Afro-American religious ethics has been developed by Americans of African descent. Its origins lie in blacks' African heritage, their appropriation of Christian beliefs and norms, and their rejection of the assertation by America's dominant groups that they were inferior or not even members of the moral universe. Though the policy of moral exclusion was never fully implemented, a civil war, a division of Christianity along racial lines, and a black-led revolt against legal segregation and discrimination were neccessary before blacks were in principle included in the Western moral universe. The Afro-American religious ethic continues as an effort to correct the tendency of American society to use its material superiorities to determine moral rules and practices.

The Afro-American moral perspective makes central the belief in the common origin and humanity of individuals and thus their sacredness and equality. This belief is based upon the Afro-American's understanding of the Christian faith as well as the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The African roots of this moral belief cannot be postitively stated because of the lack of clear written sources and the pervasive contacts with Western culture. Since most white Americans apparantly denied the full equality of all people and established the USA as a slave nation, it is not improper to suppose that the African roots of the black Americans played an important role in their assertation of the inclusiveness of the moral universe and the equality of all individuals. The experience of slavery was an experience of gross injustice, even as defined by the norms of justice of the dominant system, and this experience of injustice was in part responsible for black eforts to enlarge the moral vision of the white West, particularly by calling attention to its hypocrisy. Slavery also weakened some traditional moral bonds, such as family ties. Following slavery, legal segregation and discrimination deprived Afro-Americans of many educational and employment opportunities open to whites. As a result, the Afro-American religious ethic, rooted in the life of black churches, stressed moral improvement, along with other improvements, within the Afro-American group itself. This morality was often conventional and customary, provided normas of good citizenship, and emphasised benevolence toward fellow blacks, including Africans everywhere. It did not, however, deny common humanity or universal moral norms and expected love to be displayed even toward white oppressors. The theodicy connected to the experience of oppression held that God favoured the incessant striving of the people for freedom, equality and justice while condemning the failure of the people to improve themselves morally. The black churches and other institutions were structured to implement this morality.

Many individuals have contributed to the formation of this ethical perspective, including David Walker, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Crummell and W. E. B. Du Bois. During the three hundred years that Africans have been in America, this perspective has undergone several changes, but its main features have remained essentially the same even when reinterpreted by such black nationalists as Marcus Garvey or such integrationists as Father Divine. In the late 1950s some major changes resulted from the thought of Martin Luther King Jr., and his colleaguesm as well as the response of American society to the civil rights struggle. In particular, King reformulated the traditional belief of the community in nonviolent persuasion through moral education, legal action, political protest, and economic coercion. As a theologian and pastor, King appealed to love as the supreme moral norm and defined justice as a form of love correcting all that stands against love. Mohandas K. Gandhi's campaigns of nonviolent resistance offered a model for making love relevant to social problems. King's nonviolent direct action required masses of people to translate their moral convictions about justice into actions involving sacrifice and suffering that could be redemptive by transforming both themselves and their society. A significant number of black and white Americans responded to King's message, particularly its emphasis on the worth and dignity of the individual and the inclusiveness of the human family. But nonviolent direct action also created tensions within the black and white communities. White resentment of black progress resulted in violence and brutality against protesters, sorely testing the commitment to love and redemptive suffering. Some blacks rejected King's themes and methods, accepting violence and any means that might be effective, and condoning or even requiring hatred of the white oppressor. Malcolm X was the chief exponent of these views in the black Islamic community, and James Cone in the Christian community. Malcolm X taught that whites were utterly depraved and repudiated the idea of one humanity and moral universe; Cone denied the humanity of white oppressors and nonmilitant Afro-Americans. Both subsequently modified their views, and the secular black power and nationalist movements to which they appealed lost much of their popularity in the black community. More recently Cone has attempted to subsume his black theology under the Third World liberation theologies and their American counterparts, which incorporate Marxist social analysis.

The main norms of the Afro-American religious ethic have not been fundamentally altered, despite various tensions and different emphases in interpretation and application at different times. King highlighted ethical universalism, an inclusive community, and the worth and dignity of persons, as well as the goal of a just political, economic and social system. His method of nonviolent direct action has proved too demanding and also unneccary in view of increased black opportunities and power. Thus, the main moral influence of black Americans will probably be through various social and political structures. Some themes in the Afro-American religious ethic need further development- for example, the equality of women and international relations, including war and peace. Concern about these matters has been present in the moral tradition since the 1840s, but they have not yet achieved clarity and force. Furthermore, the growing class differentiation within the black community needs attention.

The Afro-American religious ethic involves reflection on the historical experience of blacks in America and elsewhere in the light of religious, mainly but not exclusively Christian, beliefs and norms. It has also directed activities by blacks, including their efforts to transform both themselves and the larger society. As long as consciousness about race persists, the Afro-American religious ethic may have a significant role, particularly in its call for an inclusive moral community.