Category: Race and religion

White preachers silent on Trayvon Martin case

As I suggest in this Associated Baptist Press article, your average white pastor will have little to say about the killing of Trayvon Martin.  Pastors are expected to serve as prophets, priests and politicians, roles that don’t always mesh easily.  The national debate over racial justice is driven by messy narratives that raise uncomfortable questions about America.  Neither white pastors nor their congregations are negatively affected by the criminal justice system and, if they are, they keep it to themselves.  The possibility that people of color face risks that white folks can scarcely imagine is deeply disturbing.  White preachers who speak of such things are playing with fire.  So we turn our attention to other things.  There are always plenty of other things to talk about on Sunday morning.  Important things, holy things, inspiring things.  Why trouble the faithful with the tragedy of Trayvon Martin?

White churches on sidelines of Trayvon Martin outrage
Jeff Brumley
Associated Baptist Press

SANFORD, Fla. (ABP) — The killing of Trayvon Martin has sparked rallies in black communities nationwide and is now leading to questions about why white Christians aren’t more visibly involved.

Pastors of both races offer a number of theories about the anemic white interest, including an inability to identify with the social disparities faced by blacks to an aversion to associating with controversial African-American religious leaders.

Some white pastors “haven’t been asked” to attend public vigils for the teen shot Feb. 26, while others “are not taking the initiative,” said Alan Brumback, senior pastor at Central Baptist Church in Sanford, Fla.

And yet others “don’t want to be associated with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson,” the white Southern Baptist preacher said.

But that hasn’t kept Brumback from getting involved. He was the only white pastor to take the stage with Sharpton and other black ministers at a recent Trayvon Martin rally in Sanford, where the killing occurred. He has also led his multiracial congregation in intercessory prayer for the boy’s family, the city and police. (more…)

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

By Alan Bean

heather.mcghee – Netroots NationI recently heard Heather McGhee speak at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor conference in Chicago. She began with the obvious fact that America was not created to be one people, or one public.  Some folks were clearly part of the culture; others were not.  The primary dividing line was skin color.  Up until 1965, she reminded us, American immigration policy was built around strict racial quotas.  People of African descent were practically excluded altogether.  People from Eastern Europe were also subject to severe restrictions because they were considered ‘ethnic’.

That all changed in 1965.  In the wake of the civil rights movement, mainstream America was embarrassed by the undisguised racism implicit in the nation’s immigration policy.  The rules changed in fundamental ways.  Now, when you walk through an airport, you see every conceivable shade of skin color and you hear a wide variety of accents.  We have become, in a few brief decades, the world’s most audacious experiment in cultural diversity.


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.

The Californication of America: A review of Darren Dochuk’s “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt”

By Alan Bean

I received a copy of Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt as a birthday present from my daughter, Dr. Lydia Bean.  She said I’d love it, and she was right.

Like me, Dochuk hails from Edmonton, Alberta, and, like me, his doctoral dissertation focused on Southern religion.  But while I was primarily interested in progressive Christians struggling for social survival in the Deep South, Dochuk turned his attention to evangelicals from states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas who migrated in droves to southern California between the dust bowl thirties to the post-war period when the counties surrounding Los Angeles were booming as a result of massive government spending on military and aeronautical projects.

As a child, Darren Dochuk was driven to the vacation spots of Southern California every summer.  I dreamed of visiting Disneyland, but I never got there.  Still, the brand of Christian Right spirituality described in his book impacted my life in significant, sometimes painful ways.  The California-inspired Jesus People movement was in full flower when I attended the Baptist Leadership Training School in 1972.  It was around that time that my traditionally Baptist parents were attracted to the charismatic movement.  My father repeatedly invited me to luncheon meetings of the Full Gospel Business Men’s International, a loose affiliation of tongue-speaking, prophesying, faith healing neo-Pentecostals founded in Southern California by a layman named Demos Shakarian.

For me, these were bewildering experiences I had largely forgotten until I read From Bible Belt to Sun Belt.  Though I never understood the appeal of this style of religion, my parents informed me that my life would be transformed if I submitted to “the baptism” and received the “gift of tongues.”  I tried my best, but it didn’t take. (more…)

Is Ron Paul a racist?

By Alan Bean

James Kirchick’s article in the Weekly Standard throws fuel on the “is Ron Paul a racist?” fire.  In the 1980s, Paul sponsored a newsletter that regularly spewed racist and anti-semitic venom while endorsing every conspiracy theory coming down the pike.  Paul says he didn’t write the articles and never edited the newsletter.  He also claims that the racist views that were a regular feature of the publication he financed never reflected his true feelings

An extended version of Kirchick’s take on Ron Paul has been published in the New Republic and now appears on the CBS site.  In this piece, Kirchick argues that Paul’s racism is consistent with his libertarianism.   

