The Black Church Is Dead

The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.

Several reasons immediately come to mind for this state of affairs. First, black churches have always been complicated spaces. Our traditional stories about them — as necessarily prophetic and progressive institutions — run up against the reality that all too often black churches and those who pastor them have been and continue to be quite conservative. Black televangelists who preach a prosperity gospel aren’t new. We need only remember Prophet Jones and Reverend Ike. Conservative black congregations have always been a part of the African American religious landscape. After all, the very existence of the Progressive Baptist Convention is tied up with a trenchant critique of the conservatism of the National Baptist Convention, USA. But our stories about black churches too often bury this conservative dimension of black Christian life.

Second, African American communities are much more differentiated. The idea of a black church standing at the center of all that takes place in a community has long since passed away. Instead, different areas of black life have become more distinct and specialized — flourishing outside of the bounds and gaze of black churches. I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs.

Moreover, we are witnessing an increase in the numbers of African Americans attending churches pastored by the likes of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Jentzen Franklin. These non-denominational congregations often “sound” a lot like black churches. Such a development, as Dr. Jonathan Walton reminded me, conjures up E. Franklin Frazier’s important line in The Negro Church in America: “In a word, the Negroes have been forced into competition with whites in most areas of social life and their church can no longer serve as a refuge within the American community.” And this goes for evangelical worship as well.

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, we have witnessed the routinization of black prophetic witness. Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…” “The black church was our rock…” “Without the black church, we would have not…” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the church’s stance in the present — justifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice. Its task, because it has become alienated from the moment in which it lives, is to make us venerate and conform to it.

But such a church loses it power. Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God.

Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families. Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows. Of course, countless local black churches around the country are working diligently to address these problems.

The question becomes: what will be the role of prophetic black churches on the national stage under these conditions? Any church as an institution ought to call us to be our best selves — not to be slaves to doctrine or mere puppets for profit. Within its walls, our faith should be renewed and refreshed. We should be open to experiencing God’s revelation anew. But too often we are told that all has been said and done. Revelation is closed to us and we should only approximate the voices of old.

Or, we are invited to a Financial Empowerment Conference, Megafest, or some such gathering. Rare are those occasions when black churches mobilize in public and together to call attention to the pressing issues of our day. We see organization and protests against same-sex marriage and abortion; even billboards in Atlanta to make the anti-abortion case. But where are the press conferences and impassioned efforts around black children living in poverty, and commercials and organizing around jobs and healthcare reform? Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, appears to be a lonely voice in the wilderness when he announced COGIC’s support of healthcare reform with the public option.

Prophetic energies are not an inherent part of black churches, but instances of men and women who grasp the fullness of meaning to be one with God. This can’t be passed down, but must be embraced in the moment in which one finds one’s feet. This ensures that prophetic energies can be expressed again and again.

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.

Islamophobia And Religious Pluralism: America’s Real History

Ugliness abounds. It is to be somewhat expected given these trying times. Americans are struggling, and those struggles have added a sense of edginess to our public life. It doesn’t feel like politics as usual. Something lurks beneath. I believe that it is the human tendency, in moments of loss that seemingly exceed the capacities of those who endure them, to lash out, to scapegoat others, and to seek comfort in some variant of fundamentalism. And the rising tide of Islamophobia in the US is its latest expression.

The arguments against the “mosque” at Ground Zero afford us an opportunity to understand ourselves and our history a bit better; they shed light on our national propensity (one could even say our habit) to lose sight of our values in the face of our prejudices.

My good friend, David Wills, writes that “the most common way of telling the story of the United States’ religious past is to center it on the theme of pluralism and toleration — the existence of religious variety in America and the degree to which it has been tolerated or affirmed.” Indeed, from the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock to the adoption of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, the story of our religious life is one where we place religious liberty and toleration of religious difference at the forefront. President Obama took himself, I believe, to be invoking this powerful narrative of our cherished values when he addressed the issue of the “mosque” at Ground Zero. He failed to mention how we have repeatedly turned our backs on those values.

A brief glance at our country’s religious past reveals the difficulty confronting religious pluralism. Our history is replete with exclusions and an ugliness that defy tidy stories. I would even go as far as to say that at no point in our nation’s history have we accepted fully the mere fact of our religious diversity. To be sure, in our early history, Protestants came to accept doctrinal differences among themselves as a kind of tolerable diversity, but rarely did they extend this tolerance to others, like Catholics or Jews, on the same basis.

When, for example, George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, many worried about the nation’s commitment to genuine religious liberty. Could such a commitment survive the political realities? Roman Catholics were keenly aware of the force of laws against popery and against receiving immigrants from Catholic countries. Some even wrote President Washington, congratulating him on his election and inquired concerning their status under a new form of government. On March 12, 1790, Washington replied that he hoped to see “America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.” In response to Newport’s Hebrew congregation, which asked if the new nation would continue to “offer an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and religion,” Washington replied that we no longer speak of “toleration” but rather of “inherent rights,” and that “happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington’s belief that an age of intolerance had passed away, however, betrayed a naïve optimism about this fragile democracy. Obviously he knew of many forms of bigotry, religious and otherwise, in the new nation. Perhaps, like Jefferson and Madison, he hoped that enlightened persons would eventually shed such prejudices and be satisfied to practice their religion in private. But we know this was not the case.

