had suffered financial reprisals and intimidation by the police for attempting to register to vote. When Hamer finally succeeded in registering in 1963 , she was arrested and beaten badly in jail nevertheless, she continued to advocate for civil rights, drawing others to the work with powerful speeches articulating a theology of civil rights that insisted on the revolutionary role of Jesus as a liberator. Hamer came to national attention when her testimony at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of the MFDP delegates was televised, showcasing the theological richness and courage of local activists in the movement. 32

Christian theology, religious commitment to nonviolence, and church culture all played important roles in the southern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Religiously grounded grassroots organizing combined with the work of national organizations such as the SCLC contributed to the legislative and judicial successes by which formal segregation was dismantled. While this approach to civil rights work received widespread support in African American communities, critics of the movement’s tactics and goals were also vocal, including some who felt Christians should not engage in mass protest and others who believed political action should not have a religious component. Malcolm X ( 1925–1965 ), a minister in the Nation of Islam and influential spokesperson for the group, was among the most prominent and influential critics of the Civil Rights movement’s goals and tactics. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm discovered W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad’s teachings while serving time in prison for larceny, joined the movement upon his release, and took the X in place of the family name that slavery had erased. Malcolm and other members of the NOI questioned the commitment to nonviolence that grounded much of civil rights activism, arguing that liberation must be achieved “by any means necessary,” including use of violence. Even after Malcolm’s 1964 split with the NOI, he continued to critique the tactics of mainstream civil rights activism. The NOI and advocates of Black Power in the late 1960s also challenged the Civil Rights movement’s focus on racial integration in arguing for the development of black pride and power separate from white American society. 33

Many Black Power advocates rejected Christianity as irrelevant to black experience and the quest for liberation, and they criticized black churches as having helped to accommodate African Americans to inferior status in counseling love for one’s enemy and hope for reward in heaven. Some black theologians and religious leaders insisted that Christianity and black power were compatible, however, and they extolled a long interpretive tradition presenting Christianity’s primary message as one of liberation of the oppressed. James H. Cone (b. 1938 ), an Arkansas native, ordained AME minister, and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was the most prominent theologian in the movement that would come to be called Black Theology, interpreting Christianity through the lens of black experience. His Black Power and Black Theology ( 1969 ) garnered a great deal of attention and energized a new generation of African American theologians, who explored the liberating potential of Christianity for black people worldwide. One significant response to the Black Theology movement that extended its scope came from African American women, including Cone’s student Jacqueline Grant (b. 1948 ), an AME minister who challenged the gender politics of Black Theology. Grant and others charged that the work of black male theologians ignored the contributions of women to black church history and failed to take into account how gender shaped the experiences of black women in unique ways that a black theology also needed to address. The Womanist Theology movement emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the ethical and theological writings of women such as ordained Presbyterian professor Katie Geneva Cannon (b. 1950 ) and Delores S. Williams (b. 1937 ), who drew on the term coined by author Alice Walker (b. 1944 ) and incorporated it into a religious context. Cannon, Williams, and others drew on sources from black women’s everyday life, such as quiltmaking, music, and storytelling, and they sought to speak directly to women of African descent in their writings while also not excluding men from the religious insight their theology provided. Some critics of Black Theology and Womanist Theology questioned the relevance of an academic enterprise based in seminaries and universities to the daily life struggles facing African Americans in the period after the end of legal segregation. As the 20th century came to a close, the historical black denominations that had been important arenas for cultivating a sense of collective identity, fostering economic and educational development, and motivating political organizing faced the challenge of maintaining relevance in the face of increasing class divisions among African Americans and a generational divide that pointed to the possibility of decreased participation of young people in institutional church life. 34

New Religious Formations in the New Century

A number of significant trends that began at the end of the 20th century continue to shape religious life for people of African descent in the United States in the 21st century. The American religious landscape has been greatly influenced by increased immigration from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which followed U.S. immigration reforms in 1965 . These immigrants represent a diverse set of religious commitments that include African varieties of Islam, independent African churches, African Pentecostalism, Rastafari, and Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodou and Santería. The presence of these traditions in the American religious landscape offer new religious options to African Americans even as tensions between native-born and immigrant black populations have sometimes limited religious exchange. Nevertheless, some African Americans have found fulfillment in Afro-Caribbean traditions, and some African and African American Muslims make their spiritual homes and worship in the same mosques. African American Muslims make up almost one-third of the population of Muslims in the United States, and most of these are connected to the Sunni branch of Islam. Some African American Muslims have roots in the Nation of Islam and followed Warith Deen Mohammed ( 1933–2008 ), Elijah Muhammad’s son and successor, into Sunni Islam (with the NOI continuing under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan [b. 1933 ]). Others have been drawn to Islam through individual journeys in search of spiritual fulfillment and through encounter with other adherents, which is also the case for many African American Buddhists and Jews in contemporary America. 35

Within African American Christianity, significant 21st-century trends include the increasing prominence of “megachurch” congregations that count two thousand or more members. This development is not exclusive to black churches and, in many cases, predominantly white congregations have attracted significant numbers of African American members while churches with majority black membership and black pastors have white congregants. Most black megachurches, such as 19,000-member First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, the 10,000-member National Baptist Convention Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis, and the 13,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, are connected to historically black Protestant denominations. Many, like Crenshaw Christian Center, based in Los Angeles with a branch in New York City and claiming more than 20,000 members, are nondenominational, reflecting a growing trend in black Christianity. The influence of Pentecostal beliefs and practices is strong in African American megachurches whether denominational or nondenominational. While formal membership figures do not necessarily reflect the number of active congregants, these are strikingly large congregations that offer congregants a variety of ministries targeted at interest and demographic groups. The social engagements of black megachurches tend to focus on community development rather than electoral politics or organized protest, and they use some of their considerable financial resources to sponsor social, economic, and educational services such as legal clinics, family counseling, health projects, housing developments, and schools. 36

Some African American megachurches participate in the “Word of Faith” movement commonly referred to as the prosperity gospel, a theological orientation that sees prosperity, figured in material and other terms, as a sign of a right relationship with God. 37 Frederick K. Price (b. 1932 ), founder of Crenshaw Christian Center, was one of the key figures promoting the prosperity gospel in black churches in the 1970s, and he continues to be influential. Other prominent African American prosperity preachers in the first decade of the 21st century include Eddie Long (b. 1953 ) of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church located near Atlanta, Creflo Dollar (b. 1962 ) and Taffy Dollar of World Changers Church International, also located near Atlanta, and T. D. Jakes (b. 1957 ) of The Potter’s House in Dallas. In addition, prosperity gospel can be found in churches that operate on a much smaller scale than these megachurches led by celebrity pastors, but key to the success of preachers such as Price and Jakes has been their use of multiple media, including satellite network televangelism and broadcast over the Internet, to promote their theologies in the United States and, increasingly, in the Caribbean and Africa. Proponents of the prosperity gospel have been criticized and subject to scrutiny for their tax-exempt lavish lifestyles characterized by mansions, private jets, luxury cars, and jewelry that are supported by the Word of Faith’s strong theological emphasis on the need to tithe to receive God’s blessing of prosperity. Critics have charged that the focus on individual financial gain has turned black churches away from addressing the broader issues of racism and economic inequality. Personal scandals involving figures such as Eddie Long, accused of sexual misconduct with young men in one of his church organizations, and Gaston Everett Smith, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, Florida, who was convicted of stealing public grants made to his church to aid the poor, have also raised questions about a number of celebrity ministers who contravene the sexual and financial standards they preach in their ministries. While nondenominational megachurches, prosperity gospel, and media ministries have garnered a significant presence in the African American religious landscape, a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center shows that African American commitment to historically black Protestant churches remains strong.

