Category: black church

Is “evangelical” a white word?

Molly Worthen

By Alan Bean

Molly Worthen’s NYT essay on the social cleavage between white and black evangelicals is a statement of the obvious and a work of art.

Worthen teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her writing reflects a deep understanding of evangelicals black and white.

The term “evangelical”, in its common usage, refers exclusively to white folks.  This may be the best explanation for a curious fact: only 35% of Americans in a recent Barna poll correctly identified Barack Obama’s religious faith as Christian.  Ask African-Americans about Obama’s religion and I suspect over 95% would get it right.  So I can’t help but wonder about the results from Caucasian respondents.  My guess is that fewer than 25% of white people know that Obama is a Christian.

If we use political affiliation as a rough proxy for race (which, tragically, it is) the figures are interesting.  52% of Democrats know that Obama is a Christian (African-American respondents likely skewed this figure upward); but only 29% of Independents and 24% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Christian (with 18% believing he is a Muslim). (more…)

Southern Baptist leader issues genuine apology

By Alan Bean

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has issued a thorough and sincere apology after referring to Black pastors like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as “race hustlers” and implying that racial profiling is justified.  Land also says he regrets plagiarizing a Washington Times columnist in the course of his tirade. 

Lands comments were sparked by media coverage of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.

After issuing a half-hearted and unconvincing apology in April, the Southern Baptist opinion leader sat down with a number of prominent Black pastors, including Arlington’s Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church.  That meeting appears to have made a deep impression.

How do we explain this about-face?  Is Land merely fighting to save his job or attempting to placate angry Black pastors?

I don’t think so.  This apology sounds and smells like the real deal.

The real question is why the Baptist ethicist was so upset by the tidal wave of concern unleashed by the Trayvon Martin story, and that one’s a no-brainer.  Land was living in the bubble of Southern white conservatism.  Inside that segregated world of moral discourse, any reference to racism or racial profiling feels like an assault on the American way of life.

Land’s thinking was transformed by a close encounter with the world of Black evangelical moral discourse.  Suddenly the issues were humanized and Land felt the pain his remarks had caused. 

This is a testimony to the power of integrated moral conversation.  We are a story-telling species.  We don’t reason our way to a moral position; our ethical conclusions emerge from the value-laden stories we hear. 

Richard Land’s Trayvon Martin rant shows how ugly things get when we are walled off from moral narratives shared by  people who don’t look like us, sound like us, or live like us. 

If you remain convinced that Land is just another Baptist bureaucrat fighting for his job, I urge you to read the full text of his apology:

“I am here today to offer my genuine and heartfelt apology for the harm my words of March 31, 2012, have caused to specific individuals, the cause of racial reconciliation, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the ministry of The Reverend James Dixon, Jr. the president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a group of brethren who met with me earlier this month, I have come to understand in sharper relief how damaging my words were.

“I admit that my comments were expressed in anger at what I thought was one injustice — the tragic death of Trayvon Martin — being followed by another injustice — the media trial of George Zimmerman, without appeal to due judicial process and vigilante justice promulgated by the New Black Panthers. Like my brothers in the Lord, I want true justice to prevail and must await the revelation of the facts of the case in a court of law. Nevertheless, I was guilty of making injudicious comments.

“First, I want to confess my insensitivity to the Trayvon Martin family for my imbalanced characterization of their son which was based on news reports, not personal knowledge. My heart truly goes out to a family whose lives have been turned upside down by the shocking death of a beloved child. I can only imagine their sense of loss and deeply regret any way in which my language may have contributed to their pain.

“Second, I am here to confess that I impugned the motives of President Obama and the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It was unchristian and unwise for me to have done so. God alone is the searcher of men’s hearts. I cannot know what motivated them in their comments in this case. I have sent personal letters of apology to each of them asking for them to forgive me. I continue to pray for them regularly, and for our president daily.

“Third, I do not believe that crime statistics should in any way justify viewing a person of another race as a threat. I own my earlier words about statistics; and I regret that they may suggest that racial profiling is justifiable. I have been an outspoken opponent of profiling and was grief-stricken to learn that comments I had made were taken as a defense of what I believe is both unchristian and unconstitutional. I share the dream of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that all men, women, boys, and girls would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Racial profiling is a heinous injustice. I should have been more careful in my choice of words.

“Fourth, I must clarify another poor choice of words. I most assuredly do not believe American racism is a ‘myth’ in the sense that it is imaginary or fictitious. It is all too real and all too insidious. My reference to myth in this case was to a story used to push a political agenda. Because I believe racism is such a grievous sin, I stand firmly against its politicization. Racial justice is a non-partisan ideal and should be embraced by both sides of the political aisle.