We should situate the Islamophobia sweeping the nation within the larger context of American religious history. There we see the difficulties surrounding religious and cultural differences that have always presented a challenge to many who claim to be committed to democracy. No innocence resides there. The fact remains most Americans view the United States as a Christian nation (we need only note that 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christian, 72 percent believe in the second coming of Christ, and about 40 percent say that they talk to God on a regular and intimate basis), and this belief effectively undermines our commitment to religious pluralism, especially when cultural conservatives seek to make their beliefs national policy.

The reality is that Christian commitments have always, for good or ill, informed American public debate. They will continue to do so. The problem now is that a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition parades around as if it were the only possible interpretation. This narrow view often runs afoul of our democratic commitments and sanctifies bigotry. Ugliness abounds. It isn’t new, and Islamophobia is part of it. This is the time when we have to try to make the rhetoric of religious tolerance real. We need a compelling counterexample to this narrow (and ugly) understanding of Christianity. And, if we can’t do that, then I stand with James Baldwin: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

‘Color’ and Christ In America

 I will never forget the summer my grandmother, an evangelist in the Disciples of Christ denomination, came up from North Carolina to tell us the incredible story that she had recently “seen” Jesus.

All these years later what I remember most about that story is how she described Jesus: white hair, white robe and a cane. Although she made no explicit references to color or race, the picture I drew in my child’s mind was of a “white Jesus.” After all, weren’t all the visual aids she used to bolster her evangelism of a “white Jesus”? Weren’t all the throngs being “caught up to meet him in the air” white people?

This story from my grandmother and the issue of Jesus’ “color” came to mind as I read the compelling new book by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”

The book traces the history of the idea of a “white Christ,” noting first that there is a history of a “white Christ.” For those who take for granted that Jesus was white, it will be surprising and perhaps unwelcome news that it wasn’t always so. Images of Jesus have been steadily “raced” over last couple of centuries. The sacred has been racialized, race has been spiritualized, and human difference has been sanctified to exalt “whiteness.” Jesus moved with the nation in a journey toward “white” that coincided with the clarification of American citizenship.

This connection among race, religion and nation is perhaps one of the key features of “The Color of Christ.” And what’s important here is how the three became entangled — and why they can never be disentangled. Jesus became white precisely at the time when the contours of American citizenship were being defined. A white nation required a white God.

This racialized notion of inclusion has also left its mark on immigration policies. The rise of the image of the “Nordic Christ,” for example, happened precisely at a time when restrictions on immigration needed a sacred symbol. So a white “Nordic” Jesus became “the sacred face” of immigration restriction. How God “looked” determined whose God He really was, and whose He was not. So that by the 20th century it was clear: “American,” “white” and “Protestant” were co-equivalents. Non-white had been rendered at the most basic level “un-American.”

And on this point there is astounding relevance for contemporary debates about race and belonging. No one now should be confused about “birther” ideology. A black American President disrupts a certain historically confirmed way of understanding national identity. Obama, therefore, must be from Kenya. And post-2012 election responses from the right, having seen the voting power of non-whites, have declared that “America just doesn’t seem like America anymore.” Bill O’Reilly of Irish Catholic heritage bemoaned the “end of Traditional (read: white) America.” What I can only hope he knows — as he obviously places himself in the category of “traditional American” — is that the Irish have a history of “becoming” white too, and it wasn’t all that long ago.

The authors suggest that this history has particular meaning for African Americans, who since the slave era have “seen” and “remade” Jesus, often in their own image and always for their own interests. The slaves’ embrace of his or her captor’s God was about transformation and not conquest. For African-American Christians, Jesus was and remains “distinct.”

But I wonder about this. Given the entrenchment of the notion of a “white Jesus” in American culture, is it ever really possible to transcend the idea? Can we ever transcend or disregard the hierarchies implied by color? And there are always hierarchies implied by color. Also, isn’t racial substitution an ironic confirmation of the hierarchy? Replacing the bombed out face of a white Jesus with a black Jesus, as the 16th Street Baptist church did after the bombing of their church in 1963, only renders more power to the white Jesus. I’m sure that over the years people have looked at the new window only to see that it is not a white Jesus, not so much that it is a black Jesus. The tragedy of racialized religious imagery in our culture is that the presence of a white Jesus in a black church is not a benign thing, but a black Christ in its place is no solution.

And what are the theological implications of all this “seeing” and “remaking” of Jesus? Have we been too casual with this notion? While I understand this from an anthropological point of view, it has troubling theological implications. We must conclude from this that in reality we don’t really know Jesus; we haven’t “seen” Jesus. We only have the Jesus that we have made, having dwelt, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, “with noxious exaggeration” on his “person.”

So, I agree with James Baldwin, who in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church called for us to give Jesus a “new” face. But I want to take it a bit further. How about “no” face? I would support a return to the iconoclasm of the Puritans where Jesus was “physically absent.” There were no images of the Son of God. In our American context and given our racial history, as long as Christ has a “body” he will have a color. The color will be white or “not white,” and black people will be on the losing side of the equation.