Discussion of the Literature

The process by which religious culture developed under slavery has been one of the most debated topics in the field as scholars have sought to understand the relationship of African American religious formations to the various traditions in the African contexts from which enslaved people were transported. Was there cultural continuity and, if so, how was it produced, maintained, and manifested? Were cultural links irreparably ruptured and, if so, what were the consequences for religious developments in America? The varied terms scholars have used to describe the relationship of African diaspora religions to Africa and the process of cultural change—retention, survival, syncretism, transculturation, polyculturalism, bricolage, among others—reflect a range of approaches to addressing these questions. One prominent scholarly narrative emphasizes a clear and enduring impact of African traditions in African American religious culture seen in understandings of the sacred, ritual practices, and general sensibilities. Scholarly accounts differ regarding the specific ways these influences are manifested in African American religion. Another narrative argues that the break with African cultures proved so profound that the religious orientations of African Americans bear few traces and represent entirely diasporic formations facilitated by religious exchange with European Americans. Recent developments in the study of the transatlantic slave trade have encouraged scholars of African American religious history to attend in greater detail to the ethnic origins of enslaved Africans, to the cultural distinctiveness of different regions and states, and to change over time as African American religious culture developed. Such work focuses less on generalized answers to the question of the relationship of diasporic religion to Africa and more on exploring specific cases, such as the impact of Kongo culture in a particular region of North America.

Scholarly analysis of African American religion has focused heavily on politics, highlighting questions about the role of Christianity in the formation of black collective identity and its impact on the possibility of political mobilization under slavery and beyond. Did Christianization accommodate enslaved people to their status in significant ways? To what extent did Christian theology and institutional formations enable and support resistance to slavery, oppression, and racism? Scholars have also debated the degree and nature of the contributions black religious leaders and churches made to the modern Civil Rights movement. Some of this work has highlighted the political conservatism of some black church leaders and other work identifies a retrospectively romanticized view of black church activism, presenting a much more complex range of positions on politics among black Christians. In light of changes in the broader literature on the Civil Rights movement in shifting from a focus on national organizations and prominent leaders to local activism, recent scholarship on religion and civil rights has also sought to tell a broader range of stories about the movement and its participants.

Historians most often attend to religion in their narratives of African American history in relation to politics and have been less interested in questions of theology and culture. The dominance of the political narrative has brought to the fore certain aspects of African American religious life, such as moments of resistance, mobilization, and electoral politics, but it has offered little insight into the cultures, theologies, and spiritual experiences of black religion in the United States. Recent scholarship on the cultures of African American religious life, including music, the visual arts of painting, photography, and film, and media such as phonograph records, radio, and television, has highlighted the richness of these sources for the study of black religion. Attention to African American religion in literature, theater, and other arts in recent work has also broadened the source base for scholarship and underscored the complex engagements between the mainstream of orthodox black Protestant Christianity and the post-Christian, the secular, and religious alternatives.

Despite the fact that African American women constitute the majority of members in the Protestant churches that dominate in African American religious history, they remain underrepresented figures in scholarship. Narratives emphasizing the role that leaders of black church institutions have played in politics beyond the churches necessarily devote little attention to women, who have often been excluded from assuming formal leadership roles. Much of the scholarship on black women in churches has focused on the struggle over gender and ordination in the 19th century and on recovering the stories of significant figures in the movement. Research on women’s religious organizations within and outside of denominations has supplemented that work, but many areas remain to be explored in efforts to move beyond the limited focus on ordination and formal leadership. In addition, scholars are only beginning to attend to questions of gender and sexuality in African American religious history in ways that reflect the complex contributions that religious beliefs and practices have made to the construction of gender and sexual identity.

Scholarly narratives of African American religious history most often end with the Civil Rights movement, and they sometimes chart the rise of Black Power as representing a secular rejection of religiously inspired social protest. Historians of African American religion have yet to fully assess the religious developments of the 1980s and 1990s, and the field would benefit from greater attention to the impact on black religious life of Reagan-era economic policies, the rise of black conservatives, the AIDS epidemic, and the war on drugs as well as the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, multiracial church congregations, and cultural developments such as rap music.

Primary Sources

African American narratives published in the 19th century are useful sources for considering the role of religion in shaping black identity and culture. The University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project features a “Guide to Religious Content in Slave Narratives” as well as full text online versions of the narratives. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library hosts a digital collection of works by African American Women Writers of the 19th Century that includes the spiritual narratives of AME preacher Jarena Lee, AME Zion preacher Julia A. J. Foote, and black Baptist missionary Virginia Broughton, among others. The Library of Congress has made available interviews conducted with former slaves in its archive, “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” and conversion narratives collected by Fisk University’s Social Science Institute have been published in Clifton H. Johnson’s God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex Slaves (Pilgrim Press, 1969).

Resources for studying black religious institutions include church and denominational periodicals, many of which are available on microfilm in the American Theological Library Association’s African American Historical Serials Collection. The Church in the Southern Black Community, part of the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project, contains memoirs, published diaries, denominational and congregational histories of black churches, encyclopedias, theological treatises, catechisms, and conference proceedings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The records of the American Missionary Association are a valuable resource for studying missionary work among freed individuals in the South, and the American Colonization Society’s records and photographs contain materials about religion and emigration. A collection of materials related to Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia is available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and on microfilm, and the United Methodist Archives and History Center[] at Drew University holds additional materials related to African American Methodists. The records of First African Baptist Church of Savannah are on deposit at the Schomburg Center, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s holdings include resources for studying African American Baptist associations. The Consortium of Pentecostal Archives houses a number of digitized collections, including The Apostolic Faith periodical produced from the Azusa Street revival, and the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Archive has information on archival collections around the country related to the Church of God in Christ and other black Pentecostal denominations.

The scrapbooks in the Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana at Columbia University, also available on microfilm, contain materials on the African American new religious movements of the Great Migration and a range of other early-20th-century religious subjects. Emory University’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library holds a large collection of sources related to Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement at its Philadelphia headquarters, and the Schomburg Center contains a smaller collection from followers in Washington State. The Schomburg Center also holds papers from the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and related congregations, and Malcolm X. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s online reading room features files related to the Moorish Science Temple, W. D. Fard, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, and a range of other black religious leaders.

Collections related to African American religion and music are available at numerous archives, including the Thomas A. Dorsey Collection at Fisk University and the Mahalia Jackson Papers at the Williams Research Center. The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University is an excellent resource for studying religion and African American theater. Various collections of photographs provide insight into aspects of African American religious life and history not accessible through text as well as examples of the aesthetics of black photography of religious subjects. The Center for Southern Folklore houses the Rev. L. O. Taylor Collection of photographs and films from the 1920s through the 1960s, focusing not only on Memphis, but also on National Baptist Convention subjects. The Teenie Harris Archive at the Carnegie Museum of Art contains 80,000 of Charles “Teenie” Harris’s photographs from the 1930s through the 1970s of Pittsburgh’s African American community. The photographs contained in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress document a variety of aspects of African American life in the 1930s and 1940s and contains images by African American photographer Gordon Parks.


Important documentaries that focus on aspects of African American religious history:

Media's Influence on Social Norms and Identity Development of Youth

We are often bombarded with news stories showing the horrors of how media is shaping today's youth. Violence, gender-stereotyping, and even increased sexual promiscuity have been cited as ills of modern media outlets. With debates over media's influence often polarized, it becomes difficult to decipher what is the true influence of media.

It is often suggested that media has potentially profound effects on the social identity formation of young people. However, understanding how media outlets affect the identity of adolescents takes understanding what "identity" entails.

So what is identity? For starters, we technically are not born with identity it is a socially constructed attribute. The self-concept, which is the knowledge of who we are, combines with self awareness to develop a cognitive representation of the self, called identity (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010, p.118). In other words, who we are is controlled by internal and external factors that combine to make us who we become. Add in new media outlets, such as the internet, and media is now considered an "extension of everyday life and a tool of cultural change" (Singh, 2010). Thus, identity formation, as a social concept, is being transformed in new and even more global ways.

