The Prophetic and the Prosperous: Religious Ideologies and the Maintenance of Group Consciousness

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 488 –503
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918796337
In his discussion of collective behavior, Blumer (1939)
notes that for mass political action to develop there must
be “esprit de corps,” a sense of common understanding
and commitment. Whether it be labor disputes in nine-
teenth-century England (Steinberg 1996), Poland’s
Solidarity Movement (Osa 1996), or American college
students protesting Apartheid (Hirsch 1990), a sense of
collective consciousness is integral to generating mass
action (Mansbridge 2001). In the case of African
Americans, racial group consciousness has been essential
to explaining partisan attachments, policy preferences,
and political behavior (Dawson 1994; Gurin, Hatchett,
and Jackson 1989). Integral to the development of group
consciousness is the establishment of independent enti-
ties, which allow individuals to develop a common iden-
tity and solidarity (Blumer 1939). Scholars routinely use
the black church an example of these types of institutions
(Dawson 1994; Reese and Brown 1995).1 They argue that
beyond being a place where blacks can regularly meet,
black churches are a wellspring for racial group con-
sciousness because they present a prophetic religious tra-
dition emphasizing actively working to achieve equality
for all (Harris 2012; Harris-Lacewell 2007a). This reli-
gious tradition, commonly referred to as the social gos-
pel, is presented as central to the black religious
experience by a variety of scholars and activists (Barber
and Wilson-Hartgrove 2016; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990;
Paris 1985; Wallis 2005). Despite this common image,
several scholars contend the authoritarian, otherworldly,
and insular nature of many black churches obstructs the
development of racial group consciousness and collective
behavior (Frazier [1964] 1974; Myrdal 1962; Reed 1986).
Conventional wisdom, since the civil rights move-
ment, argues there is a positive relationship between
black religion and black group consciousness. However,
recent attention to the multidimensional nature of the
black religious experience questions this relationship and
has reignited the debate as to whether the black church
promotes racial group consciousness (Harris 2012;
Harris-Lacewell 2007a). Specifically, scholars and com-
mentators note the rise of the prosperity gospel as a mes-
sage that weakens group cohesion. As Mitchem (2007,
108) states, “Prosperity preaching generally stresses the
individual person’s will over history as the God-approved
route to overcoming racial oppression. This preaching
will also stress the importance of the individual over the
community.” These assertions about the political conse-
quences of the prosperity gospel indicate, under certain
conditions, exposure to black churches may erode black
group consciousness. The 2016 election captured these
796337PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918796337Political Research QuarterlyMcDaniel
1The University of Texas at Austin, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eric L. McDaniel, Department of Government, The University of
Texas at Austin, 1 University Station A1800, Austin, TX 78712, USA.
The Prophetic and the Prosperous:
Religious Ideologies and the Maintenance
of Group Consciousness
Eric L. McDaniel1
Integral to the development of group consciousness is the establishment of independent entities, which allow
individuals to develop a common identity and solidarity. In the case of African Americans, the black church has
facilitated racial group consciousness by bringing blacks together and advocating a belief system that emphasizes justice
and community, commonly referred to as the social gospel. In contrast to the social gospel, the prosperity gospel
emphasizes individualism and material gain. Scholars and critics argue its growth in the black religious discourse may
erode the group cohesion developed by the social gospel. Using a unique data set that measures support for these
religious belief systems and black group consciousness, I find support for these assertions. Furthermore, the results
demonstrate that the nature of these relationships is contingent upon exposure to religious institutions.
black politics, religion and politics, group consciousness, ideology
McDaniel 489
concerns as several clergy connected to the prosperity
gospel endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy (Butler
2016; Gjelten 2017; Weigel 2016). Specifically, Harris-
Lacewell (2007a, 2007b) and Harris (2012) contend the
prosperity gospel’s teaching will erode the belief in a
black collective struggle, while the social gospel fortifies
this belief.
These concerns have been discussed in the broader
commentary about black politics and among scholars of
black politics; however, there has been no rigorous test-
ing to see if the perceived relationships between the social
and prosperity gospels and black group consciousness
exists. The purpose of this study is to empirically test
these arguments about the connection between religious
belief systems and group cohesion. Using a unique data
set that allows me to operationalize support for these
belief systems and black group consciousness, I find
empirical support for these arguments. The social gospel
is positively associated with group consciousness, while
the prosperity gospel has a negative correlation.