“Finally, I want to express my deep gratitude to Reverend Dixon and the other men who met with me recently for their Christ-like witness, brotherly kindness, and undaunting courage. We are brethren who have been knit together by the love of Jesus Christ and the passion to reach the world with the message of that love. I pledge to them — and to all who are within the sound of my voice — that I will continue to my dying breath to seek racial justice and that I will work harder than ever to be self-disciplined in my speech. I am grateful to them for holding me accountable.

“I am also delighted to announce that as a result of our meeting, the ERLC, in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, will initiate regular meetings to discuss our common calling to heal our nation’s racial brokenness, work for meaningful reconciliation, and strategize for racial justice.”

Did Dr. Land say everything I might have wanted him to say?  No, he didn’t.  But he said everything he could say without receiving a personality transplant.  His strong repudiation of racial profiling warms the cockles of my Baptist heart.

Thanks to the Black Southern Baptist pastors who cared enough to speak the painful truth.

Baptist leader defends racial profiling

Richard Land

By Alan Bean

Media narratives are conversation starters; they energize American opinion leaders to reveal their true colors.  And when those true colors come shining through, it ain’t always pretty.

Two Associated Press stories appeared side-by-side in the print edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this morning.  In the first, Richard Land, the semi-official mouthpiece of the Southern Baptist Convention, condemned black pastors like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for rallying to the defense of Trayvon Martin’s parents in a crude attempt to gin up the vote for a black president who is in “deep, deep, deep trouble.” 

According to the article, Land “defended the idea that people are justified in seeing young black men as threatening because a black man is ‘statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.'”

Asked to comment on Land’s remarks, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said Land’s rash comments have set back Southern Baptist attempts to bridge the racial divide.  McKissic is so incensed, he is threatening to introduce a resolution at the SBC’s June convention calling for the denomination to repudiate Land’s position.  “If they don’t, we’re back to where we were 50 years ago.”

In the second article,  Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, lashed out at the media for focusing obsessively on racially charged violence while ignoring the victims of routine violent crime.  Violent crime is a fact of life across America, LaPierre opined,  “but the media, they don’t care. Everyday victims aren’t celebrities. They don’t draw ratings, don’t draw sponsors. But sensational reporting from Florida does.”

The conflation of the NRA and the SBC suggests an appropriate response to Dr. Land: “Statistics don’t kill people; people kill people.”  The fact that George Zimmerman didn’t see a lot of young black men in his gated community did not give him the right to pack heat, stalk his victim, and spark a dangerous confrontation.  It matters not whether Trayvon Martin resorted to violence; Zimmerman was the sole author of the encounter and bears responsibility for Martin’s death.

Which brings me to Mr. LaPierre.  It is certainly true that the vast majority of American homicides leave little media footprint and that the victims of these crimes are left to grieve alone.  The Martin case wouldn’t have been newsworthy if George Zimmerman had been arrested.  In fact, until Trayvon’s parents decided to take their case to the nation, the media ignored the fact that Zimmerman walked away from what is now considered a second degree murder without consequence.

Dr. Land’s inability to empathize with his black Baptist colleagues becomes particularly striking when you try to imagine the SBC leader taking on the NRA.  The Trayvon Martin case isn’t just about racial profiling; it’s also about dangerous Stand Your Ground laws that have received bipartisan support in a number of state.  Can we imagine Dr. Land excoriating his Republican bed mates for supporting dangerous legislation that has allowed a number of gang members to walk away without so much as a slap on the wrist when their beefs get out of control and some mother’s son lies gasping in a pool of his own blood?

Land would never take on the NRA.  Sharpton and Jackson stand with president Obama, not because they agree with him on every issue (they don’t), but because the Republican Party has no tolerance for civil rights leaders.  You can be black and Republican, but only if you aren’t concerned about racial justice. 

It should also be said, that both Sharpton and Jackson have regularly been involved in public events designed to tackle the problem of gang violence and black-on-black violence.  If the media fails to give these initiatives the attention they deserve, the Reverends cannot be faulted.

The Trayvon Martin case didn’t create the lamentable cleavage between black and white Baptists, but mirror image reactions to the story have certainly exposed the racial divide in religious America.

Franklin Graham and the black-white gap in American evangelicalism

Franklin Graham impersonates his famous father

By Alan Bean

I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.

Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?

Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.

I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.

Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals.  Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.

Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests.  True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism.  (more…)

“The Power to Make us One”: Heather McGhee’s One-People America

Heather McGhee

By Alan Bean

Heather McGhee, the Director of Demos’ Washington Office, was the lead-off speaker at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference on February 7th.  I have heard hundreds of presentations from leading authorities over the course of the last decade, but I have never been so impressed with a messenger or a message.

Maybe that’s because Ms. McGhee is the first speaker to elucidate the big picture message I have been groping for.  Like me, McGhee is searching for a message that will bring Americans of all races and religions together around a vision of the Beloved Community.  We need to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no doubt about that.  But we need to convey that truth in language that will inspire and unite a broad cross-section of the American public.   

As I listened to Ms. McGhee, I couldn’t shake a strong sense of Deja Vu.  I had heard a similar message before, I felt.  When McGhee told us she is the daughter of Gail Christopher, Vice President of Programs at the WK Kellogg Foundation, the mystery was solved.  Melanie Wilmoth and I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Christopher speak at a Mississippi Convening sponsored by Kellogg just two weeks ago in Tunica, Mississippi.  Christopher talked about “racial healing”, one of the key concepts that will be driving Kellogg’s funding priorities in the forseeable future. 

When Dr. Christopher finished speaking, I asked her if the concept of “racial healing” was based on anti-racism theory with its focus on white supremacy, white privilege, and the historic dynamics of racial oppression.  She told me that she had certainly been influenced by the anti-racism model, but that she was more interested in “talking about what we’re for, as opposed to focusing primarily on what we’re against.”

Dr. Gail Christopher

Then she asked me if I had ever attended an anti-racism training.  “Two,” I said. 

“How did they go?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied, “the first time I got pretty defensive because I felt the leaders were dealing in artificial abstractions and making unwarranted assumptions about me on the basis of my whiteness.  The second time, I was fine with the content, but several other white people in the room got really defensive.  When it was over, I talked to an African-American leader in a predominantly white denomination who told me he didn’t ‘mess with racism’ anymore because ‘it just gets people riled up.'”

Dr. Christopher nodded her head as if she was hearing a familiar story. “That’s just the problem,” she remarked, “if people feel condemned by the message, the conversation stops.  That’s why we focus on a vision that all people of good will can embrace.  We’ve got to put race in front of us so, eventually, we can put it behind us.” (more…)

Thinking and shouting in Chicago

By Alan Bean

Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week.  Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas.  Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference.  These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.

I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired.  The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  Watson preaches in the traditional black style.  In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase.  “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long.  And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”

Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally.  If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you. 

Normally, this would bother me.  Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story?  I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it?  And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus?  And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?

I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why.  So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows.  Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement.  He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate.  When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.

The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression.  Black America understands that message.  Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come.  In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage.  She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.

This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable.  All of that stuff happened so very long ago.  It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up.  I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off. 

Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget.  Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.

Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight.  Yes, that Jeremiah Wright.  Barack Obama’s former pastor.  The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost.  I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan.  Their reaction mirrored Wright’s.  Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.

There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods.  But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson.  Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching.  If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content.   None of that Jesus stuff. 

White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right.  And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.

Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank.  Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”

Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise.  I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.

A white preacher celebrates the black church

By Alan Bean

Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton, set off a fire storm last year when he performed last rites over the black church.  “The Black Church is dead,” Dr. Glaude announced.  I didn’t notice it at the time, but Joel Gregory, the dean of Texas Baptist preachers, wrote a spirited rebuttal to Eddie Glaude for the Huffington Post.

In the course of a post-worship lunch this Sunday at Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, Joel Gregory’s name came up.  I learned that he was teaching a Sunday School class at Broadway a few years back but was forced to withdraw (the story went) when the congregation decided to publish pictures of gay couples in the church directory. 

The repercussions of that decision were immediate.  The congregational infighting became so intense that the Rev. Brett Younger (a fine preacher in his own right), was forced to submit his resignation.  Broadway had already been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention and withdrew from the Baptist General Conference of Texas to spare everyone an ugly fire fight on the convention floor.  Finally, I was told, Joel Gregory was asked to withdraw his membership at Broadway.  He was teaching homiletics at Truett Theological Seminary on the campus of Baylor University at the time and pressure was applied in high places.

Dr. Gregory is full of surprises.  I was surprised to learn that he had been a member at Broadway, one of the flagship “moderate” churches in Texas Baptist life.  There was a time when Gregory was the fundamentalist camp’s most articulate frontman.  I’m not sure his core theology has changed much over the years, but his spirit has softened considerably. (more…)