How does this transformation of media affect youth, today? On average, American adolescents spend "6 ½ hours per day" engaging in some form of media, (Arnett, 2010, p. 338). This is a substantial amount of time spent interacting with these different forms of entertainment. This interaction not only becomes a way to entertain oneself, but also becomes an external force for comparative research. How so? Part of identity formation is thinking about the type of person you want to be (Arnett, 2010, p. 340). By providing young people a resource that gives a seemingly constant flow of information, adolescents can use this information as a guide for social comparison. With a constant bombardment of information, deciding what type of person you want to be can become a challenge for some. Ideas, can either be enforced, or even corrupted, by a false sense of what the world actually is. Although this information may not be fully reliable, it still provides ideas as to how to act and form one's identity.

One of the strongest routes by which media appears to influence attitude-change is through persuasion. Eisend & Möller (2007) discuss how media can have an immediate effect on one's perceptions of social reality. By viewing beautiful models in advertising campaigns, women reported lower body satisfaction, a temporary rise in comparison standards toward physical attractiveness, and an enhanced belief regarding the importance of attractiveness (Eisend & Möller, 2007). The constant persuasion of what is "reality" plays a pivotal role in young girl's development of negative self-image. Many girls are taught, through stereotypical portrayal, that women are nothing more than sexual objects and, that intelligence is something to be ashamed of and hidden. In a recent film, an organization called Miss Representation highlights this unfortunate ideology promulgated by today's media sources (YouTube, 2011).

Another interesting fact is that, whether consciously aware of what is being displayed or not, media plays a substantial role in influencing consumption patterns and lifestyle. Researchers noted television's power to influence even people who are illiterate. Smith-Speck and Roy (2008) explained that even individuals who cannot read or write can be highly influenced by advertising to purchase certain products, or develop certain lifestyle values. It is this media picture that portrays, and actually molds, our society's value system. In essence, media is conveying what we should buy, who we should be, or who we should become, in order to be "happy". Unfortunately, whether young or old, this seems to be working.

Again, identity is a social concept. When we engage any media, no matter what form it may take, we are in essence receiving the ideas from those authors. Simply, it is a different format by which we now exchange ideas. Hence, it is no different than having the creators, writers, entertainers and advertisers with us in our living room. As far as advertisers are concerned, they are banking on this fact. Why? If we talk with one another, write a letter to one another, or text or tweet a message, we are conveying our thoughts to another person. We are socializing. It makes no difference if this is in person or electronic. The effects are still the same.

Arnett, J. J. (2010). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural approach

(4th edition).Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2010). Social Psychology (7th ed.)

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Eisend, M., & Jana Möller. (2007). The influence of TV viewing on consumers'

body images and related consumption behavior. Marketing Letters,

18(1-2), 101-116. doi:10.1007/s11002-006-9004-8

Liberman, M. (2008). Texting efficiency [photograph cartoon]. University of

Singh, C. (2010). New Media and Cultural Identity. China Media Research, 6(1),

Smith-Speck, S., & Roy, A. (2008). The interrelationships between television

viewing, values and perceived well-being: A global perspective.

Journal of International Business Studies, 39(7), 1197-1219.

A few nongovernment organizations (NGOs) work on human rights issues. One of the most important is the Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH), which was created in 1991 after a government massacre of more than five hundred black army officers and civilians in custody. Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes de la Répression en Mauritanie (Solidarity Committee of with Victims of Repression in Mauritania, or CSVRM) was created by the widows, mothers, and sisters of victims of racist extrajudicial killings in 1990 and 1991.

SOS-Esclaves (SOS Slaves) was founded in 1992 by a former slave. SOS fights for the emancipation of the nearly one million former and current slaves of the ruling white Maurs. Ligue Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (Mauritanian Human Rights League, or LMDH) was created when political parties and NGOs were not allowed in the country after the campaign of terror against black intellectuals in 1986. It is considered a front for the government.

Activity Four: Race and Ethnicity

Race is a social construction that has real consequences and effects. Race is colloquially used to refer to a person’s skin color, religion or area of origin (e.g., Black, Jewish or African). Technically, however, race is based on national origin, sociocultural groups and self-identification. The U.S. government, including the Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not attempt to identify race according to biology, anthropology or genetics. Religious belief is not considered a race, but can be a factor in identifying one’s sociocultural group. (For a full explanation of how each racial category is defined, refer to the U.S. Census About Race page). In a historical context, race has played a large part in how our society has evolved, and it shapes the way we see others and how we experience our lives. (For more on race from a historical perspective, read “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” by Ronald Takaki.)

The objective of this activity is to help participants take stock of the multicultural diversity in their lives. It should help participants get a clear image of how diverse or homogenous their surroundings are and identify ways to improve their exposure to multiculturalism on a daily basis.

Fill in the appropriate boxes:

In my environmentGenderRaceEthnicitySexualityAbilityReligionVeteran Status
I am
My co-workers are
My supervisor is
My elementary school was predominantly
My teachers were mostly
Most of my close friends are
My dentist is
My doctor is
Other people who live in my home are
People who regularly visit my home are
My neighbors are

How “Collective Human Rights” Undermine Individual Human Rights

Aaron Rhodes is an international human rights advocate. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights for fourteen years and is.

Key Takeaways

Today, “collective human rights” threaten individual human rights, creating the notion that the rights of a group can be more valuable than rights of individuals.

The principle of individual rights is essential to peaceful pluralism and must be re-established as the North Star for those seeking freedom and democracy.

The U.S. has an opportunity to fill the moral vacuum of international human rights with renewed ideas and methods for improving respect for individual freedoms.

The human right to individual liberty rests on a moral and rational foundation that was understood in ancient times, with the realization that the laws of rulers and legislatures must conform to the laws of nature so as not to infringe on the freedoms that are essential to human nature. Human beings possess reason and moral agency—the capacity to make moral choices this is what forms the core of humanity. True human rights are those that constrain governments from violating our inherent, natural right to liberty—the freedom to live and act in accordance with these central pillars of humanity’s common nature.

To the degree that the individual right to liberty has been honored and respected, societies have flourished, and their members have had opportunities for human fulfillment. To the degree that they have been betrayed, restrictions on fundamental freedoms have resulted in tragic human suffering: violence, poverty, discrimination, the manipulation of truth and information, and lost opportunities to advance the welfare of individuals and societies.

At the end of World War II, the international human rights system was envisioned as a project to defend individual human rights. Yet, through ideologically driven revisionism, it has evolved to endorse a broadly expanded array of rights, including many that are profoundly inconsistent with the philosophical and moral foundations of the very concept of inherent, natural human rights. Today, internationally protected human rights include rights rooted in political movements, that obligate government not to respect freedoms, but to provide services, and corporate solidarity rights that are not individual rights at all.

One variant of the latter is the notion of “collective human rights.” Collective human rights show the contempt for intellectual integrity that underlies much of contemporary human rights discourse and practice, and the failure of the international community as custodian of the idea of human rights itself. Since the establishment of the international human rights system over 70 years ago, and particularly in recent decades, more and more attention in the human rights community (including international institutions as well as civil society campaigns) has been devoted to collective and group rights, and international human rights legislation has focused on protecting the rights of specific categories of people with a tendency to collectivize them in a framework of group interests and entitlements.

Scholars and activists have sought to give assurance that such collective rights neither exclude, nor conflict with, individual human rights. REF But they do. “A collective right is not a human right, but a right established by a state or community regarding a group.” REF There are no specifically women’s human rights, gay human rights, indigenous peoples’ human rights, or disabled persons’ human rights, beyond those they share with all others. Collective or “group” human rights are an oxymoron because they are not rights of human beings.

This Special Report aims to provide a cursory review of the origins of the idea of collective human rights, and how these rights entered into international human rights law and “soft law.” REF It enumerates the ways that collective human rights are a threat to individual human rights and how they drive human rights proliferation and inflation, how they dilute attention to basic freedoms, clutter and politicize the international human rights agenda, and how they impair—sometimes intentionally—efforts to identify and address violations of individual civil and political rights. Collective rights are fragmenting and divisive, corrosive of the vision of humanity as such—the moral vision that gives human rights their potential as an inclusive, international movement on behalf of all individuals, everywhere.