A productive way forward would be to consider Jesus, not in our image or anyone’s image, but in a manner of abstractions that personify all that Jesus meant. Let’s ask ourselves, what does love look like? Justice? Mercy? Forgiveness? Let that represent Jesus. Maybe that is the way to a universal Christ beyond “color.”

The “color” and physicality of Jesus must be rendered a mystery if American Christianity is to be truly transformative. Otherwise, just like any other aspect of American culture, Christ’s image will continue to be merely another manipulated player in the saga of race in America.

Gays, God And Gospel Music

Without the artistic and emotional contributions of gay people there would be no gospel music. Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, a significant number of gay or “queer” artists left their mark on gospel music, a cultural form that many consider to be America’s most original. Indeed, the contribution of gays and lesbians to gospel music has been so large as to be absolutely “crucial and fundamental.” They have been the “unacknowledged arbiters” of the gospel music world and no one can truly understand this American cultural form without careful attention to their lives and experiences.

This is the provocative and convincing claim made by Anthony Heilbut in “The Children and their Secret Closet,” the lead essay in his majestic new book, “The Fan Who Knew Too Much.” Heilbut, a writer, record producer, and cultural critic has been immersed (on his own terms) in the gospel world for nearly 50 years. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel and has been closely connected to all of the major performers of the previous generation. To put it simply, no one knows more about the history of gospel music or has done more to promote it than this Jewish atheist from Queens. It is fair to say that most of what we know about gospel music we learned from him, beginning with his now classic book, “The Gospel Sound,” published in 1971.

The essay on “the children,” the familial appellation used to refer to gays in the church, is similar in content and theme to “The Gospel Sound” in that Heilbut is keen on revealing the gospel world in all its complexity, paradox and contradiction. We learn anew that many of these singing “saints” were not saints at all. They could be vulgar and mean, conniving and petty, selfish and unkind. This, to be sure, is one of the more fascinating aspects of the essay. It manages to humanize the gospel artists of the previous generation without demoralizing them. They were marvelously imperfect and tragically flawed; they were thoroughly human. It may not do much for Mahalia Jackson’s “saintly image” to know that she was notoriously stingy and could cuss like a sailor, but it fills out her human portrait just fine.

The essay on “the children,” however, is more a meditation on homosexuality and black churches. And as such it shines luminously. Heilbut gets us beyond simply acknowledging the presence of gays in black churches and the fact that gospel artists such as Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alex Bradford and James Cleveland (to name only a few) were known to be gay or “queer.” He identifies a time when black churches were safe spaces for “the children,” a time when gays and lesbians sought and found refuge in churches that not only acknowledged their presence but also their value. And they were drawn to the music principally, as Heilbut writes, for “the vast emotional territory that it claims for itself.” The music played a “saving role” within the space of the church for those who would then have to gird themselves up to face a cruel world. For this reason, many black gays and lesbians once were among “the most faithful members” of black churches and “the most avid celebrants” of its worship culture. As an old church mother was known to say, “nobody shouts like ‘the children.'”

The music, the churches, and the world of gospel have changed, however, and for the most part the safe spaces have become hateful ones. Heilbut has taken note of this. Not only does he find the current culture lacking the artistry of the previous era, it is also painfully off message. Indeed, he considers much of the music coming from today’s gospel performers to be “hate speech.” And one need not listen to very much of it to see that he has a point. There was a time when a gospel song about being “delivered” wasn’t code for being “delivered from homosexuality.” Now it almost always is. Anyone knowing anything about the music and the ministry of Donnie McClurkin, who Heilbut calls “the church’s most visibly tormented self-hater,” understands exactly what I’m talking about.

“The Fan Who Knew Too Much” is one of the best collections of essays to appear in many years. It is written with depth, clarity, sensitivity, wit and lyricism. It is Heilbut at his masterful and literary best. Also on display, however, particularly in the essay on “the children” is Heilbut’s passion and a palpable sense of loss. When he surveys the current world of gospel, seeing it (with some exceptions) so far from its glorious past and so in denial of its gay roots, the anger and the grief nearly overtake him.

It is sobering to recognize that what Heilbut ultimately accomplishes in the essay is an accounting of gospel music’s fall from grace into near irrelevance. He knows that the overemphasis on condemning homosexuality that one finds in the gospel world and in many black churches is not a sign of prophetic witness. Rather, it is evidence that many of these singers and ministers just don’t have much to say anymore, and that spaces that once were, in Heilbut’s veiw, “the very model of freedom and civil rights,” have been restructured as citadels of bigotry and intolerance. It is sobering, indeed.

On the bright side, “The Children and their Secret Closet” reminds us of what is possible. The reminder comes from one who would know, the fan who has dedicated much of his life to the study of gospel music, the perfect “insider/outsider” and a professed “non-believer.” Perhaps that’s just how it should be.

A friend once told me that sometimes it takes an atheist to do God’s work. If that is true, then that is precisely what we have in Anthony Heilbut, the fan who perhaps knows a little too much but has found a beautiful way to tell us all about it.