Cornel West in his groundbreaking text work, Prophesy and Deliverance: A Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, attempts to outline a methodology by which we can understand African American political theology. Accordingly, those who study African American political theology must acknowledge the strong influence of evangelical and pietistic Christianity on it. African American Christian traditions were begotten the moment the African slaves landed in the United States and were dominated by their slave masters who used the bible to justify it. White American Christians used the bible as tool to create servitude. However, the slaves took Christianity and used the biblical text, Protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies to interpret their lives. Ultimately, this engagement led to how West conceives of the black church. For West, the black church is not limited to a particular denomination interpretation of church. Rather the black church is unified under by the shared experience of slaves to follow Jesus over the dogmatic and coercive Christianity that was presented to them by their slave owners. It was the black church that helped the slaves to not only understand themselves but their communities as well. West admits that the black church tradition took various forms to create what is now the rich diversity that is contemporary black theological reflection.
Most poignantly for West is the prophetic tradition originated from the black church, and its influence on the scope of African American political theology. He writes the prophetic Christianity’s greatest contribution is, “individuals regardless of class, country, caste, race, or sex should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potentiality.” This serves as the core of prophetic Christian gospel for him. The God of this text is a transcendental God who has created all people equally and subsequently has provided divine salvation to the same extent. In other words, prophetic Christianity has provided African American political theology with the notion of radical egalitarianism. West describes this notion as “the Christian principle of the self-realization of individuality within the community.” While I agree with West for the most part on his view of the role of the prophetic in shaping the African American political theology I do believe that his view is limited. I strongly believe that Christianity is not the only religion that was used by slaves in developing African American political theology. Although the black church had arguably the loudest voice in this development it certainly was not the only voice. West monopolizes Christianity as the sole religious factor in the development of the political theology for the African slaves. It has been estimated that between 10-20 percent of the African slaves who came to America were actually Muslims. Many of these slaves fought fervently to maintain their Muslim identity. Some of succeed beyond the first generation but many were coerced into converting into Christianity.
There were also various theistic slave religions that came to America as well, through the transatlantic slave trade. Many of them shared similarities such as a belief in a Supreme Creator. African religious traditions were deeply rooted in balancing the spiritual realm and the natural world. Remnants of this are still seen today in how African Americans balance theology or religious modes of thinking with the realities that they experience in the natural world. My point here is this, Cornel West in his description of the black church and the influence of the prophetic nature of Christianity on the scope of African American political theology neglects the multifarious religious nature of the African slaves. Enslaved Africans did not learn American Christianity on a blank slate or without prior religious foundations. There were many different religious ideologies that influenced the development of African American political theology. To develop a more robust understanding of the political theology of African Americans it is important to recognize the polyreligious origins of the religion of the African American slaves.