Scholar Signals The End Of The Black Church
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the Barbershop guys on the news of the week.
But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we talk about the state of the black church. And it's worth noting that most people don't even question that there is such a thing. There is no question that the vast majority of African-Americans identify themselves as religious and that religion is important to them.
And there's also no question that churches led by and filled with African-Americans have played a critical role in nearly every aspect of the lives of African-Americans in this country, including the civil rights movement.
But despite that history, Princeton professor of religion Eddie Glaude Jr. says the black church has lost its power. In fact, he says, "The Black Church is Dead," that's the title of a provocative essay he published in the Huffington Post back in February. It set off a storm of debate online and in conversation with many congratulating Glaude for speaking a hard truth. But others lambasting him as disrespectful, out of touch and elitist. So we've called him.
Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. is the William S. Todd professor of religion and chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University. He's with us from there now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Professor EDDIE GLAUDE JR. (Religion, Princeton University): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Now, you've authored and edited several books on black life in America. You're known as a public intellectual, if you want to call it that. What made you want to write this essay now?
Prof. GLAUDE: Well, I think it was the billboard in Atlanta. There was this provocative billboard depicting the relationship between abortion within black communities and genocide. And it was controversial, obviously. And it led me to ask the question, well, where are the billboards that are for prophetic and progressive issues? Where are prophetic voices in this conversation?
And it just threw me back to my study and I decided to pen this piece designed purposely to create a firestorm so that we could have a conversation about what it means to be black and Christian in this moment.
MARTIN: You write that 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. Now, but you also point out that the churches aren't exactly empty. So, what do you mean by that?
Prof. GLAUDE: Right. I mean, in some ways...
MARTIN: Are you saying that black churches aren't important?
Prof. GLAUDE: No, not at all. What I'm trying to do is challenge a particular myth about the black church. The first sentence of the piece is that the black church as we've known it or imagined it is dead. And part of the work that that sentence is calling us to do is to say, well, what, how have we imagined the church? We've imagined black churches as a kind of prophetic, progressive space.
And much of that stems from its centrality to the civil rights movement. And so there's a standing kind of perception a black Christian churches. And what I wanted to do was challenge that over and again so what we know is a much more complicated picture. And when we look at black churches on the ground, we see them at least in their local context, really, on the frontlines of servicing their communities, serving their congregants, serving the needs of their membership.
But when we think about where are the prophetic voices on the national stage, where are the black Christian voices on the national stage, instead of hearing prophetic voices most of the time, we're hearing voices that are against Proposition 8. We're hearing voices that are aligned with a certain kind of conservative theological orientation. And so what I wanted to do was to kind of stir up the pot a bit.
MARTIN: You're saying our traditional stories about them as prophetic and progressive run up against the reality that all too often black churches and those who pastor them have been and continue to be quite conservative. And by that you mean politically conservative, anti-gay rights, against abortion rights, adhering to or at least professing a very strict code of moral behavior, but hasn't that always been the case?
I mean, you also point out in the piece that, you know, Martin Luther King Jr. created some of - and those who worked with him created their own institutions at the time because the existing institutions in the black church were very conservative.
Prof. GLAUDE: Right. I mean, part of what I try to do in the thesis, I kind of lay out three points, right? And the first is that we've told a rather narrow story about the history of black Christianity in the United States. That story is typically one that bears the imprimatur of a certain kind of liberal Protestantism, a certain kind of commitment to the black social gospel or social gospel generally.
And it's a story that really kind of downplays this, Michel, the very complexity of black Christianity. And so it's a bad story we've told ourselves, which lead us to believe, or has led us to believe that there's something that is necessarily prophetic or progressive about black churches as such and that's just not the case.
MARTIN: But isn't part of it that maybe this is a story of mainline Protestant denominations generally and that the particular issue with African-Americans is that there are other ways to do that work when there was no other way to do that work before African-Americans were not allowed to run for elective office.
Prof. GLAUDE: Right.
MARTIN: And so they were actively persecuted when they tried to seek leadership roles apart from the church. So the church was the only thing that black people owned.
Prof. GLAUDE: That is absolutely the case. But this takes me to the second point I make in the piece, right? That African-American communities are much more differentiated now. That they're much more complicated now. And that complication has existed for a while. But yet we still have the perception of the black church as the center of black life.
I mean, even folks who attend church who are committed, their pastors perhaps are competing in terms of influence with Oprah and Jay-Z. And that gives us a sense of values are kind of constructed by a number of different forces and black folk are no different in this regard.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He's a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, and we're talking about his provocative essay, "The Black Church is Dead." It stirred up quite a lot of conversation online and around the country.
So, one assumes you want something to happen. What is it you think should happen or what you'd hope as a result of writing this piece?
Prof. GLAUDE: Well, what I really want to happen is an argument to take place, not just simply among African-Americans, but among the nation. And that is an argument about what it means to be Christian. I consider myself a Christian, even though I don't go to church for the most part. And what stands in for Christianity and the American public sphere for me deserves a counter on Christian grounds.
