Rachel Harding's understanding of religion was influenced by the southern folk Christianity of her grandparents, who were from Leesburg and Cleages, Georgia, as well as by the Freedom Movement, in which she was raised during the 1960s in Atlanta. Rachel and her brother, Jonathan, rode on their parents' backs during marches, slept through long meetings, and learned the songs of the movement. When they grew older, they participated in such activities as leafleting on behalf of the first African-American mayor of Atlanta. Harding is also a member of the Terreito de Cobre candomblé community in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where she experiences a rich connection between ancestral spirituality, social justice activism, and the ritual poetics of dance, prayer and obligation. These spiritual influences and practices form the basis of her academic, creative, and activist work.
Harding has an M.F.A. in English and Creative Writing from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, a history of the nineteenth century development of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé. She has presented numerous papers on candomblé, Afro-Atlantic and Afro-Latin religions, and poetry, and her essay, "'What Part of the River You're In': African American Women in Devotion to Ňsun," appeared in Ňsun Across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Harding is also an accomplished poet, and her poetry has been published in Callaloo, Chelsea, Feminist Studies, The International Review of African American Art, Hambone, and in several anthologies.
Harding currently teaches classes on religion at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She has also taught religion and African-American studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the Executive Director of The Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal at the Iliff School of Theology. The Veterans for Hope Project documents the life stories of community organizers, creative artists, religious leaders, and educators who have been active for many years in movements for compassionate social change. Through educational videos, public forums, workshops, retreats, consultations, and cultural events, the Project passes on the values, faith, and practices that have guided these "Veterans" in their work, with the goal of encouraging a healing-centered approach to community-building that recognizes the interconnectedness of spirit, creativity, and citizenship.