Collective Human Rights in Context

Collective human rights are sometimes also called group rights, solidarity rights, or communitarian rights. A clear, consensus definition is not an option there is hardly a fuzzier issue in international human rights—or one that has been subject to more technocratic casuistry—than the issue of collective human rights. It is perhaps easiest to identify the rights that preceded the assertion of collective human rights and use those examples to illustrate how collective rights are a departure from human rights as traditionally understood.

Civil and political rights, that is, inherent, individual rights to be free from state coercion, are “first-generation” rights. These basic human rights to various freedoms and liberty itself have been recognized in different ways and with varying degrees of clarity since ancient times, and became the basis for liberal democratic governments in the Enlightenment. They are rights that are protected in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The First Amendment prohibits the passage of laws that infringe on religious freedom, freedom of speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Such rights to freedom, or “negative liberties,” are also protected by international human rights legislation, in particular by the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). First-generation rights require government restraint, and few if any government expenditures (hence, “negative” liberties). They are rights that are seen as inherent and rooted in a natural, or God-given, order that is, they are natural rights.

Economic, social, and cultural rights, or “second-generation” rights, differ fundamentally from the first-generation human right to basic freedoms in that they assert rights to positive state services. For example, the U.N.’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees citizens a wide range of social services, mandating legislation to provide, inter alia, social insurance, paid maternity leave, and the right to an “adequate standard of living.” REF

Such positive rights from the state cost money to provide, and thus depend on the availability and redistribution of resources. They are not clearly inherent natural rights, but are rights granted by states on the basis of positive law, reflecting political preferences. They are arguably not universal human rights, but rights that derive from specific political traditions. Their presence in the system of international human rights establishes that for the purposes of international politics, human rights need not be natural rights positive human rights have provided a moral and legal framework for human rights proliferation, and for the loss of human rights as a moral test of the legitimacy of regimes.

Collective human rights, as “third-generation” rights, are a further devolution from inherent human rights. Third-generation rights are both “corporate rights” belonging to individuals by virtue of their membership in groups, and collective rights of groups themselves. The distinction between these two forms of third-generation rights often becomes obscure in practice here we discuss issues of concern with both, while focusing in particular on the latter—rights that are, strictly speaking, collective rights. Economic and social rights are enjoyed by whole societies, and by different categories of people in different ways through implementing social policies that seek to protect well-being differentially, that is, through groups. They are often seen as collective rights, but economic and social rights can also be understood as individual human rights to minimum social standards and protections, that is, as an implementation of individual rights.

Collective human rights are the rights, not of individual human beings, but of groups as groups. The doctrine of collective rights holds that a person’s rights that are dependent on the group cannot be honored unless the rights of the group as an entity are honored. Some collective rights are seen as universal, when the collectivity in question is the human species such rights cannot be enjoyed individually unless they can be enjoyed universally. Rights like the “right to a sustainable environment” might make sense as rights to be free from harm from others, within the framework of tort law, for example. But this is not how they are framed in collective rights legislation and soft law, which is generally redistributionist in orientation. Other collective rights are human rights that are restricted to a defined set of people. They are thus rights that cannot be enjoyed by all they are only available to individuals within a given community.

Proponents of collective rights argue that while the individual may have been the main subject of international human rights law, and individual rights its main object, the enjoyment of those rights requires some to devolve directly upon groups. REF They hold that individual rights to basic freedoms are insufficient to protect members of groups from discrimination and exploitation on the basis of qualities they derive from such membership. Collective and group rights are considered necessary to individual psycho-social survival when individuals derive their very identity from such groups, for example, members of indigenous tribes. Some group rights are thus meant to preserve the cohesion of groups as such. They are “special measures to maintain and promote separate identities…[and]…allow for a lasting manifestation of difference.” REF

The idea of group rights raises the problem of priorities: Group or collective rights might be considered priorities in the sense that without them, various other human rights cannot be realized. This draws upon, but also contradicts, the U.N. doctrine that no human right is prior or superior to any other, and that all are equal, indivisible, and interdependent. If one believes that collective rights are indeed human rights, then one is bound to the conclusion that the enjoyment of individual freedoms depends on honoring collective and group rights.

Collective Human Rights in Hard Law and Soft Law

The idea of collective human rights grew into human rights discourse and the modern human rights system from conceptual and legal kernels that predate it, kernels that have been eclipsed subsequently in international human rights “hard” REF and “soft” law.

The League of Nations recognized various rights of minority collectivities in the context of political adjustments after World War I. Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations referred to “peoples” of former colonies, and “the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization.” REF During the inter-war period and World War II, dangerous, and indeed lethal, interpretations of minority rights and collective rights were deployed. Expansionist ethno-nationalist regimes, mainly that of Nazi Germany, but also other entities, such as the fascist and anti-Semitic Ustasa regime in Croatia, defined collective legal duties of minorities in the framework of minority rights, resulting in group deprivation and exclusion, and the near extermination of Jewish minorities in the quest for racial purity. Protecting the rights of German minorities abroad provided a pretext for Nazi conquest and subjugation. Some have claimed that racist Nazi legislation based on an inversion of collective rights was inspired by America’s Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation. REF

When leaders of the Allied powers envisioned a post-war international system to protect human rights and ensure peace, they bore these negative experiences in mind. Respect for individual rights gained favor as a principle goal of the nascent United Nations Organization, in part due to the failure of the League of Nations to protect members of minorities, and the Nazis’ cruel exploitation of the principle of minority rights. REF All the same, the U.N. Charter, in Article 1, stated that the “self-determination of peoples” was a primary principle for building peace, signaling a collective right.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the framework of principles underpinning the modern international human rights system, made no explicit references to collective rights, and was faulted by some for prioritizing individual rights over collective rights. During deliberations over the Universal Declaration, for instance, the Soviet Union demanded inclusion of collective rights in the form of minority rights, but ultimately failed in the face of resistance from the United States and other nations. REF

The Universal Declaration did, however, recognize economic, social, and cultural rights, which, as note, can often apply to specific groups only, can be seen as collective rights, and which included principles that enabled the development of collective rights as the human rights system evolved. The Universal Declaration recognized the rights of families and the “will of the people” as what legitimates governments (Article 16). The document stated in Article 28 that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights set out in the Declaration can be fully realized.” The Universal Declaration thus suggested that humanity has the characteristics of a single entity or collectivity. How is such a right, owed to the human species as such, to be claimed? Who or what is the duty holder?

The Universal Declaration embedded a form of utopianism into human rights discourse and practice, and gave space for the legitimation of collectivistic globalism and ideologies like “one world socialism” that have led to grave violations of individual freedom, and have undermined the U.N.’s own core principle of national sovereignty.

Third-generation rights have typically been promoted by governments and groups from the third world, or what is now more commonly known as the “global South,” beginning in the context of de-colonization and increasingly during a period of profound revisionism in human rights that began in the 1980s. Agitation for such rights continues today, often as a political or ideological weapon against systems defending individual rights, against capitalism and free markets, against the putatively discriminatory character of efforts to defend traditional sexual and family mores, and to shield some religions and religious groups from criticism. Although collective and group rights are increasingly embedded in the international human rights system, the intrinsic contradiction between universal human rights and collective rights is finessed in diplomatic and human rights jargon by dropping the word “human,” so the term of art is “collective rights,” not “collective human rights.” Collective rights, as such, can be coherent in the sense of rights that are established by groups for their members, but those something altogether different from human rights.

Collective Rights in U.N. Human Rights Treaties. Following the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust, the international community sought to address tragic and urgent threats to members of minorities and refugees within the matrix of human rights. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is considered the first piece of international human rights legislation, promulgated in 1948, before the U.N. Third Committee and the Human Rights Commission began to debate how to codify the principles in the Universal Declaration. The Genocide Convention specifically banned violence that targeted a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group for destruction, and thus suggested that “membership of a minority community entails distinct human rights.” REF It was an inversion of exterminationist Nazi law and practice, seeking to protect groups targeted as groups.