Furthermore, the results demonstrate exposure to reli-
gious institutions influences the application of these
beliefs to group consciousness.
Beyond the implications for the racial and ethnic and
religion and politics literatures, this study illuminates the
need for scholars to be attentive to how indigenous insti-
tutions can both increase and impede collective action.
Furthermore, this work highlights the responsiveness of
group consciousness to countervailing forces and offers
insight into the impediments groups face in mobilizing
themselves to protect their interests.
As an ideology which helps individuals organize their
world and seek out others to help them achieve their goals
(Gurin, Hatchett, and Jackson 1989; Miller et al. 1981),
group consciousness is one of the most salient aspects of
understanding collective political behavior (Conover
1984). Group consciousness calls into question structures
that interfere with the group’s attempts to reach its goals,
sees any attempt to stagnate the advancement of their
interests as illegitimate, and calls upon a collective
response to these threats (Gurin, Miller, and Gurin 1980).
Because of this, group consciousness is more than a psy-
chological attachment to the group; it is also the recogni-
tion of systemic threats and committing to collective
action to challenge these threats.
In the case of racial group consciousness, the member
of the racial group perceives a common bond and a col-
lective commitment to protect the racial group from
antagonists and works to advance the group’s position in
society (W. O. Brown 1931). African Americans have
been central to the study of racial group consciousness.
Scholars have found their high level of group conscious-
ness accounts for political attitudes, partisanship (Gurin,
Hatchett, and Jackson 1989; Philpot 2017), vote choice
(Philpot and Walton 2007), and higher than expected lev-
els of political participation (Shingles 1981; Verba and
Nie 1972).
The political importance of being black has existed
since the colonies, but the idea of a collective commit-
ment to confronting social inequalities and advancing the
goals of the group has waxed and waned in black political
history. In the first half of the twentieth century, Ferguson
(1938), Gamson (1968), and Singer (1962) asserted the
lack of political solidarity prevented blacks from advanc-
ing their political interests. Banfield and Wilson (1963)
contend this lack of solidarity was rooted in a class con-
flict. The collective activities of the civil rights and black
Power movements broke down these class barriers to cre-
ate a cohesive political unit (Smith 1978, 1981). Events,
such as Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and the
Rodney King incident, helped maintain high levels of
group consciousness. More recently, events regarding
police brutality and bias in the justice system have served
as a source for maintaining high levels of groups con-
sciousness (A. Brown 2015).2
It was once thought black group consciousness would
quickly dissipate with political and economic gains
(Wilson 1980), but research at the end of the twentieth
century found that this did not occur (Dawson 1994;
McClerking 2001). African Americans continue to
endorse higher levels of group consciousness than other
racial groups (Sears and Savalei 2006). However, recent
commentary on black group consciousness casts doubt on
the endurance of high levels of black group conscious-
ness. Specifically, scholars note the increased emphasis
on individualism and racial conservatism among African
Americans (Harris 2012; Tate 2010). Using urban politics
as an example, Spence (2012, 2013) argues the growth of
neoliberalism in black politics diminished role of race
and increased the salience of class. Harris-Lacewell
(2007a, 2007b) and Harris (2012) link this shift in black
collective identity to a shift in the black religious dis-
course. They argue the social justice message of the black
church has given way to individualism and wealth accu-
mulation, which has eroded black group consciousness.
The mere existence of the black church and the black
religious experience is the announcement of black racial
solidarity. Many of the earliest black congregations were
created out of black protest of discrimination in white
churches. Within this institution, that was black owned,
operated and maintained, blacks developed a religious,
political, and social narrative that challenged the idea
they were at the bottom of a divine racial hierarchy
(Lincoln and Mamiya 1990; Pinn and Pinn 2002;
Raboteau 2001; Randolph 1999). These actions formed
the link between religion and black racial identity. Allen,
Dawson, and Brown (1989) point to black religious prac-
tices, such as worship service attendance, as key in the

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT