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By Ronald B. Neal, PhD.

Thursday, March 25, 2010.


In a recent Op-ed piece in the Huffington Post, Princeton University religious scholar, Eddie Glaude, Jr., offered a provocative and deceptive proposition regarding Christianity in black America. After surveying recent sociological data gathered by the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and taking stock of the differentiated landscape of contemporary black America, Glaude concludes, “The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead.”

This conclusion flies in the face of a forty plus-year old socially engineered belief that Christianity in black America is fundamentally progressive and transformative; that Christianity in black America is distinct from traditional expressions of Christianity which lie outside of black America.

In a word, Glaude’s pronouncement buries a belief which has done a disservice to the history of Christianity in black America and to the present religious and social realities of Christianity among black Americans. What is more, it lays to rest a view of Christianity in black America which contributes very little to what most Americans should know about Christianity among black Americans.

Most Americans are largely unaware of the diverse Christian congregations and denominational structures that comprise what is called the Black Church. For many Americans, the oratory, quasi-liberal politics, and charismatic swagger of Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, Jesse L. Jackson, Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley are the primary windows into Christianity in black America. Beyond these living caricatures of black and Christian America, PBS specials, black and white footage of the Civil Rights era, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, have informed what many Americas know about black Christians, especially the Black Church.

Unfortunately, these narrow and misleading representations of Christianity in black America, including the iconic legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. have contributed to a view of Christianity in black America that is deceptive and mythical. In significant respects, American mass media is responsible for this myth.

However, part of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of highly educated black religious elites: seminary trained clergy and professors at theological schools, divinity schools, colleges, and universities. These elites are responsible for shaping and perpetuating a skewed view of the Black Church: the Black Church as socially progressive and liberation oriented. Overall, the prophetic and progressive view of the Black Church is a myth that bamboozles too many Americans, including black Americans.

The Black Church as viewed through the limited windows of highly visible politically oriented charismatic black men and myth making intellectuals, is galaxies away from the clergy, congregations, denominations, and socially conservative religious worldviews and morals that are largely invisible to most Americans. Theologically conservative Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and a host of independent congregations have conditioned and influence the Christian ethos in black America.

These theologically conservative communions outnumber and overwhelm the influence and theological visions of Christian traditions that are stereotypically progressive such as the United Church Christ and the United Methodist Church. The stark reality is that the overwhelming majority of black Christians have more in common, theologically, with Southern Baptists, the Church of God, and the Assemblies of God than with Episcopalians and Unitarians.

The common ground that black Christians share with conservative Protestants all over America, can be seen in the eye opening and mind boggling cross racial alliances that have been forged over the last decade or so, between theologically conservative black and white Christians. One only has to follow the trails of highly popular and conservative clergy such as T.D. Jakes, Creflo A. Dollar, Eddie L. Long and a whole host of men and women, and they will lead to the churches, offices, and homes of the most theologically conservative white men in America: Dr. James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, John Ashcroft, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, et.al.

These alliances, between black and white Christians, wedded by shared Christian orientations, confound the prophetic and progressive view of the Black Church. And they speak volumes to why prophetic religion and progressive politics do not characterize the language and ethos of the Black Church today.

The influence of traditional Christianity among black Americans is not a recent development. It is simply a historical, religious, and social reality has been denied for far too long. In a word, it represents the under-acknowledged and under-examined theological and sociological dirty laundry of Christianity in black America. This is what prompts Eddie Glaude to announce the death of the Black Church. Glaude is correct, something has died. However, it is not the Black Church that is dead. What no longer lives and cannot be resurrected is The Myth of the Black Church. May it Rest in Peace.


With thanks to New Black Man.

Ronald B. Neal holds a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Culture from Vanderbilt University. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He can be reached at rneal@claflin.edu.


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