Is The Black Church Dead?: Part II

Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. recently penned a commentary in which he said the black church is “dead.” Host Michel Martin continues the conversation about Glaude’s provocative essay. University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler says the church is far from dead. She says even the suggestion that it could be dead perpetuates stereotypes about the black religious experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're continuing our conversation today about the state of the black church. Last week, we heard from Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr., who recently suggested in a provocative commentary that the black church, as we have known it, is dead.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Professor EDDIE GLAUDE JR. (Princeton University): Even folks who attend church who are committed, their pastors perhaps are competing in terms of influence with Oprah and Jay-Z.

MARTIN: As promised, today we have a different view. Anthea Butler is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. And she says Professor Glaude has it wrong. She blogs for the online magazine Religion Dispatches and recently contributed to an online forum on the site about Professor Glaude's comments. And Professor Butler joins us now from Philadelphia. Welcome to you, thanks for joining us.

Professor ANTHEA BUTLER (Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you wrote in your response that, quote, "When I read Eddie's article, I had to laugh, because you see, it perpetuates the stereotype even as it says that the black church is dead." "Even a scholar like Professor Glaude, who is on one hand, critical on the megafest, et cetera, can't see his own participation in the Black Church Show." Unpack for us, what is the black church show?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, the black church show is a lot of people yelling and screaming about, you know, that things are wrong in the community, it's terrible.

And I was specifically talking about the previous - Tavis Smiley's state of black America, where there is a lot of pontificating about what's going on in the community. It even closes with a prayer. It is very church-like with people sitting up front on a pulpit, you know, albeit the media pulpit stage. And everybody feels good afterwards, and nothing happens.

MARTIN: And in the spirit of full disclosure, I've also participated in those State of the Black Union events, which were, you know, a long-running thing. But you've also said that the black church may be dead in its incarnation as an agent of change. But you also say as the imagined home of all things black and Christian, it is alive and well. What does that mean?

Prof. BUTLER: What I mean by that is this: I mean, everyone had this idea about what the black church was, especially in civil rights movement. And if you think back historically to Du Bois and others who gave us the structure of the words the black church, right, what has happened now is that with Eddie's article, what it means is that people have imagined this to be this powerful social force, when it's always been very complicated.

And so now the show, as I'd like to call it, is in part about performance, but on the other side of it, I really do think that the ways in which we saw, in the 2008 election, how the black church got reconfigured in certain ways because of the election of Obama and the kinds of election politics that were played, and even if you go back to 2004, the coalition of what everybody thinks the black church is has broken apart.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds, in a way, though, that you agree with him. I mean, you say that the black church as a vehicle for social change really is no more.

Prof. BUTLER: I think there are individual churches that are agents of social change. As a collective whole, that has always been problematic. But, see, the other part of this - which I think did not come out in Professor Glaude's statement - is that you have people sitting in those pews. And the people in the pews really don't want the intellectual conversation about this. They are still very much invested in that church being an agent of change in their community. Now, it may be an agent of change on the micro level, but on the macro level, this larger level, that remains to be seen.

MARTIN: Is that enough, though? Because why do people go to church? They go to church for comfort. In some cases, they go for affirmation. Some people go for the challenge, to be challenged to move to kind of a higher plane of spirituality or activism or whatever. But if the church is indeed "just," and I put that in quotes, a place of comfort and affirmation, is that enough?

Prof. BUTLER: No. And I heard the clip last week when you all talked about this. And I think what you thought I said was taken out of context. When I say the imagined home, I don't mean just a home for comfort, a home where you feel as though this is your spot, right? Just like everybody else feels the club is their spot, or something else. This is the spot where I can be myself. This is a spot where I recognize other people.

So it's not just about comfort, you see. I think a lot of what we haven't talked about about the black church is that it can be an agent of individual economic change. If you think about prosperity churches and all, then I think what that's done has profoundly changed the landscape of what people think black churches are. Because now, it's about a class move and an economic move. And that's a different kind of conversation.

So I don't want to get into that argument about the black church just being a place where everybody can cry and wait for Jesus to come and hope that everything's going to be all right. It's much more than that.

MARTIN: You said that the relevance of the black church, in my opinion, will return when, quote, unquote, "the folk" realize that there is more than just a black American church, but a variety of religious entities that are part of African-American religious experience and the broader African Diaspora religious experience.

But I'd like to ask you to prophecy, if I can call it that. Is, do you feel that the church overall, the black church, whatever it is, has a vibrant and central place, and can that place be reclaimed if it is not there at the moment?

Prof. BUTLER: I'd say it's a vibrant place. The question is will it continue to be central? And I'll give you an example of this. I think what most churches, black or white or whatever, have to think about is how do you get another generation of people sitting in your pews? And this is a major problem. If you think about this in large urban areas, many of the churches of, you know, size of 100 to 500, that population is an elderly population.

And so that population remembers what, you know, all the things that the black church did. But I teach a younger generation, and I need to tell you, they don't know what AME means. They don't know what CME means. They don't care. They don't know which Baptist is which from another. They don't get those old black church denominational structures. So I think what this is going to force people to do is to update themselves for the 21st century and realize that the conversations that have been in the past aren't quite the conversations that are going on now.

And I don't even think it's a question of Oprah and Jay-Z. I think it's a question of what happens when - and let me give you an example: What happens when all your church business could be on somebody's blog on the Internet? It forces the church to have to be in a different kind of a space. And I'm not sure that many black churches are ready for the kinds of technology and the things that are going to make their message obsolete, because you can get that message anywhere.

MARTIN: Well, there are two things I'm dying to know, and I don't know if it's okay to ask you this.

Prof. BUTLER: Sure.

MARTIN: So I apologize for putting you on the spot. But one of the things that Professor Glaude went in for criticism for around his essay is that he is not a regular churchgoer at this point in his life. So a lot of people say, well, who are you to criticize? So I did want to ask you, are you?

Prof. BUTLER: Yeah, I am. And, actually, you know what the most funny thing about this is that we're both Catholics. Yeah, I'm a Catholic who goes to everybody else's church, so I'm very ecumenical. And what's interesting to me is that people came up to me and said, you know, thank you for your comments about the black church, and I thought, the difference is is that if you say up front you don't go, then it makes it very hard to talk about what you think is dead.

And so I make it my business to be in black churches. And maybe that's because of my Catholic past and, you know, I got tired of the guitar. But I really do think it's imperative, if we are going to have things to say about the black church writ large, that we have a relationship with it. And that's part of the tension that's happening right now, is that the intellectual conversation has always been a problem for the church conversation, even though, historically, black churches have been very much behind education. There is always going to be this tension between the church and the academy.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Glaude said he wanted to provoke a conversation. Sounds like he succeeded.

Prof. BUTLER: Yeah, I think so.

MARTIN: Anthea Butler is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. If you want to read her essay, we will have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Professor Butler, we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. BUTLER: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

And now we have a correction. Earlier this week, we talked to sociologist and former TV talk show host Bertice Berry. She told us how she lost 146 pounds and why people should focus their weight loss goals and being in good health, not just on being thin. Now, we incorrectly told listeners that Berry wrote a book about her weight loss. And after some of you contacted us and told us you'd been unable to find it, we realized that she blogged about it, had given speeches about it and talked about it, but not written a book - yet, but maybe someday she will.

That conversation, as well as a number of other interviews this week, sparked a great deal of interesting commentary. You can hear me and TELL ME MORE digital media guy Lee Hill comb through your feedback in a special online edition of Backtalk. Just log onto our Web site at npr.org, click on Programs, and then on TELL ME MORE.

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