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees is another early human rights treaty targeting specific groups: asylum seekers and refugees—those who have a “well founded” basis to fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The right to asylum, however, is clearly an individual right: Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In order to be declared a refugee under the terms of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, an individual must show personal persecution, not persecution of a group.

The main international human rights treaties, namely, the ICCPR and the ICESCR, share a common Article 1 on the “right of peoples to self-determination.” (Emphasis added.) Self-determination was thus seen as a collective right, a right of peoples or nations if the article had referred to people, singular, or persons, it would have affirmed the right of individuals to choose their form of government, to make their own laws, indeed, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, it suggests the collective will of a putatively homogeneous community, and all the dangers of majoritarian rule that go with it.

Article 27 of the ICCPR states, “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” This statement does not assert a collective right of any group, but individual rights of members of groups. It is the same with the non-binding 1992 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. REF

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, REF which came into effect in 1986 under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (later the African Union), recognizes collective rights more than any other human rights treaty. The document states that “peoples” have the rights to equality (Article 19), self-determination (Article 20), their natural resources (Article 21), development (Article 22), peace and security (Article 23), and a “generally satisfactory environment” (Article 24). In fact, Chapter 1 concerns “Human and People’s Rights,” suggesting that the two are not the same.

Of the nine major international human rights treaties (other than the genocide and refugee conventions), four address specific groups: women, children, migrant workers, and the disabled. These treaties conceive of human rights along identity lines both “corporatist” and “collectivist” impulses may be found in each. The treaties tend heavily toward mandating state group entitlements deemed necessary to the enjoyment of human rights, and some have established new human rights altogether.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has 196 state parties—more than any other U.N. human rights treaty. The treaty deals with numerous serious threats to children, yet puts the state in the role of making decisions about the moral education of children. Dealing with children as a group, it has spawned assertions of additional collective rights of various classes of children, especially indigenous children, REF and suggestions of special human rights of indigenous children with disabilities. REF

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1990, defines a migrant worker as “a person who is to be engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” REF Migrant workers are often abused by employers, sometimes with complicity by state actors, such as with workers from Pakistan and elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf states. The numerous articles affirm that migrant workers cannot be denied their human rights under other existing U.N. and International Labor Organization treaties. However, the treaty neither creates new rights, nor suggests that migrant workers are a collectivity with human rights.

The U.S. government supported the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) “not to create new rights but to ensure that existing human rights were made equally effective for persons with disabilities.” REF But legal scholar Andrea Broderick of Maastricht University in the Netherlands has argued that “the enactment of accessibility obligations for States Parties, falling indirectly on the private sector, results in some form of sui generis ‘entitlement’ for persons with disabilities, which can arguably be viewed as amounting to a corresponding new human right—the right to accessibility.” She states that

The Charter of the United Nations enshrined nondiscrimination as a legal principle. The International Convention to End Racial Discrimination (ICERD) defines racial discrimination as any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin. REF The treaty endorses discriminatory quotas that favor one group over another with the aim of rectifying past inequality and discrimination, REF but does not explicitly focus on collective rights of any particular racial group.

The Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which came into force in 1981, deals exclusively with discrimination against women and does not oppose discrimination against men when promoting more opportunities for women. Like ICERD, it legitimates discriminatory quotas, such as one enshrined in German law in 2015, that imposes a minimum of 30 percent female membership on the boards of large corporations. The campaign to ensure that women can enjoy basic human rights is an ongoing challenge, and legal and societal discrimination against women, especially in Islamic theocracies, is the most widespread form of discrimination in the world. But do women constitute a “group” with rights of its own? Mainstream human rights scholar Jack Donnelley argues that there is no “collective agency for a diverse group that constitutes half of humanity.” REF

Yet, especially following the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, feminist activists and officials have disregarded the principle that women have human rights as individuals, and have sought to collectivize women’s rights. Feminism thus put its stamp on human rights, and proponents went further, reflecting an effort to change the very idea and practice of human rights, international law, and society itself. The aim, for the most ambitious members of the movement, was to renegotiate the universal human rights framework in light of women’s experiences in particular cultures and class backgrounds.

Women’s rights activists claimed that “all human rights instruments in fact assume men to be the bearers of basic rights.” REF The assertion gave license to abandon the principle of gender neutrality altogether. The idea of universality was deemed a fraud, even a conspiracy, to favor generally white men and the patriarchal social order, and was now obsolete. Instead, human rights treaties should focus on a specific group, not individuals. The Vienna conference rightly focused on members of a number of groups who were vulnerable, including members of “national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities,” indigenous peoples, migrant workers, children, and the disabled, in addition to women. However, it promoted the notion that abused and vulnerable individuals should be protected as members of groups—that groups themselves would be the focus of human rights.

Thus, over the course of decades, the very notion of equal, individual human rights was upended. Human rights advocates now see major treaties defining human rights as flawed because they were not drafted from the point of view of victims, but supposedly from the perspective of privileged classes of people. The idea of protecting individual rights came to be associated with discrimination, individualism, and reactionary resistance to expanding respect for the rights of women and minorities. New treaties were needed to rectify historical injustices and challenge the transcendent vision of universal human rights, in favor of a divisive emphasis on group rights and identity politics.

Soft Law on Collective Human Rights. Collective human rights thus occupy a significant, if duplicative and often-ambiguous, position in legally binding international human rights law. But the growing influence of these so-called rights also flows through soft law, in the form of quasi-legal U.N. resolutions and declarations and the assertions of U.N. human rights mandate holders, ad hoc groupings of state representatives, and academic experts that have identified, expanded, and promoted collective human rights.

Soft law is easier to create than hard law because it is not legally binding. Yet there is a distinct tendency for soft law to morph into hard law. Given the wide and differentiated range of sources and topics, there is no comprehensive list of collective and group rights that have been proclaimed in soft law. However, it is unquestionably a growth industry. As noted by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, REF claims of “rights” have exploded indeed, human rights proliferation is watering down and diluting focus on protecting basic liberties. The scope of this expansion is staggering. The Freedom Rights Project, a research initiative co-founded by this author,

Cursory accounts follow of several prominent examples of collective rights that originated as soft law and have gained legal currency:

The Right to Development is among the most influential elements of soft law asserting collective rights. Established by a U.N. General Assembly Resolution in 1986, REF on which the United States cast the only dissenting vote, the Right to Development is a hybrid, involving both “the human person,” as well as states and peoples, as subjects. Yet the main thrust of this highly influential concept has always been to strengthen the sense of obligation on the part of wealthy states to assist poor, third-world countries financially, and, thereby, provide the economic conditions under which they could honor civil and political human rights. The Right to Development is perhaps best seen as a cynical play justifying a redistributive political and economic agenda in terms of human rights. It has also been a powerful platform for proclaiming the “indivisibility” of human rights, as seen for example in the 2017 Chinese-government-inspired “Beijing Declaration” of the South–South Human Rights Forum, which declared that “[h]uman rights are the unity of individual rights and collective rights.” REF From this perspective, individual freedom cannot exist, and cannot be honored by governments, if collective economic and social entitlements are not sufficient—which amounts to a form of international blackmail playing upon the West’s attachment to individual rights and freedoms. Third-world states have essentially held respect for human and civil rights hostage with the notion that without more financial assistance to provide for economic and social rights, those rights cannot be enjoyed. REF

Environmental Rights are collective rights that “affect everyone everywhere”—in other words, they are of the form of collective human rights for which the subject of rights is the human race as a whole. It has an important foundation in the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, REF also known as the Stockholm Declaration, which is considered a part of international environmental law recognizing the right to a healthy environment. In Principle 1 of the declaration, the signatories established that everyone “has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.” Principle 7 asserts, “States shall take all possible steps to prevent pollution of the seas by substances that are liable to create hazards to human health, to harm living resources and marine life, to damage amenities or to interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea.”