Paul’s indulgence of bigotry . . . isn’t an incidental departure from his libertarianism, but a tidy expression of its priorities: First principles of market economics gain credence over all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity. His fans are guilty of donning the same ideological blinders, giving their support to a political candidate on account of the theories he declaims, rather than the judgment he shows in applying those theories, or the character he has evinced in living them. Voters for Ron Paul are privileging logical consistency at the expense of moral fitness.

As proof that he can’t be a racist, Paul notes that “the blacks” are beginning to rally to his libertarian banner.

Kirchick can’t understand why Paul’s racist associations haven’t attracted public scrutiny.  The lack of interest is probably explained by the simple fact that, until very recently, Paul wasn’t viewed as a serious candidate.  If, like Newt Gingrich, Paul suddenly roared to the front of the pack, his background would get a lot more attention.

Is Ron Paul a hater?

Let’s begin with what we know for sure: the Republican candidate had a lot of racist and anti-semitic friends back in the day.   And as Kirchick points out below, Paul’s regular appearances on the Alex Jones program suggests he is comfortable with nutty conspiracy theorists. 

Full disclosure: I once appeared on the Jones program in connection with the ill-starred Tulia drug sting.  (But Paul is a regular guest who appears to have endorsed, for instance, the idea that 9-11 was produced and directed by the American government.)  I have also been the victim of a Weekly Standard hatchet job, so I am willing to cut a little slack.

I like Ron Paul.  He is generally right about drugs and militarism, although I find his Austrian school economics hard to stomach.  It is refreshing to hear a presidential candidate espousing unpopular opinions–something you rarely hear from Democrats or Republicans these days. (more…)

Dreaming a Christian aristocracy: The evolution and meaning of Dominionism

By Alan Bean

Our twenty-four hour news cycle doesn’t lend itself to careful analysis of complex social movements.  Rick Perry, the pugnacious presidential hopeful, raised eyebrows when he used a loose network of organizations associated with the New Apostolic Reformation to organize a big religious-political rally in Houston.  Interest quickened when the mainstream media learned that some of Perry’s friends were “Dominionists,” folks who want to bring secular politics (and everything else) under the dominion of God.

The questions couldn’t be avoided.  If elected, will Rick Perry pack his cabinet with Christian preachers?  Since that didn’t sound likely, the pundits too-easily assumed that politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann are just standard-issue conservatives with close ties to the religious right.  (more…)

Anything that smells of race and civil rights . . .

Viola Davis (left) appears in a scene from the motion picture The Help.By Alan

Jerry Mitchell, a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, writes that The Help has been a financial boon for the Delta town of Greenwood (where most of the movie was filmed) and for the entire state of Mississippi.  But a comment from Fred Zollo, the producer of Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, grabbed my attention. “[The Help] is hardly a civil rights film,” Zollo said. “If you do anything that smells of race and civil rights, very few people will want to see it.”

Zollo is right.  American audiences can deal with Jim Crow racism and the civil rights movement as subplots, but we aren’t ready to face these realities head on.  

This isn’t just about popular entertainment.  The mere mention of racial injustice hooks an immediate “Oh please!” (with exaggerated eye-rolling) from most white Americans. 

Thus it has ever been.  In his excellent Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Kevin M. Schultz show how three faith communities transformed America from a Protestant hegemon into a Judeo-Christian nation.  In the 1930s, in response to the renewed KKK bigotry of the post WW1 era and the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, thousands of “trialogues” featuring a Protestant pastor, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish Rabbi were held all across America.  During the Second World War, the three faiths teamed up with the USO to tell millions of soldiers that the Judeo-Christian tradition made American democracy possible.

One soldier was so moved by this demonstration of unity that he approached the speakers after the meeting. 

The soldier was of Greek origin ad was born Greek Orthodox but had not attended church “for a long time” and had grown cynical, thinking “there was too much that was farce” in religion.  He had been persecuted for his faith too and he had, in turn, “persecuted the colored race and looked down upon other groups.”  But at one of the Camp Meetigs, “a miracle happened to me there . . . As Rabbi Goldstein was speaking I was standing beside a colored soldier.  All at once a new feeling came over me.  I looked up to the heavens and thought that in spite of the inequalities of life and all the troubles of the world there was something great and good worth fighting for and dying for, if need be.  Chaplain, the young man said, “my religion is going to mean something to me from now on.”

If Protestants, Catholics and Jews could dramatize their unity, bridging the color line was the natural next step.  But the National Conference of Christians and Jews made a conscious decision to avoid the race issue.  Hollywood followed suit.  Although eager to address the issue of “intolerance” in a generic way, race was off the table. 

