Examining the Role of the Black Preacher

Religious scholars discuss the impact of the black American religious leader on American society. Guests include Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York, and the Rev. Stephan Epps, who teaches religion at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now, for a broader discussion on the impact black religious leaders have had on American society, we turn to Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York.

We also have Reverend Stephan Epps. He teaches religion, logic and philosophy at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome.

Professor ANTHEA BUTLER (Religion, University of Rochester): Hi, Farai. How are you?

Reverend STEPHAN EPPS (Religion, Logic and Philosophy professor, Medgar Evers College): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So Anthea, you heard our discussion with Professor Raboteau. Father Divine is one example of how ambiguous the religious leader has been. So how do we make sense of that kind of dual identity: the person who is the man of God and the man of the world?

Prof. BUTLER: I think we make sense of it out of the historical experience of African-Americans here in America. In the slave community, the preacher arose as someone who could join the slave community with God and stand in the gap against the master in a certain sort of way.

Post-slavery, we see the preacher as being the figure that's the one way in which an uneducated or an educated African-American man can rise to power. And we can also see this as a way in which the gender issues within the African-American community have played out in some really very interesting ways.

CHIDEYA: Just briefly, tell me a little bit more by what you mean by that?

Prof. BUTLER: The gender part?

CHIDEYA: Absolutely.

Prof. BUTLER: What I mean by that is the struggle, I think, in part, it has been - when you say black preacher, the immediate vision that people have it in their mind is a black man standing in the pulpit, and I think that's been because of the whole patriarchal notion.

But from the very beginning, we've had women who have struggled for the right to preach. You think about Jarena Lee and others who sort of paved the way for the people we see today like Juanita Bynums of the world, who have these massive televangelist ministries. But there's always been this questioning, and there are some pulpits today where a black woman cannot stand because that pulpit is reserved for the male.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. And we have done interviews with, for example, Vashti Mackenzie, someone who's also very prominent, groundbreaking African-American woman in the pulpit.

But when we talk, Reverend Epps, about the black religious community, a lot of times the vision, as Anthea Butler was saying, is of a male energy. And so when you think of that image of the black male preacher, how do you reconcile some of these big mega-church leaders with people who may have congregations that are only, for example, in the double digits?

Rev. EPPS: Well, if I can comment first on the Father Divine piece, I certainly think that the black preacher in that role is seen as intellectually capable and socially courageous in such a way to provide an alternative for people who are systemically oppressed and marginalized when their traditional Protestant piety was ineffective in affirming their humanity and improving their sociohistorical condition.

And as it pertains to the megachurch, we have to realize that the black church is right now perhaps caught in this modern discourse. Modernity has engendered a - what I would call a hyper-commodification, in that everything is reduced to a commodity with cash value. So what modernity did essentially was cause a distinction between the public and private space.

So what you have in megachurches on one hand is public space, which is largely shaped by the principle of exchange value in terms of production, trade and consumption being used in that way. So whatever is preached must be able to sell. Whatever is written must be able to sell. Whatever is talked about must be able to make money. And that's the way in which that space is being used for the most part in megachurches. Or on the other hand in the modern discourse, in a private sense, it's being used to perpetuate individual moral righteousness, some type of personal pietism, which is quite different than the ethnic prophetic model that you find with people like King, Adam Clayton Powell, Samuel Proctor, even Father Divine. So that's the distinction there.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, what you're saying leads me to a question for both of you. I'm going to go with you first, Reverend, and then turn to the professor. Is America - black America specifically - getting enough out of black churches? When you look at the model of the civil rights era and certainly not all churches that were African-American churches participated in that kind of leadership. But there was a core of strong leadership for social issues and social change. Has that contract devolved? Reverend?

Rev. EPPS: Well, I know we don't have enough time but I don't want to oversimplify our engagement of the black church because there are particular models of the black church, which you just alluded to in terms of the assimilation model, which is the demise of the black church seeing it as sort of pathological, sociologic - sociologist E. Franklin Frazier talks about that -the compensatory model allowing black people the opportunity to have power and accolades, which they are denied in the white social structure, you have the isolationist model, in which you have...

CHIDEYA: You have to break it down a little bit more on the non-professorial tip. I don't mean to interrupt your flow.

Rev. EPPS: So ultimately what I'm trying to say is that there is no one -there's always a dialectical tension that we have to look at in the black church. There's always a dialectical tension. There is no monolithic black church. So I'd like to rephrase the question. We have to look at it differently. We can't say are black people, as if they are monolithic, are they getting enough out of the black church because, you know, you would have to certainly deconstruct what it means to be black and what it means to be a church because there are so many type of models to look at.

CHIDEYA: I did say African-American churches in part because some of our listeners kept stressing and rightfully so, you know, there is no such thing as the black experience, or the black church. That in mind, though, Anthea, Professor Butler, is there a contract between at least the idea of black churches in America and the idea of social change? And is that being fulfilled?

Prof. BUTLER: Of course, there's a contract. The contract isn't stated. It's not just for African-Americans, it's for whites because there's an expectation by whites that the black church is going to be the moral standard. But let me be blunt. The contract has morphed. The contract now has morphed from a social issue to an economic one. And for many of the T.D. Jakes and the Creflo Dollars of this world, it's about how can you get your cash on. Okay. It's not necessarily God. It's you can get your cash on.

For the people who are struggling in the inner city, it's about how are we going to make this a better place. I think there's still the place for the social justice aspect of the African-American religious tradition in the church if we want to put it more broadly.

But I think we have to be - we have to be really cognizant of the fact that there are some historical things that continue to play themselves out within this tradition. And what I mean by that is that you're always going to have the complicated people, like, the Father Divines who are both saying the message of empowerment but at the same time driving a Cadillac. Okay?

You're also going to have somebody in the prophetic tradition like King, or if we want to look at somebody in Chicago right now whose name just escaped me, who's Barack Obama's pastor.

Rev. EPPS: Reverend Wright.

Prof. BUTLER: If you want to look at it - thank you. If you want to look at it that way, then we have some powerful religious figures in the black church tradition.

But I think the expectations from the community now - and I'm not going to put this on the preacher, I'll put this from the church community - is that the church needs to be the place that I can get my hookup with a husband or wife, I can get my money, I can get a better job, I can attain to a certain sort of social status without having the care for those who are still at the bottom rung of the ladder.

Rev. EPPS: And...

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Rev. EPPS: And I just want to add is you have to put this dynamic in there that African-Americans for the most part, particularly through the black church, have been the only people that have had to deal with challenging a social structure that separates politics and economics for us. So it seems that, for instance, and not that T.D. Jakes shouldn't be critiqued and all these other preachers but it seems that there has been some overcompensation or overemphasis on economics when in fact that - I don't think that our community has done, through the black church, as much to deal with the economic issues first, before politics.

And I never forget Randall Robertson telling me this at TransAfrica. He said politics without economics is nothing. And I think for the most part, the black church historically had been relegated to doing political discourse instead of economic discourse. And that's what you have today happening in a lot of these megachurches now.

CHIDEYA: Reverend, we have to end right now, but it's a great point to end on. Reverend Epps, Professor Butler, thank you so much.

Prof. BUTLER: Thank you.

Rev. EPPS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Reverend Stephan Epps teaches religion and philosophy at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. He joined us from NPR's New York studios. And Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester. She's the author of the upcoming book "Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World." She joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

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