In other words, there are voices within black communities who are on Christian grounds committed to same-sex marriage. There are voices on Christian grounds who are more committed to the sermon on the mount than they are to a certain kind of narrow conservative values, discourses. So, what I'm calling for is an argument in public about what it means to be black and Christian in this moment.
And what I've done, not inadvertently, on purpose, was to create an occasion for prophetic voices to step forward and say no, the church is alive. It's vibrant and that's what I wanted to achieve.
MARTIN: But I guess I want to push back on this whole question of politics is the issue that you disagree with the politics of many black clergy. And the fact is they, I think some of them would argue that they are offering a prophetic voice in standing against same-sex marriage. You know, maybe you don't like it, maybe a lot of other progressives don't like it, but they feel that they are speaking a prophetic voice in standing up for family as they understand it, which is the pillar of community and so forth. So, you see what I'm saying? So the question, is the issue that you have a political argument with them?
Prof. GLAUDE: No, it's not just simply a political argument, it's a theological argument, right? It's an argument about what it means to be Christian, right? I mean, they can claim a certain kind of prophetic mantel, and I grant them that. But I want to suggest that there are other ways of expressing what it means to witness Christ's sacrifice, what it means to be Christian in public. When Keene and Reverend Shuttlesworth and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of those stood out and stood up in the name of their religious commitments to risk themselves, to fundamentally transform the society, they did so in light of a particular conception of what it meant to be Christian.
And in light of their own inheritance within this particular tradition system, Michel, which calls the idolatry of white Christianity into question, now what I want to suggest is not a harkening back, that's the third point, right? Not a nostalgic longing for a kind of black church, a kind of black Christian witness that's reflective of the days of old, but rather to understand that prophetic energies, progressive energies, a kind of social gospel that's robust, that is in some significant way rooted in the challenges of our time.
And so I agree with you totally. I want to have that argument in public. I don't want to cede to Bishop Jackson or others that they have a monopoly on what it means to be Christian. I want my own billboards in the name of the public option with Christ's message right next to it, if that makes sense.
MARTIN: So, tell me more about what kind of reaction you've been getting to the piece.
Prof. GLAUDE: Oh, my goodness. It's, you know, it's really been fascinating. I've, you know, received some wonderful emails about being courageous, and I've received some emails that reflect vehement disagreement with my position, which is really great.
I mean, one of the things that's been more shocking has been the kind of questioning my ability to say anything about this issue because I'm not a member of a black church, because I was raised Catholic or because I'm a pragmatic naturalist. And so, on what grounds can I say anything about black churches?
MARTIN: Well, talk to me about that. How do you respond to that argument?
Prof. GLAUDE: Well, within Christian communities, I will respond by saying, well, I'm a child of God. And by virtue of that fact, I think I can speak about those who witness as children of God. So I'm not going to let anyone take that away from them, because I don't go to a particular black church.
And, second, I tend to respond to it as a scholar, right? I mean, in any other setting, we're kind of skeptical of these sorts of claims where we make a certain kind of general claim about the state of, say, black men or black communities and then someone will say, well, in my community, or my brother, as a kind of exception to the general claim, right?
And so part of what the response is involved has been, well, my church is doing X, or this is not an experience that's familiar with me. Or you've produced a straw man that reflects nothing like a church that I know. And part of what you have to say is that, okay, I've conceded the claim that there are local churches throughout the nation that are engaging in extraordinary work on the frontlines, doing extraordinary work.
But the question, again, revolves around, where is the national presence? How are we organizing around policy? We're great at voter registration drives. We're great at getting our vans to driving people to the polls, but we're not very good at organizing around affirmative action policy, criminal justice policy, U.S. policy, vis-a-vis Africa and the Caribbean. We're not very good -although some churches are - around education.
And so part of what we see, and the scholarship again shows this, is that there's a kind of gap between public policy and activism within churches on the national level.
MARTIN: You know, a fellow scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Anthea Butler, wrote in response to your argument that the black church may be dead in its incarnation as agents of change. But as the imagined home of all things black and Christian, it is alive and well. What if...
Prof. GLAUDE: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: What if it is the case that we're in a new era, where, really, the church is like a home, hospital, a place of kind of healing and comfort, as opposed to as a place of confrontation and advocacy? What if it's just a different place and space now? Are you okay with that?
Prof. GLAUDE: Well, we need - I think we need - I - well, sure. I think we need to know it, because it still carries the burden of a certain kind of perception. What for me is dead is the myth of the black church. We've entered into a new moment, and the end of the piece makes this claim that prophetic energies aren't inherited. They're not given to you. They're expressed in the context in which one finds one's feet.
And so if black churches have become places of consolation, sites for compensation, then those are usually occasions for voices in the wilderness to step forward, to call for a renewal. And I'm not suggesting that I'm that voice, but I'm just calling for a conversation where folks can engage in assessment and think again about what it means to be black and what it means to be Christian in the age of Obama.
MARTIN: Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. is currently the William S. Todd professor of religion and chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University. He's authored and edited many books about race and religion in America, including "Exodus, Religion, Race and Nation in Early 19th Century Black America." And he joined us from the studios at Princeton University. Professor Glaude, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Prof. GLAUDE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.