Environmental rights typically obligate governments to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment, prevent third parties, such as corporations, from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment, and adopt the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of the right to a healthy environment. Similar language also has been applied to the right to health and other all-encompassing collective rights.

Recently, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has focused on climate change as a human rights issue. At the opening of the Human Rights Council session in September 2019, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated, “The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope.” REF A “human rights based” approach to combating climate change suggests that U.N. human rights officials need to set and control a wide range of national economic policies in order to ensure that legal human rights obligations are met. Some have charged that promotion of environmental rights in the face of climate change REF can be a justification and smoke screen for campaigns to end capitalism and to promote revolutionary economic ideologies that threaten property rights and individual freedom.

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights are based on the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). A large proportion of the rights set out in the declaration are collective rights. It begins by asserting: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.” The declaration also includes, in Articles 3, 5, 8, 10, and 11, the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination to “maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions,” to protect their culture from destruction, not to be forcibly removed from their lands and territories, and to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. “In UN parlance, the Declaration is a ‘human rights instrument’ and commentators commonly conceive the rights it enunciates as human rights.” REF

“Defamation of Religion” Rights. Persistent efforts by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ban the “defamation of religion” amount to claiming a collective human right based on religion—that a religion, not an individual, can be slandered or defamed. The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted 16 resolutions with the support of Islamic states that essentially demanded protection of Islam from criticism, which proponents call “Islamophobic.” A U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahue, said the concept of “defamation of religion” was “used to justify censorship, criminalization, and in some cases violent assaults and deaths of political, racial, and religious minorities around the world.” REF

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Rights. A current top preoccupation of numerous U.N. and other officials and activists is the establishment of collective human rights based on membership in sexual identity groups. The movement is guided by the Yogyakarta Principles, which are ostensibly a “set of new principles on international human rights law relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC)—released…by a group of 33 international human rights experts—[that] charts a way forward for both the United Nations, governments, and other stakeholders to re-affirm their commitment to universal human rights.” REF SOGI is not included in any international human rights treaty. But U.N. member state delegations and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights—in its compilation of “United Nations information on the State under review” and “summary of information submitted by other stakeholders” REF —regularly call for SOGI group rights during Universal Periodic Review exercises. REF

Numerous other U.N. initiatives and resolutions declare collective human rights. REF In 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Council began a process to establish a “right to peace.” REF The motion passed with the support of such states as China, Cuba, Libya, the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia, states for whom “peace” meant acceptance of state authorities, by their own citizens and by other states. The United States was the only country voting against the motion, while European countries abstained. In 2014, the independent expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity, a mandate created in 2005, presented a draft U.N. resolution claiming, “The right to international solidarity is a fundamental human right enjoyed by everyone on the basis of equality and nondiscrimination.” REF The main thrust of the draft resolution is the obligation of wealthy states to provide financial assistance to poorer countries in order to help them honor economic and social rights. Such assistance has always been a key component of the “right to development.”

The U.N. General Assembly proclaimed a “human right to clean drinking water and sanitation,” and called upon states and international organizations

American officials objected, stating that no such right existed under international human rights law. A review of the relevant legal instruments, they said, “demonstrates that there is no internationally agreed ‘right to water.’ Neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) mentions water at all.” REF Other collective human rights that are generally redistributionist routinely mushroom up from within international bodies, for example, the “right to sanitation” REF and the “right to the city.” REF

New Collective Human Rights Treaties in the U.N. Pipeline. With the assertion of a broad array of collective rights in “soft law,” international officials and human rights activists are hard at work pressing for additional legally binding human rights instruments. For instance, United Nations human rights officials, lawyers’ groups including the American Bar Association (ABA), nongovernmental organizations, and influential governments have been promoting a “U.N. Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.” Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American and African countries spearheaded the proposal.

The proposed convention would institutionalize services to the elderly not as government policies, but as rights guaranteed by international law. According to its proponents, the rights of older persons are “invisible under international law” because they are not “recognized explicitly.” Proponents say that universal human rights protections afforded by the main U.N. conventions on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights have not protected the aging from discrimination, exploitation, and deprivation. At a strategy meeting to promote advocacy for a convention, sponsored by the ABA, a top Argentine diplomat argued that the main rights treaties came into force at a time (in the 1970s) when people only “thought about white males.” REF Universal human rights protected all “in theory,” but additional treaties were needed to protect children, women, racial minorities, indigenous people, migrants, those with disabilities, and now, the aging. U.N. human rights officials took the position that the lack of a dedicated human rights protection system for the elderly was an affront to the rule of law older persons are victims, and international law is the most effective way to make changes in societies. The “progressive development of international law” is thus a worthwhile investment as “states turn to the U.N. to solve problems more cheaply.” REF

Nongovernmental activists argue that “mainstreaming” the rights of older people through a new treaty and applying a “rights-based” approach to social services will raise the profile of the issue and force states to assign resources and create institutions to comply with legal obligations. The project of advocacy for a treaty has become a guidebook for civil society groups that want a U.N. treaty dealing with their own area of work. It is also a strategy to generate funding streams and lock them in with binding legal obligations.

The U.N. General Assembly gave a major boost to the creation of a new treaty by establishing the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing to “consider the existing international framework of the human rights of older persons and identify possible gaps and how best to address them, including by considering, as appropriate, the feasibility of further instruments and measures.” REF The working group, open to input from civil society, institutionalizes the treaty-making process, making it virtually inevitable. A communication from the working group states: “Existing instruments and mechanisms do not appear to provide sufficient specificity about quality and accessibility of health and long-term care for older persons.” REF

Addressing the U.N. Social Forum in 2014, the High Commissioner for Human Rights gave unqualified support for a new treaty, saying, “We have found that articulation of dedicated instruments laying [out] the specific rights of certain groups can be of invaluable assistance in focusing world attention—and action—on key groups at risk.” REF The rights of older persons have been included in the agenda of the Human Rights Council, which has appointed an “Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons” to report regularly on the issue. REF

Some resistance to this initiative has reportedly come from the United States, the European Union, China, and other powerful states who argue that existing international law already protects the rights of older people. REF But democratic states fear conflict with “like-minded” allies and political backlash from their large aging populations. European human rights officials wanted to oppose the treaty, but did not know how without placing themselves in political jeopardy. A confidential memorandum from the EU’s Human Rights Working Group (COHOM) in July 2013 referred to a growing lobby, especially in Latin America, for a convention on the rights of the elderly:

Without guidance from clear principles, there is apparently no way to resist the proliferation of collective human rights treaties.

In another example, nongovernmental organizations are pressing governments to consider a global treaty protecting the human rights of peasants. The campaign is led by La Via Campesina, an alliance of more than 140 peasant organizations from 69 countries claiming to represent more than 200 million peasants. Other nongovernmental organizations have also joined the effort. The campaign for a human rights convention on peasants’ rights is seen as emblematic of “new rights advocacy,” that is, the expansion of human rights claims since the 1993 World Conference. La Via Campesina represents a movement to “challenge the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism in global economics,” according to a sympathetic observer. REF

The Human Rights Council and the General Assembly both invited La Via Campesina to give its views on how the 2008 food crisis could be remedied. In September 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the “Promotion of the human rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.” REF Sponsored by Bolivia, Cuba, and South Africa, the council adopted the resolution with 23 votes in favor, 15 abstentions, and nine votes against, including European states and the United States. REF The resolution led to the creation of yet another open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate of negotiating a draft U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. REF Negotiations started in July 2013.

In December 2018, the General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, with 121 voting in favor, eight opposed, and 54 abstentions. REF A campaign for another collective human right initiated by a highly partisan civil society formation thus resulted in a U.N. resolution that will likely lead to a legally binding international human rights treaty.

