The Call to Attend to Race in the Study of Religious Rhetoric

Andre E Johnson

Below is part of a presentation I gave at the Southern States Communication Association on April 8, 2021. It was part of the “Role of Race in Religious Rhetoric and Communication” panel.

In her groundbreaking essay, Lisa Flores argues that “race is foundational to the work of rhetorical criticism and that any criticism void of this consideration is incomplete, partial, if not irresponsible.” About this, she writes

If rhetorical scholars are to attend to all matter of discourse, whether understood as questions of impact, influence, or circulation, or questions of argument and audience, or questions of affect and materiality, we cannot ignore race. Rhetorical meanings, as they circulate on and around bodies, are already raced. Bodies that speak and listen, that exhort and cajole, that desire and hate are already raced.

However, following the lead of other rhetoric scholars who have called our attention to attend more to race in our studies[1] and not to marginalize the scholarship that is already published, I invite scholars of rhetoric and religion to start examining how race functions in our religious discourses. I do this because if as Matthew Houdek notes, “the whiteness of rhetorical studies is outrageous” and the “time has come to confront it,” it is also time to confront the fact that research in rhetoric and religion and indeed, religious communication itself is catastrophically white.

I would like for scholars, especially of rhetoric and religion, to grapple with how one uses rhetoric and how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race. I call on us to understand how one uses rhetoric as a method or how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race.

One way I argue to do this is to examine the African American prophetic tradition. In so doing, scholars will begin not only to unpack how those rhetors spoke against a tradition and system that still devalues them and their contributions but also to have a better and more holistic understanding of how rhetoric and religion function. This is not to negate the good work done by scholars who study rhetoric and religion. Scholars of rhetoric and religion have done a lot to lessen the resistance in our field toward religion. However, an understanding of how race functions at the intersection of rhetoric and religion would be helpful in two primary ways.

First, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion can expose some differences in how rhetoric is presented and performed. In my study of prophetic rhetoric, I attempt to demonstrate how scholars, in perpetuating the canon of prophetic rhetoric studies, sometimes missed a separate tradition of prophetic rhetoric. It is how scholars can publish books without one figure of color or how someone can publish a survey of the field and leave out the most recent and relevant works of Black scholars that have explicitly published about prophetic rhetoric. It is also how even when scholars examine speeches by Black figure they would deem as prophetic, they still would use the European understanding of the jeremiad instead of seeing how race would lead the speaker to adopt a different type of appeal.

Second, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will address Flores’ call for all of us to take race more seriously in our rhetorical analyses. In the field of communication, several scholars have taken on that call and challenge. However, many of them do not study religion. I argue that we who study rhetoric and religion can make a significant impact in our fields of study. We bring to the table an understanding of religion and its importance.

For instance, a study of Barack Obama’s rhetoric is not complete without attending to his religious rhetoric and the counter-religious rhetoric against him. As others have demonstrated, Obama used religious rhetoric more than any of the modern-day presidents, yet many who examine his rhetoric and discourse do not see him as a religious orator. Imagine if we would embrace the fact that much of Obama’s rhetorical theology comes from an understanding of Black Liberation Theology—a theology deeply rooted in an understanding of freedom, justice, equality, and race. That would also mean that we would have to reexamine our notions of what gets to be called religion as well.

Finally, A study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will force us to move away from white evangelical definitions of faith and adopt other ways to see and experience faith and religion—and I, for one, would welcome that.

[1] Matthew Houdek, “Racial Sedimentation and the Common Sense of Racialized Violence: The Case of Black Church Burnings.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 104, No. 3, 279–306 (2018); Michelle Kelsey Kearl, “The Stolen Property of Whiteness: A Case Study in Critical Intersectional Rhetorics of Race and Disability.” Rhetoric Review, 37:3, 300-313, (2018); Mollie K. Murphy and Tina M. Harris, “White Innocence and Black Subservience: The Rhetoric of White Heroism in The Help.” Howard Journal of Communications, Vol. 29, No 1, 49-62, (2018); Rishi Chebrolu. The Racial Lens of Dylann Roof: Racial Anxiety and White Nationalist Rhetoric on New Media. Review of Communication. Vol. 20, No. 1, 47–68, (2020)

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

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