Frank Sinatra and the executives at RKO studios made a similar decision in 1944.  Throughout the war, Sinatra had added an epilogue to nearly every one of his weekly performances on CBS’s Old Gold show.  He gave a brief lecture on a “very, very important subject known as tolerance.”  Sinatra would describe a situation where some form of “intolerance” was on display in America, usually through a fictional scenario involving a child being persecuted because of his or her race or religion.  Sinatra concluded his lectures explaining why this kind of intolerance was wrong.

Wishing to capitalize on the success of Sinatra’s “tolerance” segments, RKO pictures decided to film a fictional radio program. 

There was, however, one adaptation made by RKO executives when it brought Sinatra’s tolerance story to the silver screen: race was excised . . . The film featured no black kids and, most remarkably, it even discussed the generosity of the tormented Jewish boy’s father, who gave blood to the Red Cross without regard to whether a Catholic or Protestant or Jew received it.  This was an odd statement considering there was never any consideration of dividing blood by religion, while the Red Cross famously segregated blood from black donors.

In The Help, white socialites endorse the construction of separate toilets for black maids.  Nothing in the film gets closer to the spirit of Jim Crow racism.  When we realize that African American males comprise less than 7% of the America population but over 40% of the prison population and 60% of those exonerated by DNA evidence, our lack of progress is evident.  The problem persists because, in majority white settings, it is difficult to even raise the racial justice issue let alone deal with it.

Texas offers Bible classes while vocational training is slashed

By Alan Bean

According to stories published this weekend in the Texas press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will soon be offering a four-year course in biblical studies to forty inmates.

The training isn’t intended to prepare inmates for pastoral ministry in the outside world–most of the students are serving long sentences and will be locked up for many years.  Prison officials know that gangs and God are the most popular survival mechanisms for inmates.  Gangs create grief; a focus on God encourages compliance and reduces violent behavior.  By enhancing the God-option, state officials hope to create more disciplined and less violent prisons.

If you have been reading my recent posts on Burl Cain, the evangelical warden of Louisiana’s Angola prison, you will be wondering if the fledgling Texas program is a Louisiana import.  Yes, it is.  State Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were recently introduced to the Angola program and came away impressed.

Part of me thinks likes this idea.  Having preached, sang and prayed with prisoners in the past, I know how important faith can become for people who have been stripped of everything but God.

But there are problems.  Lots of problems.

As Scott Henson points out in Grits for Breakfast, vocational programs for Texas inmates were slashed during the recent legislative session.  In effect, prison officials have diverted resources from a program geared to assist with post-release employment for a program promising to instill obedience and reduce violence.

Why can’t we have both?

Henson is also concerned that TDCJ is giving preferential treatment to the fundamentalist wing of the religious community.  It isn’t just that the new program amounts to state sanction of a single religion; it awards all the marbles to sectarian Baptists who, in recent years, have ruthlessly disenfranchised moderate churches and pastors.

Between 1980 and the mid-nineties, Southern Baptists across the South mounted a brutal purge against the denomination’s “moderate” element (there were few real “liberals” in the SBC).  I was working on a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky between 1989 and 1994. When I arrived, the faculty was little changed from the folks who taught my wife, Nancy, and me back in the 1970s.  Two years later, all four professors in the church history department had been forced out and the same dismal pattern was being replicated throughout the seminary. Then many of the conservative replacements suffered the same fate (most commonly because they believed women were worthy of ordination).

The General Baptist Convention of Texas, a conservative organization if ever there was one, was deeply troubled with these developments, especially as they played out in Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Seminary.  The ouster of the irenic Russell Dilday as seminary president created an ideological cleavage among Texas Baptists that will take at least a generation to heal.

As a result, Southwestern Seminary is no longer affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas, having thrown in its lot with the fundamentalist (and highly politicized) Southern Baptists of Texas.

By throwing in its lot with radical fundamentalists without creating opportunities for other faith groups, the TDCJ is favoring folks aligned with the pro-Republican religious right. (more…)

Rick Perry’s Big Gamble

By Alan Bean

It no longer matters whether Rick Perry’s The Response extravaganza draws 8,000 or 80,000 ardent Christians to Houston’s Reliant Stadium; the event will be remembered (if it is remembered at all) as a cynical attempt to build a base by driving another wedge into an already fractured religious community.

Perry’s big event would have been inconceivable during the nation’s formative years, and it is hard to imagine any 20th century presidential candidate thinking he could enhance his political stature by consorting with fringe elements on the religious right.  True, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan courted these same people, but always behind closed doors.

The take-away from The Response is that a Republican presidential aspirant believes an event of this sort is in his political interest.  Rick Perry’s personal religion is irrelevant here; tomorrow’s event is pure politics.

Will the gamble pay off? (more…)