U.N. Human Rights Council Mandates on Collective and Group Rights. The U.N. Human Rights Council has 56 mandates, or special procedures, through which the body monitors human rights concerns. Only 12 of these focus on examining human rights abuses committed by specific countries. REF In recent years, the council has approved more and more “thematic mandates.” Currently, there are 44 thematic mandates REF —nearly four times the number of country mandates—that consume the bulk of council time and resources dedicated to its special procedures. REF In general, newer mandates focus on either a collective rights issue or issues that are political in nature rather than directly with human rights and freedoms. Examples of mandates dealing with specific groups include people of African descent, persons with albinism, migrants, people with leprosy, and older persons. Others deal with rights to housing, development, and the right to a “safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” REF Research has shown that support by U.N. members for collective rights and overtly political mandates has come from unfree states, while free, democratic states have generally resisted politicized and collective rights mandates.

The Threat to Authentic Human Rights Posed by Collective Human Rights

The notion of a group as the subject of human rights is inconsistent with principles that have informed our civilization’s most central scientific and humanistic traditions. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle showed that to understand what is good for man and for communities, one needs first to understand the individual person and what is good for that individual. He stressed the ability of individuals to think and act independently that their character is not determined by any group, not even the most basic primary group in society, the family.

Individuals are objectively the basic unit of human life everywhere, so one needs to begin with the individual in seeking answers to ethical and political questions about freedom, authority, moral responsibility, and the obligations and limits of governments, in other words, questions about human rights. Individuals are a universal and irreducible human reality there is nothing less than an individual. Social formations are not universal some would say they are artificial, and all would agree they are transitory. Families are defined in various ways in different societies and cultures so are racial, ethnic, tribal, national, religious, and other communities. Members of specific age cohorts do not have the same rights everywhere. Sex or “gender” is more and more the source of category disputes, with individuals and movements challenging science-based categories as well as social traditions. Categorical identities become more fluid and irrelevant to dignity and rights. What is more, while human rights are a moral principle that remains valid through the vicissitudes of history, the relevance of groups changes over time.

Because group identity is arbitrary, culturally specific, and time-bound, the priority of individual human rights makes rational sense. And while collective or group rights may be coherent if understood as rights established by groups themselves that apply to members, all groups are in fact heterogeneous. Ambitious individuals typically seek to leverage the political and economic power of others on the basis of their putative group membership. Groups themselves need scrutiny: Are they voluntary? Are they democratic, or coercive? Do members actually share the beliefs and principles as claimed by those who act on their behalf?

The scholarly human rights literature has lucidly established that collective human rights are not authentic human rights, but what needs more emphasis is how the idea and implementation of collective rights threatens respect for individual human rights. The concept and proliferation of collective human rights have been widely criticized by a number of respected human rights scholars, such as Jack Donnelly, James Griffin, James Nickel, and Wiktor Osiatyński, all of whom have clarified that human rights are only the rights of individuals. REF They have expressed deep skepticism about how groups supposedly holding human rights should be identified, what kind of rights they should have, and who should exercise collective rights.

Collective human rights threaten the idea, and enjoyment, of human rights insofar as they empower assertions that the rights of a group, or the state itself, can be of higher value than the rights of the individual. In fact, the recent tendency to claim that nonhuman entities enjoy human rights, such as animals and inanimate entities (the Earth and rivers, for instance) may be yet a further devolution of the notion that started with the claim that human rights need not be the rights of individual humans.

The concept of universal, individual human rights, based in nature, is a unifying idea with deep roots in world religions and philosophical traditions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it stems from ethical monotheism: If all are members of the same family of mankind, sharing common ancestors, and all beholden to one, all-encompassing deity, all are morally equal, and owe to one another, the respect due to an equal. The Bible teaches to love the stranger and to see others not as members of tribes, clans, or nations, or other families, but as fellow human beings. REF The idea of humanity, of a common human nature, is not a given in human history, but is rather a revolutionary and emancipative idea, and a continuing moral challenge to societies and institutions. Despite all of its problems and failures, the international human rights system, insofar as it concerns individual human rights and freedoms, has helped to mobilize support for people in oppressive societies and societies that have embraced the concept of collective, as opposed to individual, rights. As an institutional manifestation of universal individual rights, it has offered a bridge between people from diverse societies.

The idea of collective human rights is a step backwards, toward social life rife with ascriptive divisions, that is, differences that are based not on achievement or virtue, but on race, sex, and class. It undermines the vision of universality and the dignity of the morally responsible individual as the subject of human rights. The late Sir Roger Scruton observed that while individual rights compel states, and other people, to respect individuals as having sovereignty over their lives,

Collective human rights provide moral legitimacy and a quasi-legal foundation for the identity politics that are dividing Western societies, promoting a culture of irresponsibility and victimization. Indeed, with the emphasis on collective human rights, international human rights practice, both in civil society and in U.N. and other multinational bodies, has increasingly embraced “intersectionality,” or the need to “acknowledge the ways in which multiple identity strands interact to produce a specific experience at the intersection of numerous heads of discrimination.” REF

Identity politics is also destructive of democratic processes. According to Peter Berkowitz,

Another analyst, Addison Del Mastro, attributed the rise of identity politics and decaying respect for individual rights and democracy specifically to the proliferation of collective human rights:

Indeed, we see in the proliferation of collective human rights a form of human rights neocorporatism, a structured system of interest-group politics that even suggests the collective rights politics of the Soviet Union. Leading U.N. officials openly claim that the goal of the international human rights system is “substantive equality.” REF

According to legal philosopher Roger Pilon, the modern human rights system, in emphasizing positive state actions as opposed to freedom from state coercion, is “socialist to its core.” Given that the Soviet Union sought to establish collective rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the proliferation of collective rights represents a postmortem victory for Soviet ideology. Indeed, the proliferation of collective rights is not merely an academic problem, it is a problem for the future of freedom. The proliferation of collective human rights reflects rational-actor behavior on the part of interest groups and identity-politics campaigners, who see in the contemporary elastic concept of human rights opportunities to endow their causes with the moral prestige and legally coercive power of human rights and create opportunities for influence and funding.

As observed by Clifford Bob, a proponent of more human rights, “If aggrieved groups can portray their causes as human rights issues, they may be able to tap organizations, personnel, funding, and other strategic resources now available at the international level.” REF Both international officials and human rights lawyers support this agenda because they see it as addressing human rights problems and offering expanded human rights structures and more professional opportunities in expanded international human rights. Civil society has been a primary driver of the process. The human rights movement has often set aside principles and “adopted” new collective rights for “strategic” reasons, whether to broaden constituencies and funding bases, pander to groups insisting that their grievances are human rights violations, expand coalitions, or other reasons. A progressive realpolitik holds that human rights are a tool for achieving political objectives, based on a “realistic appraisal of rights claims and rights law as politics.” REF

Undemocratic states also support the proliferation of collective rights to further weaken the leverage that international law and political pressure pose to their own oppressive policies against individual freedom. Promoting collective human rights inflation is a tactic to violate human rights with impunity. In 2018, the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies examined how the “expansion of the concept of human rights impacts on human rights promotion and protection.” The consultation resulted in the conclusion that “attempts to develop new rights or to change the nature of human rights has [sic] caused the system to be diluted and is undermining the protection of fundamental rights.” REF Some actors, the study found, have sought to use human rights mechanisms to address issues that go beyond the scope of human rights.

The EU Parliament study found that, in particular, collective rights, such as the “right to development,” are tools promoted and used by undemocratic states “seeking to undermine human rights through expansion [with] several goals: UN agenda cluttering, resource absorption, weakening of human rights scrutiny or accountability mechanisms, diversion of attention from existing human rights or from their own abuse.” REF The conclusion is consistent with the development of increasing numbers of U.N. Human Rights Council mandates dealing with collective human rights, as noted above. With more and more mandates approved for more groups, more human needs, and more ideological and political conflicts, the relative amount of attention to freedom from torture, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression—freedoms that allow citizens to address all of their social problems—is restricted.

Indeed, there is a strong overlap between the main abusers of freedom of religion and other fundamental individual rights, and states that promote collective rights. Oppressive states fear the idea of human rights as individual rights they seek to undermine the concept of individual rights and crowd it out of the international human rights system through human rights inflation and dilution. Promoting collective human rights is a divide and conquer strategy, domestically and internationally, and corrodes what is the most powerful intellectual and spiritual principle for protecting individual rights: the ideal of universal human brotherhood founded on our common human right, as individuals, to liberty.

Saving Human Rights from the Collective Rights Agenda

Liberal democracies, the United States foremost among them, need to oppose the idea and proliferation of collective human rights if they are to renew understanding of the principle of individual freedom and to promote authentic human rights abroad. The nefarious political agenda behind the proliferation of collective rights is symptomatic of a broad malaise affecting the field of international human rights. Both collective rights and ideologically driven economic and social rights have come to dominate international human rights discourse to the detriment of focus and discourse on individual liberty and fundamental freedoms. More and more problems are labeled human rights problems, and there are more and more human rights standards, treaties, “high-level” international human rights officials, international mechanisms, and courts, all of which are good business for academics, lawyers, and the mainline human rights community, that is, generally well-intentioned people seeking solutions to important problems.

However, in the face of ongoing, politicized, and largely technocratic expansion of international human rights ideas, legislation, and institutions, respect for individual freedom is declining dangerously around the world. Over decades of human rights revisionism, authoritarian states that fear individual rights have developed a seductive human rights ideology, human rights without freedom that conflate human rights with redistributive social policy, justify repression, and push the struggle to protect basic freedoms off the international agenda. Governments increasingly encroach upon religious freedom and freedom of speech, the freedoms arguably most vital to future human fulfillment. Liberal democracies have done little to counter, in philosophical and moral terms, anti-democratic discourse that denies the principle of inherent individual rights based in nature and hijacks the agendas of international institutions with politicized collective rights issues.

Multilateral human rights institutions have proven incapable of addressing this downward trend and are, tragically, contributing to it. In the past few years, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the world’s premier human rights institution, has proven vulnerable to dictatorships who successfully seek membership in the body to damage both the idea and practice of human rights. The Universal Periodic Review process now reflects the broad disrespect, hypocrisy, and insouciance toward individual rights among even liberal democracies. For example, when China’s human rights record was last examined under the Universal Periodic Review, few U.N. members objected to China’s assertion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” nor to its defense of the incarceration of more than one million Muslims as a means of vocational education. At the conclusion of the review in November 2018, a majority of states applauded China, a key take-away for Chinese diplomacy that will undoubtedly be used in domestic propaganda to show international support for practices that violate human rights. Likewise, when North Korea’s record was reviewed, most states praised its respect for human rights, many noting the totalitarian state’s programs in support of disability rights, a collective rights issue.

Both the Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review emerged from the 2006 reform of U.N. human rights institutions. In campaigning for those “reforms,” former U.N. Secretary–General Kofi Annan described the problem afflicting the Human Rights Commission (the Council’s predecessor) as one of “declining credibility,” noting: “States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights, but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.” REF

In recent years, with China, Cuba, Mauritania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other repressive regimes winning election to the Human Rights Council, it is clear that the same syndrome afflicts the Council. The problem is not rogue states and dictatorships those will always exist. The problem is the illusion that inclusive multilateral human rights institutions are effective in promoting and protecting human rights, while in reality they are most often a trap where efforts to defend those struggling for their inherent and universal freedoms are willfully thwarted or paralyzed by bureaucratic processes.

While liberal democracies have done little to defend the idea of human rights against the idea of collective rights and other debased notions, they have also generally failed to recognize that human rights institutions of the “liberal” world order have not resulted in liberalization. They have failed to articulate, promote, and deploy a coherent and consistent approach to promoting human rights that could take place outside established multilateral organizations, free from the collectivist approach toward defending human rights. To more effectively counter the trend toward collective rights and support individual rights, liberal democracies must reinforce their own principles, and build a human rights policy based on principled unilateralism and on the use of limited, ad hoc alliances with states that share a commitment to protecting individual rights.

The U.S. Department of State has taken steps in this direction through a 2019 initiative of Secretary of State Pompeo—the Commission on Unalienable Rights—that is charged with examining the question of how human rights are currently understood with reference to the principles of natural law and natural rights. Given America’s classical liberal foundations and tradition of constitutional protection of a closely defined, narrow range of basic individual freedoms, discomfort with the international community’s loss of focus in human rights, and consequent human rights inflation, comes as no surprise.

Yet anxiety about this major problem appears to be shared only by a few. The human rights community, including civil society and international organizations, is overwhelmingly complacent, and indeed defensive on the topic of reforming human rights. The idea of collective human rights is a domestic, as well as an international challenge. Widespread criticism of the very idea of an initiative to reflect on the proper scope of human rights has emerged largely by advocates of collective rights who view reinforcement of the principle of individual liberty as a threat to group identity and rights. The reactions have revealed shocking deficits in knowledge and understanding of the foundations of human rights, as well as of how they have been neglected by the methodological positivism of human rights education.

There is a long way to go before a renewed, broad-based consensus on the meaning and importance of freedom and human rights can emerge. The United States can best promote individual human rights and freedoms by projecting its ideals abroad but broken ideals, and those ideals not enjoying broad-based respect by citizens, are damaged goods that do not travel well. The impulse that gave rise to the Commission on Unalienable Rights thus needs to inform and drive a range of initiatives in civil society aimed at renewing appreciation for America’s individual rights tradition.

Saving human rights from collective rights requires not only challenging the idea of collective rights, but also marginalizing it through initiatives reinforcing the salience of the most important individual freedoms. Another Department of State initiative—Ministerial Meetings to Advance Religious Freedom—suggests future directions for promoting basic freedoms on the international level. The two Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018 and 2019, have built on a U.S. effort to emphasize and promote religious freedom that began in the 1990s. A Heritage Foundation analyst REF recommends that these international coordination meetings be codified into law, and form part of a process to identify states that should be sanctioned for abusing religious freedom.

What is remarkable about the Potomac Plan of Action, a document endorsed at the Ministerial in July 2018, is how it almost completely bypasses international human rights institutions while emphasizing national responsibility to uphold international religious freedom standards. The plan introduces a new “framework for national and multinational activity.” REF In essence, this is an ad hoc international human rights process formed as a voluntary alliance, ready to act together to promote religious freedom, unimpeded by procedural and constrictive obstacles such as characterize inclusive U.N. multilateral processes. It should signify a new beginning for international religious freedom and human rights more broadly, but it also reveals how decaying and dysfunctional U.N. institutions can, should, and will be bypassed by freedom-respecting governments, and will—to borrow language from Friedrich Engels—wither away.

Finally, to effectively and broadly counter the trend toward collective human rights and other tendencies that have diminished respect for individual human rights, the U.S. should take steps that would merge the impulses behind both the Commission on Unalienable Rights and the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—that is, the conceptual and institutional dimensions of human rights reform. America’s Founders inspired freedom movements around the world, not by military interventions or other foreign entanglements, but by their ideas, beliefs, and sympathies.

The United States has an opportunity to fill the moral vacuum of international human rights with both renewed ideas and renewed methods for improving respect for individual freedoms and rights. The principle of individual rights and freedoms is the key to people living peacefully with their differences, and re-establishing human rights as a North Star for people around the world seeking freedom and democracy, indeed, to strengthening the global struggle for liberty. To challenge the idea of collective human rights to insist that the universality of individual human rights has a transcendental foundation and to rally allied partners in efforts to defend individual freedom and civil society, should be the central pillar of American foreign policy. In the long term, it will help secure a more peaceful and prosperous future for all.

Aaron Rhodes is Human Rights Editor of Dissident Magazine, a project of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1993 to 2007, and is a founder of both the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and the Freedom Rights Project. His book The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books) was published in 2018. This paper is one in a series of essays on the natural law and natural rights foundations of internationally recognized human rights. The “First Principles of International Human Rights” essays propose reforms of the human rights movement for the increased protection of the fundamental and inalienable rights of all people.


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